Europa Distribution discussed building new audiences in Berlin

By Jesús Silva

Launching a new partnership with the European Film Market, Europa Distribution held its 16th Annual Conference at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. The event gathered around sixty members of the association, coming from 25 different countries —from all over Europe and beyond—, who attended the various activities organised by the European Network of Independent Film Publishers and Distributors, including a public panel and a private think tank session aimed at discussing the most pressing topics for the film publishing business, while sharing valuable insights on the situation of the different markets, in line with the association’s mission as a network and think tank for the sector.

On Sunday 19 February, a public panel was hosted at the Event Hall of the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation in Berlin. Under the title ‘Surfing the Waves: Audience building in a new period of changes’, the panel focused on adapting to new realities and finding alternative ways to win back and expand existing audiences in a disrupted post-Covid market, with special emphasis on building sustainable long-term strategies and diversified business models through collaboration and data sharing. This public event, addressed to all professionals attending the market and moderated by consultant and journalist Michael Gubbins, brought together Agnete Juul, distributor at Camera Film (Denmark), Algirdas Ramaska, CEO at Vilnius International Film Festival (Lithuania), Eduardo Escudero, CEO at distribution outlet A Contracorriente Films and owner of Cines Verdi (Spain), and Noortje van de Sande, Managing Director at Picl (Netherlands).

Michael Gubbins laid the first stone by offering an overview of the key trends to be discussed during the session. While acknowledging a slow return to normality, Gubbins underlined the importance of acquiring a better understanding of “what change actually means” for the industry after the pandemic. In the last couple of years, theatrical proved essential to independent distribution, and even though there has been a degree of recovery, the overall audience numbers are still about one-third down compared to 2019. “There is now a sense of direction and recovery for the theatrical side of the business”, said Gubbins. However, the general state of the economy and the effects of the war in Ukraine are bound to have an impact on the film industry, taking a harder toll on independent small companies across the value chain. Gubbins also referred to a shift in the streaming landscape: despite the dominance of the US giants, their business model keeps raising doubts and “the money is going out of the market”. This change is especially noticeable in terms of VOD, where there is a clear impact on the number of productions supported and bought by these streamers, as well as in the audience behaviour: “We’ve seen much more of this picking up and dropping subscriptions […] as people are looking at what they’re paying with a bit more discernment”, in Gubbins’s words. The “hype” derived from the rise of AVOD and FAST channels was also mentioned, as these approaches are being quickly implemented by distributors and broadcasters to boost their businesses and reach new audiences, while the more “transparent” TVOD hasn’t proven as beneficial as expected. Overall, this situation could eventually lead to a new and more balanced ecosystem. Before giving the floor to the speakers, Gubbins called attention to the essential role of cooperation and data sharing as a way of supporting a knowledge economy that helps deal with all these changes in the market, where players are increasingly wearing “different hats”.

Noortje van de Sande started by offering a snapshot of Picl’s journey. The Dutch-based platform was launched in 2016 by Herrie, a marketing agency, focused on creating tailor-made campaigns for film releases. One of the greatest challenges they encountered was that smaller arthouse titles didn’t have enough time in cinemas for these campaigns to really unfold their potential. “There was a huge period where these films just couldn’t be seen”, explained van de Sande. In order to tackle this, Picl decided to experiment with a new model, working alongside distributors and exhibitors to release some films simultaneously in cinemas and online (“day and date”). Even though the initiative was met with scepticism from cinemas at the beginning, Picl experienced substantial growth a few years later during the subsequent lockdowns, adding new partners to their platform, which operates on a TVOD basis: customers buy an online ticket and part of the revenue goes to the cinemas. The model relies strongly on the idea of a hybrid audience, which is willing to make different choices during the lifecycle of a film. According to van de Sande, research carried out in The Netherlands showed that tickets sold for physical and online screenings of arthouse titles were mainly purchased by the same people: “It’s the general film consumer”. Contrary to a skewed narrative of competition between media, data shows that audiences watch arthouse films at home when there are no physical options available or suitable showtimes close to them. “If you have more insights on this hybrid consumer, then you can put marketing efforts on the right times of the lifecycle of a film and even on the exact decision moments of this consumer”, as stated by van de Sande.

Spanish distributor, producer and exhibitor Eduardo Escudero came up with one of the key points of the session: the need for a holistic approach to this emerging ecosystem and the ability to adapt. Escudero highlighted the urgency to find audiences wherever they are while trying to bring them to the theatres, which he deems essential for the future of independent film distribution. All the various technological and digital ventures constitute a valuable complement which offers great flexibility, but reinforcing the theatrical side and recruiting people to go to the cinema should remain a priority, according to the Spanish distributor. “There is no better way to create a brand, at least cost-effective […] The profitability of other digital ventures is not strong enough to renounce the theatre, so we need to fight for its recovery”, in his own words. As an example, Escudero explained how their own streaming platform, acontra+, is trying to create this bridge by including a free ticket to go to the cinema in their subscription price —an initiative which has been joined by over 60 cinemas in the country—. He also brought up the ‘Collaborate to Innovate’ programme as another action aimed at strengthening their brand and reaching new audiences for arthouse films outside the big cities. This project fostered the creation of a network of cinemas which organise simultaneous avant-premières in smaller towns across Spain, with the talent presenting the films and taking part in Q&As. “It was a very successful action. In fact, the funds granted for this program ended, but the network is still alive”. While recognising global streaming platforms as fierce competitors in terms of entertainment, Escudero advocates for cooperation with them, without neglecting their obligation to have an “exit to the sea”, by way of curating their own platform and FAST channels to ensure a longer life for their arthouse titles.

Algirdas Ramaska went on to describe the hybrid approach and evolution of the Vilnius International Film Festival ‘Kino Pavasaris’, further stressing the pivotal role of adaptation in the process: “We live in changing times, and we know it is not the strongest who survive, but those who can adapt. I think that constant innovation and seeking new business models is what we have to do all the time”. Drawing from his experience, Ramaska referred to one of the most significant changes undergone by the festival, which was triggered by the limitations imposed by film licences in the country. The Lithuanian gathering was running quite successfully, but the festival licences were restricted to three screenings per event, which meant a very limited audience for their titles in a festival which operates only small screens. In light of this situation, they decided to start acquiring distribution rights to screen their films all around Lithuania after the festival. “We can sell it to TV, put it on VOD, we can use these films for events, for educational purposes,… We can find a lot of new niches and ways to exploit these titles”, as explained by Ramaska. In 2020, it was one of the first festivals to move fully online after the first lockdown, which helped them find a new perspective and business model working with VOD, as well as experimenting with new initiatives to screen films in alternative venues such as drive-in cinemas or hotels. “All the time, you can reinvent the models and explore new ways. [….] If you can catch the momentum, and you can reflect that, then audiences trust you and follow you”, sentenced Ramaska.

Elaborating on the idea of trust and brand-building, Agnete Juul joined the discussion by sharing some insights on how Camera Film adapted to these new realities. Juul kicked off her intervention by celebrating that cinema attendance has been rising in Denmark after the pandemic: “We do experience a lot of interest in physical screenings”, she stated. On the other hand, the Dutch publisher also pointed out that audiences are more fragmented than before, forcing distributors to boost their online presence and create specific campaigns for the different audience segments. Camera Film also runs the Grand Theatre in Copenhagen, one of the oldest and most recognizable cinemas in the country, which emerged as a strong asset when translating the distribution brand into their streaming service, run together with LevelK. Grand Hjemmebio was launched in 2019 with a wide selection of carefully curated titles, and it allowed the distributor and exhibitor to maintain a presence and regular contact with their audience during the successive lockdowns. “Our main audience is a bit on the older side, and they’ve adapted very well to the platform, which I don’t think would have happened if not for the lockdown”, claims Juul.  As previously mentioned, the Danish distributor noticed a renewed interest from the audience to return to physical events after the pandemic. When it comes to marketing and promoting the screenings at the theatre, Juul highlights the importance of trying to incorporate some added value, such as organising talks on topics connected to the film, addressing a specific target audience and establishing partnerships. “We put a lot of effort into finding different segments, finding collaborations, working with micro-influencers and getting everything in organically”. As a distributor, Camera Film also works with other cinemas in the country, catering to their strengths and needs: “We do multiple campaigns where we can target different audiences that may fit different segments and cinemas”.

As a closure, Gubbins asked the panellists about their ideas and wishes for the future in terms of how to continue creating, expanding and nurturing these communities. Noortje van de Sande emphasised collecting data through their platform in order to better profile new customers and eventually “activate” them to go to the cinemas. Ramaska called for greater involvement of the whole value chain, especially filmmakers, when it comes to the promotion of their films. Agnete Juul came back to the idea of collaboration, both locally and internationally, advocating for healthier working dynamics and favouring mutual support instead of competition: “We need to see all the key elements of this industry working together, to be really in the same boat, not just in the same sea”, as nicely summed up by Escudero. Gubbins wrapped up the panel by underlining the need to take advantage of a knowledge economy in a period of collaboration and experimentation: “Let’s share and build together”.

On Monday, 20 February, the members of the association gathered again for a closed session of roundtables at the Gropius Bau building of the EFM. This private workshop focused on three main topics of current relevance for independent distributors: new business models and strategies, new acquisition dynamics, and creative approaches for audience development, both in cinemas and online. The attendants took part in various working groups, moderated by board members of Europa Distribution, where they discussed common challenges and potential solutions to these pressing issues, while learning and inspiring each other through their personal experiences and approaches in different territories. The conclusions of these discussions were later presented to the whole room during a wrap-up session led by Michael Gubbins. Finally, on Tuesday 21, the Europa Distribution programme at the Berlinale culminated with the meeting of the General Assembly, where the association members had the chance to give their feedback on the multiple activities carried out by the network and to examine the next steps for the sector.

The recording of the public panel is available on the EFM’s website for Market Badge & Online Market Badge holders.