After our 2018’s summer tour of independent film distribution in Greece (read here) and the exploration of the eastern regions of Europe (read here our articles on Russia and Lithuania), Europa Distribution pulls its focus lenses on Switzerland. How do independent film distributors work in a country that counts 3 official languages and 26 cantons?
One country… three releases
For most of the Swiss independent distributors the largest target group is represented by the German speaking audience, that in 2017 accounted for 67% of the general admissions, followed by the French speaking part (31%) and the Italian one (2%). Much like it happens in Belgium (read here our related Focus), the specificities of each linguistic territory force distributors to follow a different release calendar and to design different campaigns for each area. For this reason some distribution companies like Filmcoopi, based in the German area, and Agora, based in the French one, have developed over the years partnerships to help releasing some of each other’s title in their respective linguistic territory. In some cases though, adaptation is not enough and many films that have a potential for the French speaking audience lack of appeal for the German speaking part, and vice versa.
When buying films, Swiss distributors not only need to keep in mind the taste of very different audiences; they also know that they will depend on their neighbouring countries for their release dates and for material. “This also has an impact on our line-up. Animation for example becomes more complicated because to address children we need dubbing and we don’t have the resources to do it independently”, comments Pascal Trächslin, founder and CEO of the Cineworx distribution company. Based in Basel, Cineworx was founded in 2003 and concentrates its efforts mainly on the German speaking audience. “We also release our films in the French part but it is hard for us to know what the newest trends are in France and to market our films accordingly”, adds Trächslin.
Zurich-based Filmcoopi was founded in 1972 as a cooperative and it is today one of the oldest distribution company still active in the Swiss market, releasing an average of 35 films per year. 70% of their films are released not only in the German and French speaking regions, but also in the Italian one. “We don’t make money from distributing our films in the Italian canton but the losses are compensated by the other parts and we feel it our duty to let the audience access our films wherever possible”, affirms Carola Stern, Board Member of the company.
Among the few companies mainly devoted to the French sector there is Agora Films, founded in 1999 and based in Geneva. With an average of 15 films released per year, Agora mainly addresses the French speaking audience, but still releases about 1/3 of its annual titles also in the German sector, thanks also to the collaboration with Filmcoopi. “The audience we face in Geneva is quite different from the one you can find in Zurich”, – explains Laurent Dutoit, CEO of Agora Films – “they follow different media and to release in the French speaking part we are bound to follow closely the French release calendar”. The French speaking part of the population follows French media and has generally a stronger connection to French culture compared to the German speaking part, and therefore postponing too long a release after a film is out in France means losing an important source of publicity on the title. On top of that, with the border just a few kilometres away, Geneva impatient spectators could choose to watch the same film in the nearest French multiplex just across the border.
The admissions drop
When commenting the figures of recent releases, Pascal Trächslin uses a common saying among Swiss distributors: “10 is the new 20”. A film that generates 10.000 admissions today is considered as successful as a film that made 20.000 admissions five or six years ago. Out of the 588 films released in Switzerland in 2018,* 1/3 reached the 10.000 admissions. “Over the last four years we have surely remarked a general drop in admissions,” – comments Carola Stern – “that could be possibly also related to the diffusion of Netflix, although that is hard to verify”. Michael Zippermayr, Head of Acquisitions at Xenix Filmdistribution, also shares Stern’s impression on the role played by Netflix in the admissions’ drop: in his opinion its impact has affected viewing habits much more deeply than piracy. As in most European territories, the admissions drop walks hand in hand with the ageing of the audience. “Ten years ago our audience was undoubtedly younger; today young people are attracted by so many different alternatives. A two-hour attention span feels too long”, continued Zippermayr.
What future for arthouse theatres?
With the average cinema admission costing €13, for the occasional cinema-goer one cinema ticket turns out to almost as expensive as one month of basic subscription to Netflix (€14). Whether Netflix is or not the main cause of the admission drop that has affected distribution, there is no doubt that the crisis has also touched arthouse cinema theatres. Over the past years several arthouse cinemas have closed and today an independent distributor such as Filmcoopi relies on multiplexes for over 50% of its theatrical admissions in several cities. On the bright side, some arthouse cinemas were saved by volunteers. Although these small cinemas, mainly situated out of the big cities, do not have a large impact on the overall market’s figures, they can make the difference for smaller and more fragile films that would otherwise never touch certain areas of country.
In Zurich the closure of several small cinemas was counterbalanced by the opening of new “miniplexes”, i.e. small multiplexes in central areas with multiple screens but fewer seats, that allow the screening of a large variety of films. Nevertheless many distributors are worried that the current situation might not be sustainable over the long run. Cinemas located in cities close to the borders such as Geneva, Basel and St. Gallen are even more fragile due to the competition they face from cheaper French or German multiplexes situated just out of Swiss border.
For arthouse films the theatrical window is still by far the most important source of revenue and independent distributors look at the situation of cinema theatres with concern. Trächslin and Stern both agree that cinemas should receive more financial support, as the role they play is key to the whole business.
DVD, TVOD, SVOD… Is there life after Theatrical?
The DVD market in Switzerland has always suffered from a tough competition. Furthermore since 2013 the DVD market has been losing steadily 25% every year and VOD has started to catch up only recently, and only for certain titles. Corinne Rossi, CEO of the 1924 founded distributor Praesens Film AG has been monitoring closely the home video market over the past years, and it was only when planning Praesens’ budget for 2019 that she put for the first time higher figures on VOD than on DVD. “It’s important to explain that when we talk about VOD in Switzerland we really only talk about TVOD/EST. SVOD hasn’t yet become relevant for Swiss right holders: the large majority of Netflix titles available in Switzerland come from World Wide rights through deals that don’t benefit local distributors. I hope that important SVOD players will step in soon to open up the market”.
For Swiss films the situation might change in a few years as the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (BAK) has recently announced the decision to set up by 2024 “Swissflix”, a streaming platform dedicated to Swiss films that would be available online for free.
While in southern European territories like Spain, Italy and Greece piracy comes very high on the list of issues concerning local distributors, in Switzerland it is hard to get a clear picture of the actual damages provoked by piracy. The legal status of “pirates” operating on the Swiss territory is in fact quite controversial as private users streaming or downloading films from unauthorised sources are not punishable by the law. “This is a state of things we need to cope with but what we try to do is to work on the awareness of people to make them understand that if they don’t pay for movies, in the future there won’t be any movies to watch”, explains Rossi.
Documentaries, before it was cool
Documentaries have been quite popular in Switzerland and were commonly released in theatres already in the 70s. The distribution company Filmcoopi for example started out by releasing Swiss documentaries. “In the 90s a Swiss documentary could bring as much as 100.000 admissions”, comments Carola Stern. “Lately the films that seem to better cope in the market are on one side the very big titles and on the other the national, and even regional productions”, continued Stern. Today Swiss documentaries still attract a relatively large audience and this reflects on the line-up of independent local distributors. In the case of Xenix Filmdistribution for example documentaries make between 25 and 30% of the company’s line-up. According to Cineworx’ Trächslin the reason why Swiss documentaries remain so popular is quite simple: the audience is interested in films that “face their own reality” and that role is not completely absolved by the production of local feature fiction, which remains quite limited also for budgetary reasons.
To Europe or not to Europe?
At the beginning of 2014, Switzerland’s vote against the free movement of workers between Europe and Switzerland brought many changes in their bilateral relationships. To the dismay of many representatives of the Film Industry, the negotiations to have Switzerland participating to the 2014-2020 Creative Europe Programme were interrupted and the country couldn’t benefit anymore from the MEDIA programme. “We are still hoping to find an agreement for Switzerland to be reintegrated in MEDIA.” – comments Dutoit – “In the meantime luckily the public institutions realized there was a need to create acompensation mechanism to protect the diversity of the film offer here. We are culturally European but without any sort of protection mechanism the offer would have been much limited to big Hollywood titles.”
The statistics show that indeed European films constitute still today a large share of the global offer: 46,8% of films shown in Switzerland in 2017 were European, compared to 24.2% from the US and 15% from Switzerland. It’s however important to keep in mind that when it comes to admissions the numbers show a quite different scenario with 67.3% of admissions for American titles, 6.6% for local productions and 21% for European films.
“What we miss the most now is being part of European projects and activities” – declares Carola Stern discussing about the exclusion from MEDIA, – “Networking is an essential part of this job.”
Despitethe difficulties of the current market, distributors are not discouraged and look ahead to the next future. According to Zippermayr an important step that many Swiss distribution companies will face over the next few years will be internal turnovers, to leave the keys of the castle to a new generation of distributors. “In the next ten years film distribution will go to new directions and we will need young people in line with their times”. Shrugging off the Industry’s concerns Dutoit dares to be optimistic: “It is true that we face now a tougher and more unpredictable market but it is also true that unpredictability leads sometimes to good surprises”.
*The number refers to the overall number of films released in Switzerland in 2018 and it also includes films only released in one of its linguistic regions.
Laurent Dutoit, CEO of Agora Films
Corinne Rossi, CEO of Praesens Film
Carola Stern, President of Board at Filmcoopi Zürich
Pascal Trächslin, Founder and CEO of Cineworx
Michael Zippermayr, Head of Acquisitions at Xenix Filmdistribution
Conféderation Suisse, Film supply and demand by country of origin – Interactive tables
Pro Cinema, https://www.procinema.ch
SAFE – Association Suisse pour la lutte contre la piraterie, http://www.safe.ch/accueil/?L=1
Swiss cinema celebrates a divine year (2018), Swiss Info
Conféderation Suisse (2011), Violazioni del diritto d’autore in Internet: il quadro giuridico attuale è sufficiente https://www.ejpd.admin.ch/ejpd/it/home/aktuell/news/2011/2011-11-30.html
Giorgia Del Don (2014), Focus: Switzerland, Cineuropa
Birgit Heidsiek (2014), Switzerland wishes to participate in the MEDIA Programme again, Cineuropa
Jörn Krieger(2019),‘Swissflix’: Switzerland plans own Netflix, Broadband TV News
Zeno Zoccatelli (2016),Switzerland: a pirate’s paradise?, Swiss Info