European Distribution : Focus on Scandinavia

 by Birgit Heidsiek


Spotlight on Scandinavia: All about audience access for arthouse films


Since decades, the Scandinavian countries have had the highest number of average admissions in Europe. Although the Icelanders don’t go thirteen times per year anymore to the cinema as they used to do it in the early 1980’s, the insular state Iceland is still holding the record with more than four cinema ticket purchases per inhabitant. “Illegal downloads don’t really affect us” says Hronn Sveinsdóttir who distributes and presents arthouse films in her independent cinema Bíó Paradís in the centre of Reykjavík. “We are able to survive these big changes that are happening with the way people consume entertainment and culture because there is nothing that replaces the feeling of watching a movie in the cinema. You can’t download the experience of sitting in a full room with other people and discussing the movie afterwards.” The unique cinema experience also fascinates Danish distributor Ditte Daugbjerg Christensen, Director of Øst for Paradis who also runs the same-named cinema. “It is the feeling we get when we sit inside a cinema and see what we didn’t expect. “To see people from different cultures and life circumstances that is what cinema can do, it takes us to different worlds.”


Most of the independent arthouse film distributors in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are still generating between 70 and 95 percent of their revenues with theatrical distribution. While DVD keeps dropping and TV sales are getting more difficult, the distributors are also releasing their films on VoD. The Swedish distribution company Folkets Bio operates its own VOD platform on their website.  “VoD is a way to reach out”, underlines Marie Strauss. “If a film works well in the theatre, it works well on DVD and VoD. But SVoD and TVoD don’t match the DVD losses yet.” 


In Norway, the distributors don’t have SVoD rights because they are treated as pan-Scandinavian rights and handled by the pan-Scandinavian license companies or kept by the sales companies. “Our DVDs are doing a bit less than before, VoD is doing a bit more and linear TV is buying less feature films”, says Svend Bolstad Jensen, CEO Arthaus. But the broadcasters are buying films for their online services. “They don’t pay much for that but they had to renew all their rights. In that case it was okay.” During the last five years, the theatrical window in Norway has been shortened from six to three / four months. Some titles have a longer theatrical life. “Sometimes we try to postpone the DVD release but three, four months is the rule now”, says Jensen. “We have not looked into day-and-date releases because the cinemas are very strong. It is not happening in Norway.”


It is a similar situation in Denmark where VoD is only 20 or 30 percent of DVD at the moment. But the decline of the DVD in Denmark is not only the result of the VoD but also the consequence of the price competition on the DVD market. “The prices for DVDs got lower and lower from competition in the market place. But once you have offered the audience a lower price, it is impossible to go back and ask for the full premium price again”, reports Kim Foss, CEO of Danish distribution company Camera Film. When it comes to more flexibility of the theatrical windows, Foss feels divided as he also runs Grand Teatret, an arthouse cinema with six screens in Copenhagen. In Denmark, the cinema association is very strict about the hold back. “Almost nobody experiments with the windows. We have a four month hold back”, emphasizes Foss. “And we are not too keen on doing too many experiments, which might result in people choosing their couch over the cinema, which remains the only window providing us with substantial revenues.”


Danish distributor Angel Films developed an award-winning brand/concept called Rabalder Bio that imports and releases quality family films theatrically as well as on other platforms. The company is also releasing European arthouse films, US independents as well as Asian masters. “However the Danish cinema association is strong and so far no real experiments have been possible due to the fact that they are not allowed”, stresses Peter Sølvsten Thomsen, Acqusitions & Sales Manager/Head of Distribution at Angel Films. “When we aim for a theatrical release we expect this window to be the most important for us and bring in most of the revenue.” If a film is not theatrically released, the revenues are limited. “Sometimes we have a more commercial title, where VoD is best. Unfortunately DVD is a completely dead market for the types of films that we work with. SVoD can be an income but the players tend to be more and more cherrypicking and working with aggressive gatekeepers which makes it difficult for small-scale companies as we are.”


The distributor is looking forward to a more flexible market in the future where the windows are  adjustable. “If your film doesn’t perform in cinemas you can put in on VoD straight away – hence exploiting the full potential of your film, it’s campaign and the awareness created by this. I hope we can experiment with simultaneous and flexible releases without being excluded from theaters.” He wants to steer the company in that direction and challenging the boundaries. “We want to be first-movers in exploiting all the possibilities in a digital age.” After 12 years in this business it is still the love and enthusiasm for film that drives him. “I feel it’s of great value to bring films to an audience that might never have reached their cinema, TV screen or laptop or smartphone if it wasn’t for us”, says Thomsen. “I hope we can keep doing this for many years despite a more and more tough market with shorter times to make less money than before the digital age.”


The competition in our market is fierce”, reports the Head of Distribution. “More films are being released, new distributors keep popping up and create a market place with little time to exploit your films potential before another film aiming at same target group takes over”, explains Thomsen. “Films are staying for a shorter period of time in the cinemas which means that the ‘old’ rules of holdback and windows in general are being/ should be challenged.”


At Folkets Bio, a Swedish independent arthouse distributor that is releasing films since 40 years, the success of a film is not measured only in terms of its market performance. Marie Strauss who is focusing on films from across the world with political topics, often by female directors, is reaching out to the audience when she discovers a new film that has an impact and a meaning for some people. Due to the aggressive competition in Sweden, she is forced to do more pre-buys nowadays. “I would prefer to acquire finished films”, admits Strauss. “Because a lot of distributors are looking for the same kind of films, the prices went up. We pay a lot of money for the MG’s.”


Among the fifteen distributors in Sweden, seven companies are releasing arthouse films. Amongst them, Njutafilms, which was founded by Nicolas Debot as a video company fifteen years ago. Since 2009, the distribution company is releasing theatrically European arthouse films as well as some American and Asian titles. “It is a mix of interesting niche arthouse and broader films”, describes the distributor his editorial policy. “I choose the films because of their quality and not their commercial potential. If a film is good, I want to bring it to Sweden.” In the last three years, Debot bought more films on a script basis. “I believe in what I feel. I am not waiting and hesitating.” Njutafilms is pre-buying a few titles every year because the films of directors with a good track record are demanded by several players. By the time a film is finished and becomes a success at a festival, the price will raise.


Nevertheless, some distributors want to see the finished product before they acquire a film. We buy mostly finished films”, states Jakob Abrahamsson, CEO NonStop Entertainment. Among the 25 titles per year the Swedish distributor is releasing are the 2015 Golden Lion winner From Afar, Graduation, The HandmaidenThings to Come, Lady Macbeth and I’m Not Your Negro. In August 2016, he launched the film classics label NonStop Timeless! which presents re-releases of Sally Potter’s Orlando and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle with new posters, ads and press screenings. Occasionally, NonStop Entertainment also does some pre-buys of new films. Among them are Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, The Girl with All the Gifts as well as the documentary Peggy Guggenheim. “We acquire rights for the whole Scandinavia and preferably Iceland and the Baltics as well as in one or two occasions also Benelux. We sublicence the rights to partners. Sweden is the only country where we do our own theatrical distribution.” In Scandinavia he sees the same tendencies as anywhere for local as well as international films. “The big films get bigger and small films perform like before in terms of audience potential but the mid-range is much harder. Films that could have done maybe 20,000 admissions five years ago, would perhaps do 10,000 and films that would have done 50,000, do 25,000 admissions now.” Nevertheless, the theatrical release is still the most important revenue stream for the distributors. “In August 2017, we will open our own cinema together with Njutafilms in Stockholm”, reports Jakob Abrahamsson.


We try to wait until the films are finished”, says Kim Foss, CEO of Danish distribution company Camera Film, which is releasing high end arthouse films from Europe as well as American independent films. “We are also pre-buying product if we want to keep track of a certain director. In this way, we also save ourselves from a lot of stress at the festivals.” The line-up of Camera Film also includes titles from Latin America and Asia such as Japanese anime feature films from Studio Ghibli as well as documentaries, especially music films. “We of course have competitors nationally, but I think our biggest challenge is competition from pan-Scandinavian rights holders. Because of pay TV, Scandinavia is often sold as one territory, and we only buy for Denmark”, Foss points out. “At festivals we spend a lot of time coordinating our bids with distributors such as Arthaus in Norway, TriArt Film and Folkets Bio in Sweden and Cinema Mondo in Finland in order to match an offer for whole territory. In other cases we are lucky enough to buy rights for Denmark from the very same companies we have been competing with just for our country.”


Usually, it is better to have an individual contract. If one company has all Scandinavian rights, they might keep pay TV or even free TV for themselves to finance the deal. In that case, I could get theatrical and DVD only”, Foss points out. The Danish distributor is generating most of its revenues from theatrical distribution. “We are still selling some of our films to TV, and the DVD market is not completely gone.”


In Finland which has 5.5 million inhabitants, the average cinema attendance was 1.59 in 2015. The strongest and almost only big chain is Finnkino. “Competition would do only good in the market”, remarks Susanna Peevo,Head of Sales, Cinema Mondo which has its focus on quality European films. The company’s line up includes Taxi Teheran, Ida, La vie d’Adèle, Force Majeure and Suburra. “We are a strong distributor of Japanese animations and are also having an eye on South-American, Asian and US-releases.” As the oldest and strongest independent distributor in Finland, Cinema Mondo has a good reputation and a strong “marriage”-kind of relationship with Helsinki Intl Filmfestival Love & Anarchy. “We have good relations with theaters and they have good will to give slots for not too commercial quality films, although the high number of premieres has its effects in practice.”


“We are suffering from the lack of arthouse theaters everywhere in the country, but especially in the capital city Helsinki”, stresses Hanna Lajunen, Director of Acquisitions & Distribution at Cinemanse. The independent Finnish film distribution company is releasing six to ten titles annually. Recent highlights include the Golden Bear winner Fuocoammare, Tomorrow, The Unknown Girl, Clouds of Sils Maria and Tale of Tales. About 60 to 80 percent of the box office of the more ambitious titles is made in the Finnish metropolis. “There’s an increasing amount of films, a decreasing amount of slots and arthouse venues and mainly multiplexes – this is not a good equation”, remarks Lajunen. “It’s not easy to find space for independent films in multiplexes and equally hard to bring in the spectators as it’s not the right atmosphere or profile.” Furthermore, the first weekend massively affects the future bookings which may work for blockbusters in multiplexes but not for arthouse films.


In Norway, we have been dreaming of independent arthouse cinemas for a long time”, admits Svend Bolstad Jensen, CEO Arthaus. As one of the biggest distributors in Norway which generates about 75 percent of its revenues with theatrical distribution, the company secured rights for high profile films such as Toni Erdmann, Graduation, 45 Years, Son of Saul and Fuocoammare. For almost hundred years, Norway had a municipal cinema system so that there was a kind of state-owned cinema in every town. This started to change about ten years ago when several of the cinemas were sold to private companies like Svensk and Nordisk. “It has became tougher to get films into the cinemas”, says Jensen. Although the cinemas are still screening most of the quality films, the competition from the commercial films are much stronger and it is more difficult for an art movie to stay long in the program. This might change in 2018 when the first independent arthouse cinema will open its doors in Oslo. Built by a housing development company, the new building complex will host the Oslo Films From the South Festival, a stage theatre as well as an independent arthouse cinema with three screens. For the distributor a dream becomes true. “In two years, we will have the first independent arthouse cinema in Norway”, underlines Jensen. “Films have to be seen on the big screen. That is why we are in this business”.


In Iceland, distributor Hronn Sveinsdóttir managed to triple the number of European films released in Iceland. “These films are only shown in our cinema. We own the rights and would love to screen them in other cinemas all over the country but the commercial cinemas are not interested.” When she started to operate the nonprofit cinema Bíó Paradís it was very hard to program it because the distributors in Iceland kept their films exclusively for their commercial cinemas. Therefore, she started to acquire films by herself. “We don’t have the budget to advertise a lot but we are very good with social media.” Since the cinema opened in 2010, there is a growth every year. “It’s all about access. People who are interested in film never had access to anything but Hollywood movies. For the first time the people have a choice now.”


The most of the 120,000 inhabitants in Reykjavík are only familiar with mainstream movies. Even films that are very successful in other countries don’t attract more than 300 people in Iceland. “We are losing money on almost any title because even the smallest theatrical release is very expensive.” The costs for a screening copy, the poster and the material are the same as in any other country but they can be recouped only in one cinema. “The only way to subsidize our losses is to do TV sales and put out the films on VoD”, concludes Sveinsdóttir. “We try to do it whenever it is possible. In the last six years, we have proven what can be done”, sums up Sveinsdóttir. “We are creating a new pattern of behavior and conception for Icelandic film enthusiasts.”


We are driven by love for cinema, but of course it is also a business. We have to make a profit to stay in the market”, says Danish distributor Kim Foss. The digitization has helped the market in some ways. A film like The White Ribbon reached just over 30,000 admissions from five prints, which for the first four months mainly played in Copenhagen. “They were completely worn out, when we sent them to the rest of the country, but at the time we couldn’t afford any other model.” In case of Michael Haneke’s next film Amour the situation was different. “With the digitization we have the possibility to send out DCPs and email a KDM from day to day”, underlines the distributor.Amour ended up doing 80,000 admissions for us. So digitization has helped us to get the films across to a bigger audience. On the other hand, we have too many arthouse films in the market. And as a whole we have too few winners and too many losers.”


Although the prices for prints went down, due to the MGs and material costs it is still expensive for small countries such as Denmark, Sweden or Iceland to release a film. If Hronn Sveinsdóttir acquires a film for her distribution outlet Bio Paradis, the film will be only released in her independent cinema Bíó Paradís in Reykjavík because the other cinemas in Iceland are showing only Hollywood movies. By making arthouse films available in her cinema, she wants to give the audience the option to see different kind of movies. “It will take definitely a decade to make this viable”, underlines the distributor. “But one thing will never change. We are always going to be a micro-stake in this distribution business.” When she is dealing with sales agents and labs, they are asking for the same amount of money for the MG and material costs as the distributors from bigger countries with millions of people and much more potential revenue opportunities. “This needs to be fixed if we continue to bring movies over here”, emphasizes Sveinsdóttir, “because this is very important in a cultural sense.” Nevertheless, she looks positive into the future. “For the last six years, we have proven that we can give the audience access to arthouse films. We are raising a new generation and are creating a new pattern of conception for Icelandic enthusiasts. The great thing is that we survive this big changes how people consume entertainment and culture.”