By Jesús Silva
We sat down with Luis Apolinario, General Manager and co-founder of Portugal’s Alambique, to discuss the situation of the Portuguese market for independent film distribution. Apolinario points out the necessity to address the structural problems hindering the Portuguese market, such as the serious lack of independent screens, while asking for more flexibility in terms of the different support schemes, both on a national and European level.
How did the company start, and what is your editorial policy?
My partner Hugo Lopes and I founded Alambique in 2009. I had worked in two other distribution companies before, and I always wanted to try a different approach. We started with very few resources, which kind of forced us to commit to the strategy we had in mind: we decided to focus on titles that other companies were not looking for. As you can tell from our catalogue, we have a lot of first and second features. We have always tried to identify new voices we wanted to follow. We have almost the entire work from directors such as Pablo Larraín, Mia Hansen-Løve, Ruben Östlund, Asghar Farhadi, … Our catalogue has a big share of European titles, but we look for good films from all over the world. Obviously, when you look at the percentages, you have to consider there is also public support for the circulation of European titles, such as the MEDIA Programme and other national support schemes, which play a crucial role.
What are the main challenges of the Portuguese market for the distribution of independent films?
We are a small country, with around 10 million people, and the market keeps shrinking. Almost all independent theatres in Lisbon are closed now, which means we have to be much more careful about bringing up new directors or trying to work with smaller films. There was a very important exhibition company that closed around 10 theatres in the last decade. The situation nowadays in Lisbon is so critical that we have just two single-screen theatres for independent releases.
On the other hand, considering the figures from 2019, it is important to notice that one big telecom company [NOS] controls 70% of the distribution market and 60% of the exhibition side. On top of that, they own premium TV channels, which are the only ones buying films on a regular basis. This is basically a monopoly. One of these pillars would be already too much, but when you control distribution, exhibition and premium TV, your decisions control the market.
We must admit that we have a huge problem in Portugal. We have many issues to solve, but we need to fix the structure first. It is crucial to reopen some of the theatres we’ve lost over the years, but this is very difficult nowadays since the real-estate prices in Lisbon are completely crazy. It’s not the best time to put your company at risk to open a theatre, in a moment when you don’t even know if cinemas will be allowed to operate normally, or how audiences will react. I’m pretty convinced that this situation with the pandemic will last longer than we thought, even with the vaccine. But we need to work on this because the situation is too serious … We need to fix the market in the long term.
What’s your view on the role of a film distributor? What do you think is the added value of your job for the market?
When I look back to the history of our company, I think we have been very creative in our line-up and marketing approach. We have a fresh and innovative attitude towards all the agents in the market, including the audience. We are always trying to bring up new ideas. It’s not easy to implement them in this environment, but I think this is the key. Whenever people talk about Alambique, they know it means something new.
How do you usually approach the promotion of your films? What do you think is the secret ingredient of a successful promotional campaign?
I must admit that our market is so small and complicated, that I can hardly think of titles where local marketing made the difference. And that goes for all companies. You have different examples of successes and failures, but not a particular case study on how it works. My theory is that the market shrunk so much that we don’t have a minimum critical mass. And without that all the investments and ideas are always too small …
Although it is not exactly marketing, I’m really proud of our parallel label, Cinema Bold, which we launched a few years ago. Through this label, we have released titles that were impossible to distribute in Portugal with a conventional strategy. We created a new approach based on simultaneous releases in theatres, VOD and DVD. We also try to organize premieres in special venues such as gardens, bookshops and other places that have some connection with the topic of the film. For example, for Walk with Me (Marc Francis & Max Pugh, 2017) we had a meditation premiere in a garden with local experts on the theme. With Kedi (Ceyda Torun, 2016), the Turkish film about the stray cats in Istanbul, we worked with local associations and organized a premiere with more than 2 thousand people. The film was a huge success in the DVD market too, at a time when the DVD was already dying. We have built a very interesting catalogue of almost 30 films with this brand.
On average, what is the split of income for your company in terms of windows? How is it evolving?
It was incredibly stable during the first decade, but it started to change recently. The situation varies from year to year, especially when you have a film like Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019). Almost since the beginning, we have a very straightforward way to understand our income in terms of windows: 33% comes from theatres, 33% from DVD and 33% from TV and VOD. We never tried to control these splits, they simply happened.
DVD has been shrinking in recent years, but even in 2018, it held up to those numbers. However, these figures are not that easy to read because we also made a big investment in our DVD library. We have a wonderful catalogue with around 100 classic and Portuguese films. These titles still work on DVD, even better than recent films. We always had a very proactive and strategical approach to this market. Sadly, we have only one store controlling 100% of the DVD retail market [local Fnac]. If they decide to close the DVD section, the market would die immediately. There is no other option. I can understand the figures from the DVD can surprise, but the main point is that we lack admissions. A company with our catalogue should have a much bigger share of revenues coming from cinemas, but the theatrical share is too thin.
Were there any measures put in place, at a national or European level, to support distributors during the pandemic?
There was some general support for the economy. At the moment, our company is partially on lay-off, so the government is paying part of the salaries of our staff. As for distribution, there was just a small increment in the local support, but nothing else. In the begging of April, they announced a new support scheme for all the cultural sector, but the rules are so unfit for the reality of a distribution company that most probably we will not apply.
Actually, last year we received less support than ever from all the different schemes, both local and European. We have a lot of money to collect from the MEDIA programme, but everything is stopped now. In terms of Selective support, we have already released some films, but we have to wait for other countries to release them as well in order to get the support. As for the Automatic call, we have acquired some titles that are not yet classified as European because they haven’t been released yet, and we can’t use the grant. It is a bureaucratic limbo. They must find a way to unlock this money. We know it’s the contract, but we are living in a pandemic. There must be a force majeure clause. We can’t forget this is a business. We have salaries to pay and people who trust us to keep paying the rent.
How did you start working in film distribution, and how should tomorrow look in your view?
It was just a coincidence. I graduated in Economics, but I was not a fan of the idea of going to work for a bank. I always thought I could apply my skills in a cultural institution. At the time, I was more a reader than a cinephile, but I already had a good personal relationship with films. And then the opportunity came, and I started working on the VHS department of a distribution company. That’s how it started, and I love what I do. It’s such an opportunity to work in this environment, having the possibility to bring films to the audience.
As for the future, we are living difficult times, but I believe cinema will survive. I’m going to tell you my personal experience during these months: I have been locked inside my home for almost a year. When I had some free-time I decided to make something I had never done before: watching TV series. I admit it is entertaining, and there is some really good stuff out there, but it is not cinema. A film is something that touches you in a way that other formats don’t. Now there is a lot of new competition and space for creativity, but films will always be there.