By Joachim Soudan
Talking with Ditte Daugbjerg Christensen, Managing Co-Director of Øst for Paradis, we went through the aspects of the Danish arthouse market, the current tendencies related to streaming and the two lockdowns, and, furthermore the immense power and need of movies to relate to each other.
How would you describe your company and its editorial policy?
We’re a very old company, started by my father, Ole Bjørn Christensen. He was in Japan and saw Kurosawa’s films and he thought we had to have these in Denmark. So, he started importing films in the 1970s. Øst for Paradis is now both a distributor and an exhibitor and is the largest arthouse cinema in Denmark, with seven screens. I run the company with my sister and my father.
We choose our films with the heart and stomach, like my father did when he went out into the big world and realized that as humans, we need to get this part of each other’s culture, and take it back home to show it to people. We search for films with a large impact, something you can feel with your heart and body, a bodily experience that we believe the Danish audience should see. It can be the Syrian documentary For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019), or The tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, 2014). It’s not necessarily something that it’s going to make a lot of money but it’s a big artistic experience. We release around ten titles a year so we have to be picky. We take our time to find the ones we will love to work with.
At least 50% are European movies, and we have a few other areas that are close to our heart, like Japan and Latin America. We had some of the early films by Ken Loach and Aki Kaurismaki. We are often moved by the early work of authors, and then bigger companies buy their next titles. We had some of the greatest authors at their start, like Jim Jarmusch, Kore-eda, the Dardenne brothers.
We also have a habit of choosing films that show the living conditions and issues of minorities. We pick stories about the little guy. (Who is often a woman!) They are close to our hearts. We have the strong belief that if we show films about minorities, then a large group of people will have the understanding of their world and it’s a way to make the world a better place. So: little company, big hopes.
How is the Danish market concerning the European independent movies?
There is a big audience in Denmark for arthouse movies, European or international, a lot of theatres and a strong culture about going to the cinemas to watch a movie. In Aarhus, where our company is based, there are a lot of students and seniors’ citizens, eager to watch films from all around the world. In this difficult time for distributors and theatres it’s important to nurture this cinema-going experience. It’s important for all cinemas to survive this. I need the four-year old girl to go with her parents to see a Disney movie… in a cinema! When she grows up she’ll want to see a film about women in Africa or women in Poland or in Italy. Or a movie about the global climate change, or a documentary about sexual identity, and she will come to us. It’s important that we keep in mind this common eco-system of cinemas.
With the digitalization of cinema, it has been really easy for a lot of companies and structures to release films, and a lot cheaper than it used to be, so we had an overload of movies of all genres. This has been difficult. Earlier, a moderate success would make at least 2.000-3.000 admissions, but nowadays it could easily just make 300. The films are cannibalising on each other, there has been too many.
What is the usual repartition of income between all the releases?
We have a very big focus on theatrical release, it’s our foremost income, around 90% of our income. VOD and DVD have been a small bonus, but not substantial in any way.
For 2020 and 2021, it may begin to change. But it’s difficult for arthouse film to find platforms. When you go to streaming services you get overwhelmed by the big titles and small things like documentaries from Syria have trouble finding their audience. But it may change. More people that were part of our core audience have now learned how to find content, to see a movie online. A lot of people who only watched movies at the cinema and TV, an elder segment of audience, were forced with the lockdowns to find out how to do this. They borrowed their kids’ Netflix or found out how to go onto the library service we have in Denmark: Filmstriben, a very fine high-quality service where you can buy or stream three movies for free (the state pays the rights holder a fair amount per view), with good quality of films. There’s a big part of the Danish arthouse audience who suddenly learned how to do this.
Being a distributor, my main focus is still getting people to go to the cinema. But I would appreciate if more space was devoted to arthouse films on platforms: space online where quality curated movies would be available, a space connected to specific cinemas people already knows. This may be the way.
Can you tell us about one of your biggest success?
The documentary For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019), is a good example: we saw it in Cannes at the very first screening and we cried and held hands with my sister during the whole film. After the film, we immediately went to the people who had it and told them we had to have it in Denmark. It was released in May 2020, but rescheduled in Septembrer because of the first lockdown. Waad Al-Kateab, the co-director, came to Denmark and made interviews, and everyone was genuinely interested in hearing her story, and the story of the Syrian people. The film is very much about the Syrian people, both those who stayed and those who left and now live in Denmark and are our new neighbours. This is definitely not our biggest success, but based on the topic, we are very proud of the almost 6.000 admissions. It was then released online in January 2021 and after two weeks it was one of the most seen films on this library service Filmstriben! This is very unusual and I am very curious about finding the numbers of the first quarter of the year.
Was there a secret ingredient for the campaign?
Just that it is a very good film. Our greatest success in terms of admission is a Danish film, Uncle (Frelle Petersen, 2019): it had 45.000 admissions. When we took it in, people had the feeling it would only make 2.000. But it was a really good film. The story is about a remote farm where a girl lives with her uncle, it takes place in a part of Denmark with a very strong dialect, so we even had to make subtitles. Everybody was saying: who is going to want to watch that? The secret ingredient is: if it’s a very good film and you do your job properly, then people are going to see it.
How would you define your job? What is “doing it properly”? And what is the added value it brings to European films?
Maybe curator would be the right word. There are so many films out there, a big part of our job is to find those ten titles a year we feel the Danish audience would never be aware of if we didn’t do this job. So, there’s definitely a curating part. And then of course we would like to stay alive, so we must have the economical aspect. A lot of the work is making the Danish version of this and that: the poster, the trailer, the translation, it’s finding selected scenes for social media, finding bits and pieces of interviews or “behind the scenes” that you can feed to your audience. My job is also getting my primary customer, the cinemas, to understand this is actually a very exciting film. Even if they never saw a movie from this country before (we had a film from Guatemala and Kyrgyzstan; nobody had ever seen that in Denmark). It’s a big job, getting the work to cinema owners.
With other smaller distributors, like Angel Films, we organized our own “filmdays” to present our films to programmers. We felt they needed to see the films themselves, they had to know, to have the feeling inside. It has been a very positive collaboration between competitors; it was very “hyggely”, this Danish concept of coziness. So, the job is getting the films to the exhibitors, and if you do your job really well, you make a promotional package, ready to use, with exactly what they should say on Instagram or Facebook about the film. Sentences ready to be copied-and-paste, pictures, three different options about how to sell the film: the awards it got, or the cheaky thing about it, and so on. With A white white day (Hlynur Palmason, 2019) we told the exhibitors how they could make it an experience, an event: invite an expert, make a “white Russian” cocktail for people to get before the film and other ideas. We try to make it very easy for cinemas and tell them it’s not just a film we’re selling, because if we don’t get the cinemas to grow and survive, we don’t have a job, and this is what we will have to do more and more in the future: people like to come to the cinema, but they want more than the plain-dry film, they want an experience. This is the added value. And if they don’t come, then at least you’ve been working with something that was worthwhile and you brought an experience to the small audience that did come.
When it comes to covid-19, was there any specific kind of support put in place?
Cinemas were closed first form mid-march to the end of May. Then we had a period in the summer where people needed to see each other, so cinemas were not the priority for everyone. But when we hit autumn, in September, people just rushed to the cinemas in all of Denmark. The Danish film Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020) was a giant success, a record breaker, even though the cinemas were at 50% capacity. In September we got a very optimistic feeling about what the audience was going to be like on the other side of Covid-19 lockdown.
We closed down the 9th of December. And we are still closed and will be until may 6th.
It seems a bit more serious than last time. In 2020 we have had a very successful January and February so we had reserves and were able to endure a long season of bad times. There has been a substantial support from the Danish state. Exhibitors got help to their regular expenses. Distributors who sent people on furlough got part the salaries refunded by the state, like any company in Denmark. I am sure we are all going to survive but we have spent all the money we had in the vaults for bad times. We’ve had bad times for a long time now. And for us to be closed in January, February and March, it’s a disaster. The state is not going to refund our lack of profit. But that’s what would allow us to buy new films, this is the part that we have lost and it is going to hurt.
We are going to buy fewer films, be more cautious and maybe take less chances…
But we have this glimmer of hope, seeing what happened in September, showing the audience is really out there and still very open to the rest of the world.
We need the films and the movie experience to travel, when Covid-19 stops us from flying around the world. We have to stay mentally connected. In Europe, we don’t speak the same languages, we don’t go to the same churches and we don’t eat the same food so we need the films to keep reminding us about this: we are not the same and yet we remain the same. We need to remain willing to take a chance showing what it’s like to be a French worker, an Italian worker, a Polish woman, etc. We need to take these chances, to keep being European.
How did you become a distributor? What tomorrow should look like in your opinion?
Our parents were always watching films and dragged my sister and I to watch all kinds of films, before we were old enough to watch anything. We were very early exposed to European culture and languages, and the visual feeling of being in a cinema, with the smells and the treats people had left fall on the floor. It was a magical place for us. Cinema was very much part of our family and I grew up with this idea I would surely continue this line of work. I sought out different path as well and became an architect for four years. Until my sister took over the company and said: do you want to come along? I just dropped everything and came along. It has been more than ten years now and I am very happy doing this kind of job.
I have this personal feeling of purpose and I consider myself as really lucky: being at the office still includes watching greats films, and working to bring these to other people is like giving presents! It’s also part of the job!
If I have one crazy wish for the future, it is that cinemas would change a bit into being rooms not only for the newest films. Sometimes there is an older film that shows a specific aspect of things in a better way. I have seen a tendency this year with the Covid-19, where we all missed the American blockbusters: both the exhibitors and the audience were willing to be in theatres for something else. Many of my colleagues, even in the big companies, went into their old archives and realized: “maybe it’s time to show this one again”. It would be great if there was, once a week, a slot in the program in every cinema where they would show something that they had chosen because it was really good, special and related to something in the news or to events. Something that would open this immense archive of opportunities that is our film legacy. We probably need to package it, create it for schools or offer subscriptions for this “every Monday evening of something else”. That’s my dream.