By Jesús Silva
We spoke to Jakob Abrahamsson, President & CEO of Sweden’s NonStop Entertainment, about their editorial policy, the complexities of their local market and the specific measures put in place during the pandemic to help distributors mitigate the impact of the crisis. Abrahamsson also opened up about the importance of film curating and editing, especially in a digital world, where film publishers play a crucial role.
What can you tell us about your company’s line-up and editorial policy?
NonStop Entertainment was founded back in 1998, which makes it fairly old for an independent distributor’s lifespan. It means we have undergone lots of changes in the film business: the coming and disappearance of DVD, the birth of streamers… However, even though film business always describes itself as a sector in “perpetual crises”, I think now we are experiencing a paradigm shift of a scale that I haven’t seen in 20 years.
As for our line-up, NonStop Entertainment started as a distributor of quality films, a mix of European, world cinema and English-language titles. Over the years, we have added some legs to that. We now work a lot with documentaries through our label NonStop Dox, releasing around 20-25 feature docs per year — some of them in cinemas. In 2015, we also noticed a strange lack of classic films, which were generally not available in Scandinavia, so we started to acquire this type of titles. We found that, with the slow disappearance of the DVD market, the rights-holders were more willing to license all rights for their classics. We bought Kieślowski’s Three Colours, all Chaplin’s films, Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), some titles by Fellini, Louis Malle… Currently, we have a catalogue of around 300 classics under NonStop Timeless, some of which have worked particularly well during the pandemic. With the lack of new releases, there has been a growing interest in old films. We have increased our transactional revenue, we sold more licences to public broadcasters and theatres were booking quite a lot more classics. Finally, we have another branch called NonStop Darkness, which is the home for horror, thriller, sci-fi and cult cinema. Those are the three legs we added over the years.
Do you have any other lines of work apart from distribution?
We have also co-produced a couple of local films, and in 2016 we teamed up with another local distributor, Njutafilms, and took over the lease of what used to be a cinema, from 1926 to 1985. We renovated the building and started operating again. We like to describe it as a “cinema for grown-ups”, rather than an arthouse or commercial cinema, which means that we have a bit more freedom. We play independent releases and a lot of classics, but we will also happily screen something like Downtown Abbey. We don’t think there is a big contradiction there, because that kind of content brings in an audience that later discovers the other things we show. In 2019, we also picked up a prize from ICTA (International Cinema Technology Association) for the Best Classical Cinema in Europe 2019, a prize previously awarded to Zoo Palast in Berlin, so we were very humbled and happy about this honour.
You operate on a Scandinavian level but are mainly based in Sweden. What would you say are the main particularities of your local market when it comes to the distribution of European films?
For years, the Swedish market has been dominated by a very strong player: Filmstaden (part of AMC Theatres). On a regular year, they have 60% of the market. But they also own half of another exhibitor called Svenska Bio, which has an additional 15-20%. Combined, they have around 80% of the market share, which is harsh. That means we have no margin whatsoever when it comes to negotiating film bookings. If you think one of your films has the potential for a wider booking, you are dependent on their schedule. Obviously, they will try not to pitch films with a similar target audience at the same time, but we are not free to choose the date that fits better our releases. As for the alternative circuit, meaning independent cinemas like our own, if you only have those you won’t reach very far. It may work for a very niche film or with documentaries, but not when you have something like Tove (Zaida Bergroth, 2020), the biopic about Tove Jansson that we are releasing in Sweden. We think it can be quite big, so we absolutely need to book with Filmstaden. They are definitely on board with the film, but then again, if they choose a date, and we want a different one, there is nothing we can do. Having said that, in these harsh times we’ve seen more cooperation and flexibility, since we’re all in the same boat.
What about audience taste? Are Swedes particularly inclined to European films?
In a way, we are always looking at Denmark. We envy their ability to make strong local titles that have a big audience but are also wonderful films. We are sort of in-between. Likewise, we have some directors making stuff that actually ticks all the boxes: having a wide audience and also being really good, like Ruben Östlund, whose films win a lot of prizes and sell lots of tickets, but that happens every 2 or 3 years. In terms of Scandinavian productions, we watch a lot of Danish films, but not as many Finnish, Norwegian or Icelandic. As for other European productions, we are super Anglophile in terms of language. Most countries are, but I think we are even more. Some French releases may also work here, as well as Italian, German or Spanish titles, occasionally. Almodóvar is an interesting example here. If you go back to films like All About My Mother (1999), Sweden must have been one of the better territories in the world in terms of admissions, because they performed as well as some big American films. Overall, I don’t think there is an inherent prejudice against non-English language films, but there is definitely a big threshold to get over.
Within that landscape, how do you see your job as a film publisher? What do you think is the added value it brings to the market?
The question about the role of film distributors is put forward quite often: “What are you? Just the middleman?” And I believe we add quite a lot to the equation. In a digital world of global streamers with so many options, some people are curious enough to seek the films they are interested in by themselves. But it takes time, effort and patience. We can help them navigate this world by acting as editors and curators. We go through lots of things, trying to be at the front line of what is happening in the world: identifying trends, following up directors… Without us, there would be a huge fallout of diversity, number of titles and quality. It would be more like stepping into YouTube, where you can find fantastic stuff, but also the most awful things because there is no editor there.
We are also committed to our titles. As a distributor, when you buy a film you spend money beforehand, and because of that, you will actually work harder to get your money back. That means you are taking a leap of faith, and you will work for others to take it as well. We have to choose the right films, but also find what’s appealing about them for our local market. What makes a film successful in Sweden is different from other countries. That’s also a big part of what we do. We buy the best stuff we find, and then we have an honest look at it and try to identify the aspects that can resonate better in our context. We repackage the film for the local market, trying to explain to our audience why they should come to watch it. I think this is crucial, and it is easily forgotten.
Related to that, do you remember any specific promotional campaign for a European film that was special for you? What was the secret ingredient?
We had a few successful British ‘kitchen sink dramas’ that worked surprisingly well, like Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009), which sold around 40k tickets in Sweden. Years later, I met with one of the people responsible for gathering the financing for the film, and it turned up that Sweden was the only country that managed to recoup with that title. It was considered a great film, and a steppingstone for Andrea Arnold’s career, but a commercial failure except for us.
However, the best example was This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006), the skinhead coming-of-age film. When it premiered in Toronto, it received fair reviews, but it didn’t make much noise. We liked the film and saw a big potential for the Swedish market. On one hand, we also had a big skinhead problem back in the 80s. It was gone for some years, but by the time the film came out, it was happening again, so people could easily relate to that. On the other hand, as I said before, we are super Anglophile. A lot of people grew up with London ruling the culture scene, and everything in this film, from the music to the style, had something that would resonate well in Sweden. We had a big media campaign and got a lot of attention. There were reviews and interviews, not only in film magazines but also in the music, art and fashion pages. It ended up in editorials. We released the film in August, and during the first weekend we sold out in many independent theatres. When the big cinema chains saw that, they also decided to embrace the film, so the following weekend we had much more capacity and increased the number of admissions by 30-40%. This kept going for weeks, and by the end, we had sold 110k tickets, which was about half of the UK numbers — having a much smaller population.
On a regular year, what would be the usual repartition of income for the different windows?
Since we operate on a Scandinavian level, it is easier for us to licence films for Pay TV and SVOD players, because they usually offer pan-territorial deals, which means we get more money out of this window than a local distributor. We spend a bit more to get it, but we also get more in return, which alters the whole equation. This also makes our theatrical numbers a bit lower compared to other distributors that focus strongly on this window. For us, theatrical represents around 25%, DVD and the transactional windows another 20%, free-TV would be 20% more, and the remaining 35% would come from pay-TV and SVOD rights.
And how is it evolving? Do you see any particular trends?
I think theatrical has become harder and more volatile over the last few years. It is difficult to find titles that really stand out. Most will only sale a couple of thousand tickets. Hopefully, if you do your job right and have a bit of luck, you’ll have a few films that will outperform and make up for the others. It’s a bit of a hit-and-miss business. On the other hand, digital revenues, both transactional and streaming, are obviously increasing, but it is very hard to get into the world of the big platforms. However, one of the few positive things of the pandemic was that people actually started to seek out for alternatives. Independent platforms like MUBI increased their subscriptions in Scandinavia. Another Swedish arthouse streaming service called Draken Film, run by the Göteborg Film Festival, tripled their subscriptions during the first couple of weeks. And the interesting thing with these services is that independent distributors are becoming the main providers. I think this is super promising, and I hope we can work more closely with this type of platforms because they are not our enemies. We chase the same film-loving people, we want to reach them and serve them in the best possible way, so we have to collaborate.
What specific measures were put in place in Sweden to help independent distributors mitigate the impact of the crisis?
There were two main support schemes. On one hand, we got some general compensation for our losses during the pandemic. Basically, we had to send in an estimate on what should have been our revenue on a regular year and what was the actual situation. Based on our usual operations, past performance and the level of support we usually got, we received additional subsidies during the year.
As for local Swedish films, we can apply for distribution support on a title by title basis. Normally, the support is capped at 500k Swedish kronas, and if you apply for that — and get it —, you have to spend that same amount of money yourself, totalling the release budget of at least 1000k SEK. However, it needed be out of pocket invoiced costs. Not overhead or admin or salaries. These things cannot be included in the budget. Luckily, during this time they took away the matching requirement. Now we can include salaries related to the specific films and admin costs capped at 7% in the budget. This way we minimize the risk we take while releasing a new title during the pandemic. Of course, you still risk not having anyone coming to see the film in theatres, but if you don’t have to put that extra money in advance, it allows you to take certain risks. If we didn’t have that, maybe we would have waited a year for some films, or flipped them directly to digital. This measure has been very important to keep the circuit and the infrastructure of independent distribution alive.
The most important thing is how everything was handled. It was very quickly announced and organized. As soon as they got their mandate, the Swedish Film Institute was super swift in putting out application rules and then processing them and paying the money. There has been very good insight and forward-looking in handling this. Of course, people always have different views, but overall, I think it has been done in a very good and efficient way.
On a more personal note, what brought you to film publishing and what is your day like?
I always thought that I would become an engineer, all through elementary and high school. However, when I was a kid my mother sent me off to the kids’ cinematheque to see Dr Mabuse and put me in front of Hitchcock and James Bond on TV. I spent a good part of my teens renting, trading and collecting VHS films, and eventually decided to attend film school. My first proper job was as a programmer at the Stockholm International Film Festival when I was 24. I never really looked back since.
My day is typically responding to e-mails, often a weekly staff meeting with NonStop Entertainment or the Capitol Bio cinema that we co-own. There is always a bit of chasing tentative acquisitions, working on release plans, but most of all trying to keep a holistic approach to the rollout and exploitation of our films.
How do you see the future of independent distribution?
One of the big worries during the pandemic was that people would get used to sit home and stream stuff. I think that is actually a false premise. Most people are longing to get out, to meet with their friends and go to the cinema. With the lack of new premieres, the films that sold more tickets during the pandemic were the classics, but also the titles that had been running since Christmas. These just kept going, because people like the cinematic experience. Going to the cinema is no longer only about watching a new film, it is about the whole experience. Shutting up the rest of the world for a bit and enjoying a good film.
I think there will also be changes regarding the holdbacks for the theatrical window. We’ve always said that flexibility is of the essence. The big cinema chains have to adapt because the studios have decided to flip things to streaming. This implies a dramatic shift of power within the whole film world, which has solidified during the pandemic. American studios are no longer the kings of the court. Streamers are running the show now. As for independents, this leaves us in an interesting situation. Even though there is a crisis, there is also opportunity. The theatrical schedule won’t be as cramped with blockbusters. Some titles are already falling away, and it will keep happening. They will have a shorter window, which means that hopefully there is more room for independent releases. It’s going to be hard, especially for very arthouse or niche films, but if you have titles with some sort of hook or distinct profile, I think there is a big opportunity.