By Jesús Silva
Michel Zana, Head of Distribution of Dulac Distribution, shared his views on the French market and the specific Covid-recovery measures implemented by the local authorities to support the industry during the pandemic. Zana also opened up about the failed proposal of a concerted calendar for distribution after the second lockdown.
Let’s start with an overview of your company’s setup and editorial policy. How would you describe your line-up?
We have three different lines of work. On one hand, we produce two films per year with our company Dulac Productions. On the other hand, we distribute around 10-12 films every year with Dulac Distribution, including the ones we produce. Besides that, we are also exhibitors, operating 5 cinemas in Paris under the label Dulac Cinémas. We combine the three activities to create synergies and to enhance the circulation of our films.
Our line-up features mostly arthouse independent titles, both fictions and documentaries. We aim to discover and promote new talents, so we have been distributing many first features since the creation of the company. We don’t choose films based on nationality, but I would say one-third of our line-up is French, one-third European and the rest is from other territories. Likewise, we have also been releasing some classics such as The King and the Mockingbird (Paul Grimault, 1980), Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch, 1966) or Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961), but this is more specific and related to a particular event, such as the release of a restored version.
What is your opinion on the French market for independent film distribution? What do you think are the main strengths and challenges?
France is the most important European market for theatrical distribution. The French audience is really interested in European arthouse cinema, which is something very particular. It’s partly the result of strong public policies to promote creation, diversity and also co-production with other countries. And also, the protection of theatrical exploitation, with the chronology of media. Besides that, we have great support from the MEDIA Programme for European films. At the same time, the French market is very competitive, with 15-20 films released every week.
How do you think your role as an independent distributor fits in the market? What do you bring to the table?
We are mainly working as publishers, picking films at the script stage — and also some completed works at festivals. It is an advantage for the producers to have a distributor involved very early on the project, especially during the financing stage, when the distributor’s MG means a boost for the project. At the same time, it is also very useful for us because we can follow all the steps of production: casting, shooting, editing, … Then we can build a release plan and a media strategy in accordance with the specificities of each film. Being also exhibitors allows us to enhance the promotion of the films, and also to distribute our titles at a reasonable cost.
Can you share any successful or special promotional campaign that you had for a European film? What was the secret ingredient?
One of the last European projects we had the pleasure to distribute with relative success was the animated film Josep (Aurel, 2020), a French-Spanish co-production. It is a first feature film with a powerful historical subject. After being selected in Cannes, the film was awarded in many festivals, including the European Film Awards. We released it at the end of September 2020, and it made almost 200k admissions. Unfortunately, it only stayed in cinemas for 4 weeks because of the second lockdown, while we could have made at least the double with a regular release.
We had been working a lot during the first lockdown preparing for the release. We organized a big exhibition with 15 artworks of the film in 200 different places, such as castles, libraries, cultural centres and cinemas, explaining how the film was written and created. I would say the secret ingredient was the great flexibility and creativity of our marketing team, which always finds new ways to promote the films.
What is the usual repartition of income between all the different windows? Have you noticed any recent trend?
Theatrical distribution is the first and main window for us, bearing in mind that the results of the theatrical exploitation are decisive for the success of all the other media. Without being too precise, I would say maybe 50-70% of our income comes from theatrical and 30-50% from a mix of TV, VOD and video exploitation.
Of course, we had a bit more demand from platforms and TV when cinemas were closed, but I wouldn’t say there is a specific trend. I feel that our films are not an obvious choice for streamers. It is crucial for us to release them theatrically because we couldn’t recoup our investments on other windows.
How did you benefit from the measures adopted by the French institutions to support the market during these months?
We took advantage of several measures implemented by the government, such as lay-off schemes for our distribution team. We had some funds covering a small part of the revenue loss, and also some specific support concerning cancelled releases due to the first and second lockdowns, where all the money for P&A was already spent. I know many European countries didn’t have this kind of support, so I think it was exceptional.
What was your opinion on the proposal for a gradual and organised reopening?
To be honest, I think it was a big waste of time. We already have a shared calendar that everyone checks when scheduling releases. I didn’t really understand all these discussions. We were supposed to arrange a calendar between more than 70 distributors, all with different films and strategies… From my point of view, the most important decision for a distributor is the release date. There is no way we are going to give this decision away to anyone else, not even the CNC or the médiateur du cinéma (cinema’s mediator). So no, I didn’t believe in a concerted calendar.
What is the situation after the reopening?
At the moment, the French calendar is looking almost like a normal year. Some were saying we were going to face 60 new releases per week, but the truth is that we have around 13-14. We couldn’t have expected an empty market, but I don’t feel it is more crowded either. We couldn’t have done anything else. Of course, new films will come on the calendar, because of the Cannes and Venice film festivals, but still… Everyone was saying it was going to be a catastrophe, with over 400 films coming our way. But all those films are not coming in 2 weeks, they are coming spread in 7 months. It is a regular number of releases for our market.
How did you start working in the distribution business, and what do you think the future holds for the market?
I come mainly from a production background. I spent 8 years in the US, working in different production roles. Then I came back to France in 1995, where I continued producing creative documentaries for TV with Artline Films and SZ Productions. I joined Sophie Dulac in 2003 at Sophie Dulac Productions. At the same time, Sophie became an exhibitor with Les Écrans de Paris (which later became Dulac Cinémas), and at that time I felt it would be interesting to make the connection with distribution, so we decided to open a new branch. In the beginning, the strategy was to produce and distribute our own films, but also to discover new talents which we could produce afterwards. Since 2003, we have distributed more than 140 films.
As for the future, I cannot believe that because of this crisis everybody will sit at home in front of their screens instead of going back to the theatres. I hope we will have chances to rebuild and recover. I wish this crisis could bring positive aspects and new ideas.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Going back to the organised calendar, I think it took all the attention away from the discussions that we really need. In order to overcome this period and to recover, we need long-term financial backing from the CNC, as well as more flexibility on existing funds from the CNC and MEDIA.