By Jesús Silva
We caught up with Laurent Dutoit, CEO of Agora Films, to discuss the main challenges of the Swiss market for independent film distribution, such as the multilingual nature of the territory and the fundamental collaboration with the neighbouring countries.
Switzerland decided to open cinemas on June 8, after three months of closure, but the lack of new releases has slowed down the recovery of the sector, while the inability of some administrations to adapt their support schemes during the crisis has become another hurdle preventing distributors to get back on their feet after the lockdown.
What is your main focus when acquiring films for distribution?
We release around 12-15 films every year, mostly Swiss and European productions. Roughly 90% of our line-up consists of arthouse titles. In Switzerland, most distributors operate in the German-speaking part of the country. We are one of the last companies working on the French side, so our main target is French-speaking films. We try to find movies that can appeal to an audience in Switzerland, but sometimes we also acquire titles that we know won’t be that successful, just because we think it is important to defend and share those films.
What are the main challenges for Swiss distributors?
Switzerland is a multilingual country with three distinct regions (German, French and Italian-speaking). We are a small territory, but most of the times we have three different releases for our films, with different dates and strategies. We tend to use different promotional materials, because we can’t address the same way people from different parts of the country. It’s interesting because we have to change our perspective and try new things with every title. We know that some films are more appealing to the French-speaking audience and others to the German side. The Italian part is really small in terms of distribution, and it is very difficult to release arthouse films there. Overall, the European non-national market share in Switzerland is around 25%, so it is quite high compared to other countries.
What is your relation with the neighbouring countries?
Being such a small territory means that we usually have to work in close collaboration with French, German, Austrian or Italian distributors to release our films. One of the main challenges we face is that most of the times we don’t really have the capacity to choose our release dates, because we have to coordinate with our bigger neighbours. For example, we can’t release our films before France, but if we are too late after them, we also miss their promotion. It’s very important for us to be day-and-date with the French release of our films. There are a lot of cinemas across the border, so if you have a commercial film in Geneva that you don’t release the same date than France, a big part of your audience will just cross the border and watch it there.
What is the situation with cinema screens? Is it a balanced market?
We have three big cinema chains in the country, but they are almost equal to each other, and then we have independent exhibitors. I would say the market is quite balanced at the moment. We actually have a big diversity of cinemas in Switzerland. Not only in the big cities, but also in the countryside. Apart from multiplexes, we have a strong network of independent cinemas across the territory.
What was the immediate effect of the COVID pandemic for your work?
Apart from our work in distribution, we also own independent cinemas in Geneva, so we have been affected on both sides. All cinemas were closed in mid-March, when we had just released Citoyen Nobel (Stéphane Goël, 2020), a Swiss documentary that was working really well. We had a lot of Q&As scheduled with the director, who was due to come in the following days, but we had to cancel everything. We just tried to survive during this period, but most importantly, to find a way to restart everything after the lockdown. During these months, we have learned that it is really hard to predict what will happen tomorrow. Everything is changing all the time, so we have to focus on the short term.
What kind of measures were implemented to help distributors throughout this period?
In Switzerland, companies could put most of their employees on furlough during the lockdown, and the government covered 80% of their salaries. We still have part of our company on leave because one of our cinemas is still closed. However, this kind of measures don’t cover the money we have spent on P&A for films that couldn’t be released during this time. What we need now is some incentive to release films in the coming months.
What about measures on a European level?
In the few weeks after the lockdown, we went to MEDIA with Europa Distribution and presented a series of proposals regarding the Selective and Automatic schemes, in order to help distributors get through this situation. We did the same with the Swiss Ministry of Culture, where they understood the situation and made the changes really quickly. Meanwhile, in Brussels, they said it was impossible to change a call that was already published. The goal of these schemes is the circulation of European works, and that is exactly what we are missing now. It’s quite frightening to see that, at the moment, there is absolutely nothing that could have a major impact to support the circulation of European films. Most distributors are relying on the national state funds and film agencies, but these are mostly supporting distribution and exhibition for national productions. I’m afraid that European non-national films will have some difficulties in the coming months because the main support schemes have not been corrected during the crisis.
What has been the impact of cinemas reopening in the country? What are the numbers compared to last year?
In Switzerland, cinemas reopened on June 8. The results were fine, in the sense that people came back, but the figures are really low compared to a normal situation. The first week after lockdown the market was down 80% compared to the year before. To be honest, last year we had a bank holiday, it was really rainy and we had a lot of successful films from Cannes such as Dolor y Gloria (Pedro Almodóvar, 2019). However, after four weeks, the box-office is still 70% down compared to the same period last year – which were already the worst weeks of the year!
Are you planning on releasing films yourself? If so, what kind of titles?
We don’t have many new films in the coming weeks. For most of the titles we bought before the lockdown, we have to wait for the release date in France, where cinemas reopened weeks later. Distributors have postponed most of their bigger films, because it is too risky to release now. I decided to bring back to the theatres my Swiss documentary, Citoyen Nobel. The film was really successful before the lockdown, but now the results are quite poor. Looking at the quality and the figures we had for similar titles in the past, I think we would have made 3 times more admissions without the pandemic. Apart from that, we will be releasing a small Argentinian documentary called Que sea ley (Juan Solanas, 2019), which was previously scheduled for March. It is a small film that we really like but we know it has very limited commercial potential. There are almost no films being released at the moment, so we might have a good opportunity. We will also release Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser, 2019) in the German-speaking side. The film was a big hit in the French part, so now we can choose the release date for the rest of the country.
How are you dealing with the restrictions in cinemas?
Restrictions are not that problematic, especially during the summer season. We only have to block every other seat in the theatres, meaning that if everybody comes alone we still have 50% of capacity. However, people come in couples or groups, so we can go up to 70% with a maximum of 300 admissions. We don’t normally have those numbers, so it is not a real concern. The main problem is that we have to clean everything between screenings, making sure that the audience doesn’t cross paths when coming in and out of the theatre. This forces you to make a schedule with enough time between films, meaning we can’t have as many screenings as usual.
What has been the most successful campaign you had for a European film?
Our market is too small to do everything from scratch, so a lot of times we use the promotional materials made by our neighbours. Apart from that, we usually try to work with associations. For instance, for 120 BPM (Robin Campillo, 2017), we worked with LGBT groups, organising a big campaign during the Gay Pride. For us, the most important thing is to have the film crew coming over to do the promotion. This is the most effective.
Before the lockdown, we had a small Belgian documentary called My Name Is Clitoris (Daphné Leblond & Lisa Billuart Monet, 2019), which was very special. In this case, we didn’t like the Belgian poster so we decided to make it ourselves. In the end, the film was not very successful in terms of numbers, but we really enjoyed working on it. Often there is more work to do with smaller films, when you don’t have much money to spend, than with big ones, when you only have to decide where to spend it.
How do you usually approach the promotion of your titles?
We are always looking for creative ways to release our films. Film distribution is by essence something innovative because the product is always different. Imagine having a restaurant and changing the menu, the staff, the decoration and your target customers every month. All this with strong competition from other restaurants around you, and with a product that is also changing all the time. Sometimes you have good food and sometimes the product is not that fresh. That’s basically how film distribution works. It’s a really interesting job, but most of the time it is very underrated. People don’t really understand what we do, so when a film turns out to be a success it’s never thanks to us, but when it is a flop then we didn’t do our job. There are so many films produced and released every year, that not all of them can be a success.
What is the usual repartition of income between the different revenue streams – theatrical/DVD/VOD etc.?
It depends on the film. For an arthouse title like Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015), the repartition was 72% for theatrical, 5% for DVD, 7% VOD and 16% for TV. For smaller films, TV becomes more important, while for some commercial titles VOD can go up to 20-30% of the revenue. An average for the last 5 years would be: theatrical 65%, DVD 5%, VOD 9% and TV 21%. VOD took a big part of the DVD business, but most of our turnover is made through theatrical and TV, and this hasn’t changed in 20 years.
The problem with VOD is that we never have the whole picture. With cinemas, it is much easier to understand the situation. You know exactly how many films are released and how many admissions they make. For VOD there is too much opacity. You can see how many films are on a platform, but the real figures are quite obscure.
So how do you think windows will evolve over the next few years?
Nowadays, everybody in the EU is dreaming about the Digital Single Market, and they look at us as the “old world”. The general opinion is that young people prefer VOD and cinema audiences are growing old, so we should all focus on digital now. Going back to the analogy with restaurants, that is like saying the future is only delivery and fast food, because young people prefer to go to McDonald’s. I think that is exactly what happens with cinemas and VOD. As you grow older, you discover new things and develop your taste. I still don’t see a real VOD market for arthouse films and I believe theatrical will continue leading the way.
What brought you to distribution and what keeps you motivated?
When I was a teenager, I won a fidelity card for a cinema and started watching a lot of films. At first, it was mainly big American blockbusters, but then I discovered all different kinds of films. It was basically the passion for cinema what brought me to this business, and it is still what drives me now. I also find it really interesting to combine the distribution and exhibition sides. As a distributor, I’m only releasing 12-15 films every year. There are a lot of titles that I like but I can’t buy, whether because it is sold to other distributors, because it is too expensive for us or because it is something that doesn’t fit in our line-up. Therefore, I really like to be able to defend those films in my cinemas and to have the possibility to connect with the audience.
How should tomorrow look in your view?
I’m quite convinced that once this is all over, people will come back to the cinemas. We “only” have to make sure that independent theatres and distributors will still be there, otherwise, it will take decades to build everything back.