European Distribution : Focus on Italy

by Isabella Weber


Looking at the stats on Italian admissions for the first trimester of 2016, one is tempted to cheer about the 24% rise registered in comparison to the same period in 2015. Especially considering that the balance for 2015 was already quite positive in terms of admissions, which had increased by 8.9% from 2014. But looking more closely at the numbers, one would discover that the success concerned mainly US titles, while the admissions on both Italian and European films dropped significantly (see the Focus 2016 from the European Audiovisual Observatory). Most independent Italian distributors, interviewed by Europa Distribution, tended to sigh when asked… How are things going in Italy?


The Italian distribution market shares many problems with most of its European neighbours: cinema audience is growing older, TV sales are down, too many films are competing for the same slots and multiplexes are hard to penetrate (and sometimes art house cinemas too) while the VoD market is not producing tangible results. (On these topics read also Europa Distribution past focuses on FranceBelgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.)


What films are Italians watching today?


As most of their European colleagues, Italian independent distributors show signs of nostalgia when discussing today’s taste for cinema and the general condition of the market. “When I started working in film distribution 15 years ago there were very different numbers, we could be bolder in proposing new things. I think that today in Italy the new Kiarostami might not make it to the big screen” confessed Margherita Chiti, Head of Acquisition at Teodora Film.  On the same line Stefano Massenzi, Head of Acquisition at Lucky Red: “In Italy well affirmed authors such as the Coen brothers or Almodovar produce very appreciable results, comparable with France. What our market is losing is the capacity to discover new talents. The Italian market is very provincial, something needs to “happen” to create visibility for a film. Documentaries very rarely touch the cinemas and many of the Italian big hits on the Box Office are not screened throughout the whole country and only released locally.


The phenomenon of regional successes is one of the peculiarities of the Italian market. Films such as Zoran, il mio nipote scemo did most of its admissions in Veneto, L’arbitro worked mainly in Sardinia and frequently Neapolitan productions do up to 90-95% of their admissions in the Campania region without even being distributed at a national level, just to quote some striking examples. The strength of regional cultures and dialects plays a big role in explaining the nature of these very local successes.


Working with niche markets proves fruitful in various contexts also at the national level. Japanese anime films for example have a rooted fan base in Italy: the broadcasting of anime cartoon series started already in the 70s, developing a taste for Japanese animation which lives today in the generations who grew up watching them. Lucky Red’s line-up is filled with anime titles, released mainly as special events, including of course those of the Studio Ghibli that are among the few arthouse films to do well on the home video. The passion for Eastern films lies also at the heart of the creation of the Tucker Film distribution who succeeded last year in re-releasing heritage films by Ozu both in theatres and on VoD, filling a virtual theatre with almost 10.000 viewers to watch 1953’s Tokyo Story.


Still dubbing, still streaming


When it comes to language for cinema, the Italian answer is dubbing. Historically, dubbing imposed itself already in the ‘30s both as a political measure to promote the Italian culture and as a necessity dictated by the high level of illiteracy. 90 years later, things have changed… but not so much. In big cities a few more cinemas dedicate some slots to screenings in o.v. but for distributors dubbing is still the obligatory choice for reaching the vast majority of the audience. The use of subtitles has been lately fostered for the younger generations by the habit of following TV series online, subtitled by fans before they get dubbed and broadcasted on TV, but this “bright side” of piracy doesn’t quite balance the whole phenomenon. “Piracy is still without doubt the main problem of our market,” stated Stefano Massenzi. Last year ANICA, the Italian association of the film industry, revealed that from 2013 to 2015 pirate streaming had raised 55,4%. Although the big numbers concern TV series more than films, the phenomenon still worries all the parts of the industry chain.


Public Support?


In the last year the Italian industry has been absorbed by a large discussion about the new Legge Cinema, a new regulation for the financing of the Italian film market, which will stabilize the public subsidies for the support of the production and circulation of Italian films. The new scheme doesn’t present any form of support for the circulation of foreign arthouse cinema, neither for the distributors nor for the exhibitors. “The only facilitation we can get from the State is the arthouse label which is an advantage for the cinema who screen our films” stated Margherita Chiti.

Distributors can sometimes access subsidies from the National film commissions (German Films, CNC…) but most of the time the release of European films relies heavily on the support from the MEDIA program. The recent decision of basing the Selective Media Support on the calculation of the eligible number of screens which gives access to the financial support on the “first week of release” rather than on the “peek week” concerns Italian distributors greatly. “For us, independent without screens, releasing a film in a few copies and then counting on the word to mouth is the most natural way to find screens and protecting the film. If – to have a minimum subsidy – we would be obliged to have a strong opening we could damage the film and shorten its release time,” agreed both Margherita Chiti and Alessandro Giacobbe, Managing Director of Academy Two.



When & Where to show your film in cinemas?


Contrary to the worst previsions, Italian arthouse cinemas generally did survive to the digitalization era. But they are too few, especially considering the ever raising number of films released every year (473 in 2015) and the limitation given by the long summer closures. This last issue was raised again last December during the presentation of the annual figures of the Italian film market. While all the interested categories agreed on the necessity of moving towards a 12 months programming and filling the gap that leaves cinemas without new releases from May-June until the end of August, it was less clear what the solution should be as exhibitors were pointing at distributors, distributors at majors and so on. Traditionally, during the summer, city cinemas are closed while open arenas open in vacation location, screening films from the past year. This was the logical result of two main factors: the general trend of families of leaving town in July and especially in August, and the lack of air-conditioning in most art-house cinemas. Today the situation has changed but the market hasn’t yet caught up with the current state of play. “The market is really made by the big players. American majors have been working on this for years, they don’t stop offering products over the summer. With arthouse cinema it is more difficult to change a trend but we also try, getting sometimes really interesting results with late May – beginning June releases but what is really missing in this period is popular Italian films,” commented Stefano Massenzi, Head of Acquisition at Lucky Red.


A general concern among the distributors is the split of the Italian markets into 2 parallel worlds which see on the one hand classical old arthouse cinemas in the big cities, generally equipped with one or two screens, and on the other hand big multiplexes owned mostly by The Space and UCI, which arrived in Italy quite late and are mostly located usually out of town. They each attract their own audience and so far the attempts of bringing arthouse films to the multiplexes have not shown interesting results. “CNC tried to sponsor the release of some French films in 12 selected UCI cinemas, paying the trailer costs and a contribution for the VPF, but the impact of the initiative was quite marginal,” told us Alessandro Giacobbe. According to Antonio Medici, CEO of BIM, one of the solutions to the problem could be opening “Cityplexes”, city arthouse cinemas with 3 up to 7 screens with fewer seats for each screen. BIM and Lucky Red are the two main partners of “Circuito Cinema”, a network of independent cinemas with a total reach of over 120 screens mainly concentrated in the bigger cities. The capacity of the network of programming films at a national level allows it to maximise the efforts in the circulation of arthouse films and open the way to larger initiatives that individual cinemas could not embark alone. At the same time, some distributors lament the difficulty of accessing the cinemas of the Circuito with their own films, as the exhibitors do not have full control of the programming any longer.

Another interesting peculiarity of the Italian landscape concerns the over 800 cinemas owned and managed by parishes. The cinemas that are part of the ACEC (Catholic association of exhibitors) represent an undeniable resource for distributors and many of them play an important role in the second circulation of films. On the minus side, due to their status, these cinemas do not screen films that do not get approval from the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), as it was the case for El Club (Bolero Film) and Weekend (Teodora Film).


Is there life after cinemas? TV, home video, VoD and Netflix


If the competition is high to get on the silver screen, the game gets even tougher when it comes to smaller screens. According to the ANICA’s study published on July 14th, in 2015 only 11,6% of the films broadcasted on cable TV are European and the percentage doesn’t raise much with satellite TV, reaching 12,7%. “The national public broadcaster, RAI, is not buying arthouse films any longer. Even when we have good numbers in the cinemas we can’t manage TV sales. This was the case even with the Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown” lamented Claudia Bedogni, founder of Satine Film. Her complaint was echoed by most independent distributors: public TV is not buying, and selling arthouse films to Pay TV without having Output deals (which seem to be an advantage reserved to bigger distribution companies), is extremely difficult.  “Even when TV buys the films they are underprized, we get sometime 20% of our budget from TV sales when it should be 50%. Homevideo got down to 10% and VoD (ITunes) doesn’t go much beyond 5%. As for the new players, Netflix is proving itself more a competitor than a partner” stated Alessandro Giacobbe. Netflix made its appearance in Italy last October, initially raising some hope of opening the market a bit. “At the end of the day working with Netflix brings more stress than revenues,” – commented Margherita Chiti – “they offer very small fees to be in their library which then prevent more lucrative sales at Sky.” The case can be different for some exceptions: a company such as Tucker Film, who is specialized in Asian films and has worked a lot on its label, has an interest of being in the Netflix library for visibility reasons. “We get a flat fee for a part of our catalogue which is quite low but we want our audience to be able to find us on Netflix as well” explained Samantha Faccio.

The classical distribution model in Italy is not broken but it surely is cracking. What are the alternatives? “Our mistake as an industry was to assume that VoD could be just integrated in our current distribution models while we should think of new forms exploitation altogether” stated Antonio Medici.


The need of learning how to speak to a younger audience is quite clear to Italian distributors. “It takes one look to a 22:30 screening, going always half empty while it used to be the most popular one, to realize young people are deserting cinemas” observed Margherita Chiti. The discussion that the industry had in the past years with the institutions and the public sector resolved in a new proposal, contained in the much discussed Legge Cinema, of introducing Film Education in the school official curriculum. Meanwhile distributors fight their way into side-school programs: “The system feels quite oligarchic here. I wish the criteria applied to decide on which films are suitable for educational purposes were more transparent” stated Claudia Bedogni. The discussion about Film Education, which Europa Distribution opened in Karlovy Vary (read here), and Young Audience Development, is key for the future of the Italian market, as much as for many other European countries.


However concerned about the present and the future, it seems that deep down independent distributors know well why they are doing their job. “I guess we all hope that people who watch the films we are showing come out of the screening a little better that they were when they entered the cinema” (Antonio Medici).


Meet our Members…


Academy Two – Alessandro Giacobbe, CEO

Academy Two was born in 2012 from the encounter between Lorenzo Ventavoli from Turin and Alessandro Giacobbe from Genoa, two exhibitors who decided to launch themselves in film distribution. They named their company Academy Two to pay homage to the 80s company Academy Film, ran by the legendary Vania Traxler, who first brought to Italy authors such as Jim Jarmush and Fessbinder. Academy Two’s line up started with Wadjda and includes today The Lunchbox, Leviathan and Timbuktu among others.


BiM – Antonio Medici, CEO

“BiM’s history is the history of quality cinema in Italy from the last 30 years,” proudly affirms Antonio Medici. BiM, who was recently acquired by Wild Bunch, was founded in 1983 by Valerio De  Paolis and over the years it brought to Italy the big names of the American and European independent cinema, from Robert Alman to Ken Loach, Éric Rohmer, Takeshi Kitano and Zhang Yimou. “Over the years the market has changed and we adapted, leaving some of the more experimental arthouse titles which marked our early years for more accessible, high quality films. Being part of an international company such as Wild Bunch is a great advantage in today’s market”.


Lucky Red – Stefano Massenzi, Head of Acquisitions

Actor, producer and distributor Andrea Occhipinti founded Lucky Red in 1987. The company, very active also on national and international co-production, established itself thanks to the discovery of successful young directors such as Mario Martone and they grew up bringing to Italy authors such as Michael Haneke,  Lars von Trier, the Dardenne brothers but also the Studio Ghibli titles. Lucky Red today’s line up include The Little Prince, Philomena, La vie d’Adele and recent acquisitions from Cannes include Scorsese’s The Irishman, Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde and Farhadi’s The Salesman.


Satine Film – Claudia Bedogni, CEO

Claudia Bedogni founded Satine Film in 2013 with the purpose of discovering new talents and give voice to a cinema that, in addition to aesthetic qualities, addresses important and relevant social issues. Satine Film debuted in 2013 with Beasts of the Southern Wild and its current line up includes features such as The Broken Circle Breakdown, La Tierra Y la Sombra, Truman and among the new acquisitions The Teacher.


Teodora Film – Margherita Chiti, Head of Acquisitions

Cesare Petrillo and Vieri Razzini founded Teodora in 2000 out of pure cinephile spirit, and the commercial goals always came second after the passion for cinema. “Today our catalogue counts over 70 films among which some more accessible ones, like Pride, which help us to get some revenues from TV sales. We tend to be loyal to the directors we discover, releasing all their films when we can.”


Tucker Film – Samantha Faccio, General Coordinator

Tucker Film was founded by Thomas Bertacche and Sabrina Baracetti in 2008 with a clear double mission: on the one side to give a voice to the authors from Friuli Venezia Giulia, and on the other to follow the founders passion for Eastern cinema, in direct relationship with the Far East Film Festival. In recent years the company has opened its line-up also to films coming from neighbouring countries from Eastern Europe, releasing films as Class Enemy and The High Sun.


Other Italian members of Europa Distribution: Bolero Film and Parthenos