Europa Distribution Film Innovation Hub at KVIFF 2023

By Jesús Silva Vilas

Europa Distribution resumed its partnership with the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this year, launching a new iteration of its Film Distribution Innovation Hub, a dedicated space for film publishers to discuss the innovations needed in the sector, in partnership with the KVIFF Eastern Promises Industry Days (2-5 July). The activity was structured in two parts: a private workshop for members of the international association and a public panel open to professionals attending the Czech gathering. Last year, representatives of various tech companies presented some of their products and innovative tools aimed at film professionals. However, for this second edition, distributors took the floor to explain their actual needs and propose specific solutions to support their daily work, as well as the promotion and release of their films, thinking ahead of the available technology and highlighting the concrete areas where significant innovation is required.

On Tuesday 4, more than 30 distributors from across Europe and beyond gathered at the Grand Hotel Ambassador in Karlovy Vary for the private session, which consisted of a series of roundtable discussions moderated by consultant and media expert Michael Gubbins. The workshop focused on exploring the most effective ways to meet the needs of distributors in the areas of rights management, digital marketing, data analytics and other relevant aspects of distribution and publishing. Divided into three groups, participants analysed each of these topics, taking into account the present context of the market and its ongoing transformation, the current options available to them (as well as their personal experiences implementing some of them), and suggesting viable alternatives that are not yet accessible but could have a considerable impact on their businesses. At the end of the session, each table shared its findings with the rest of the group.

Later in the afternoon, the public panel took place in the Zander Hall of the Imperial Spa under the title The Missing: The Innovations Innovators Need. Gubbins was joined by Samantha Faccio (Tucker Film, Italy), Daan Vermeulen (Cinema Delicatessen, Netherlands) and Gianluca Buttari (Teodora Film, Italy), who went on stage on behalf of the participants to summarise the conclusions of the morning’s session, addressing tech companies and European funding bodies to inspire some new projects and ultimately bring about the necessary innovation that could benefit the entire film industry. “Cinema distributors are serial innovators; they have absolutely no choice,” began Gubbins, “but times are changing […] Today, we’ve been talking about how to take European cinema distribution to the next level in a world that seems to be getting more and more complex.” The panel set the ball rolling by examining some of the new challenges facing the sector, including the ever-increasing number of platforms and social networks, which brings along a wider chain of windows for exploitation and available tools for promotion, but also adds complexity when it comes to managing all of it.

“Let’s be clear: the world has changed significantly, and the theatrical situation is critical. At the same time, many platforms and forms of exploitation are coming up. […] That changes how we need to work going forward”, as explained by Faccio, who reckons it has become increasingly difficult for distributors to find the intersection between all these models and efficiently exploit their content. All this complexity, she says, is forcing publishers to look carefully at their contracts and find better management tools, where AI technology could be hugely beneficial. “Talking to our colleagues, we realised that some of us are still working with the old Excel files. We are in a transition phase in which, if we want to grow, we need new instruments to get the best out of our content”.

With this in mind, most distributors have done their own research, looking for new software to make their jobs easier. Unfortunately, most of the alternatives available are not designed for small companies or independent distributors, who have unique and specific needs. “We all feel the necessity to integrate the various aspects of our daily work across departments into a single tool in order to improve our internal communication and efficiency, allowing us to free up some time, energy and space for the creative part of our job,” pointed out the General Coordinator of Tucker Film. All distributors agreed that this was not a competitive issue between them and called for cooperation and joint action to attract the interest of software companies that could produce the right all-encompassing product that would be beneficial to all of them in relation to rights management. In fact, during the roundtables’ session, some participants even discussed the possibility of collaboratively developing a tool created by distributors that could directly cater to their needs.

The conversation then turned to digital marketing and reaching audiences effectively, another area where distributors are particularly keen to innovate and evolve while being inclusive and understanding of the different sensitivities of an increasingly fragmented audience. “Distribution is at the forefront of culture. It’s where the connection takes place,” as expressed by Gubbins. Although the theatrical trailer is still widely regarded as the most important promotional tool, distributors are looking more closely at platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. However, it has become obvious that the work required isn’t limited to getting the content and marketing onto these platforms, but also understanding how they operate and engage with their respective users. “They speak different languages to different audiences, and we have to adapt our content and marketing to that kind of language,” Buttari explained. Among the various ideas discussed, distributors envisioned an AI that could automatically generate specific clips tailored to different platforms, without neglecting the crucial role of creativity behind this process, which is at the core of the distribution work: “When we see a film, something clicks inside us, and then we have to make sure we get that message across to a potential viewer. That’s something AI can’t replace. It can help, but it’s up to us to be creative,” says Teodora‘s managing partner.

On the topic of inclusivity, the panellists brought up various existing apps for visually impaired audiences, such as Earcatch and Greta, which provide audio descriptions, and advocated for further development and accessibility of this type of technology: “Tools like these are a step towards bringing a more diverse and inclusive audience into cinemas,” defended Vermeulen. As for the cost of developing all these initiatives, considering we are dealing with small companies going through a period of economic hardship, there was general agreement that public funding has a crucial role to play. Its aim should be to encourage and build connections, to help create long-term business models that allow both distributors and technological companies to reach their full potential. “This could complement certain European funding, which can help increase the audience for the European films we release,” in Vermeulen’s words.

Throughout the panel, distributors demonstrated their forward-thinking and awareness of the possibilities of technology, including how AI and other tools could be implemented to boost their workflow. However, the key point to emerge from the discussions was that data is still of paramount importance when evaluating any potential innovation, and this inevitably requires greater collaboration with exhibitors. Panellists conceded that cinemas are the primary source of revenue and visibility for their films, which translates into value further down the rights chain. “Cinemas are still a driving factor in terms of the life cycle of a film, and that is where a lot of the data resides, but that data is not flowing between exhibitors and distributors to become valuable,” warned Gubbins.

The participants admitted that there is room for improvement in terms of communication between the two sectors: “We have all the data about our social campaigns, but we don’t have the last leg of our work, which is the relationship with local communities. That is every cinema’s treasure, and at the moment there is no conversation with them about it,” explained Faccio, who recognised their interest in taking a more scientific approach to marketing in the future, using all the data available, involving the cinemas and enhancing the way they work together. The same goes for streamers, who are even more reluctant to disclose information about their customers: “It would be good to lobby with the EU to get them to provide some information,” suggested Buttari, who insisted on seeing streamers as collaborators rather than competitors, while stressing that it’s not just about collecting data, but being able to interpret it correctly. In that sense, while distributors are already applying some data analytics tools in the marketing field, this could be expanded to turn that information into more valuable knowledge: “What we need most is data literacy”.

Going back to the title of the panel, it became clear that the main missing link is the creation of specific tools that would allow distributors to take some of the heavy lifting off their shoulders in terms of day-to-day administration, allowing them to focus on the more creative and risk-taking side of their business. “All of these tools that we are discussing and dreaming about today are designed to keep our businesses healthy and to capitalise on our content. As independent distributors, we care about diversity; we care about stories. Ultimately, all these amazing innovations will enable us to keep bringing diversity to audiences and to grow together in terms of taste and awareness,” Faccio concluded. Without losing sight of these goals, the international association of independent film distributors will continue its activities in upcoming gatherings such as Haugesund, Venice and San Sebastian, with more workshops and panels for film professionals. Meanwhile, the ideas that emerged from the workshop in Karlovy Vary are already proving to have a concrete impact down the line, with the network supporting the development of a rights management tool designed by distributors which is taking its first steps.

The recording of the public showcase is available at the KVIFF.TV website.