By Jesús Silva
We spoke to Pierre-François Piet, CFO of Ad Vitam, about the main challenges of the French market, building a recognizable brand and the importance of supporting films beyond its theatrical release. Despite the different measures launched by the government and the CNC to support the audiovisual industry, Piet believes the market needs some structural support to ensure the survival of independent distributors, as well as to regulate the gradual reopening of cinemas.
How would you define Ad Vitam’s line-up and editorial policy?
Our line-up is made of arthouse films with wide theatrical potential. We have been operating in the French territory for 21 years, and our editorial policy has developed over time. Currently, we have a mix of French and European productions, as well as some US titles like Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012) or Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014). We release between 12 and 15 films every year. Until now, we could make a living with this model, but we don’t know how the situation will look like after Covid-19. We buy most films at the script stage, but we still acquire around 2-3 titles every year in festivals.
One of the main principles of Ad Vitam is to grow together with our talents. We try to discover new directors and stay faithful to them. That’s the case with Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, two French directors we have been working with from the beginning, or Alice Rohrwacher, with whom we are also co-producing. Ad Vitam is mainly a distribution company, but we have also launched a production branch to work closer with our talents. We want to be more involved and help them make their films in the best conditions.
What do you think are the main particularities and challenges of the French market for independent film distribution?
We have more than 200 million admissions every year, which is huge, and also a lot of cinephiles that like to discover arthouse titles. This is great, and it is also why there is so much competition, especially within our segment. There are many independent distributors operating in France, and we are all looking for the same titles. We all have our specificities, but in the end, we are always searching for smart and interesting films. We all want to be the first ones to find a good story or a new director. Actually, I must say this is one of the qualities that a lot of people find in Ad Vitam. Our Head of acquisitions, Grégory Gajos, is very good at finding new voices, like Alice Rohrwacher, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mati Diop… We are renowned as a good label for young directors that want to start a career.
Another great thing about the French system is that it protects theatrical distribution. The media chronology is something vital for us, and it helps ensure sustainable competition between distributors. The more diversity, the more choices for the audience to find something they want to watch. I think it is a very positive way of making business.
In your opinion, what is the added value of your job as a film publisher?
We have usually referred to ourselves as film distributors, but now we are opting for the term “film publishers”. We are not selling yoghurts, we are dealing with arthouse films, so we have to really understand our titles to sell them properly to the audience. That’s why we try to be involved at an early stage, so we can discuss with scriptwriters and directors in order to understand how to work on their projects. Moreover, our job is not only to distribute films in theatres, it is also to keep them alive. One of my responsibilities in the company is to sell our titles to TV, SVOD, and all the other windows. Some films can disappear rather quickly because there are a lot of titles being released, so our job is to push them and keep them available for the audience.
On top of that, I believe a big part of our added value is our brand, which we have been building for over 20 years. When people recognize the Ad Vitam logo on a film, they know it means something. This is where we feel our job is done. When the brand is established and people say: “I know these guys. They have my same taste, so I want to see their films”.
Could you share with us an example of a successful or special promotional campaign for a European film?
All of our campaigns are going more into digital now. However, we always have to explain to producers that nothing beats a good trailer shown in theatres and a great poster on the streets. For Delete History (Effacer l’historique), the latest effort by Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, we had to be innovative. The release was scheduled for March 2020, so the lockdown forced us to postpone it until the end of August. We couldn’t afford to lose the investment in prints and advertisement twice, so it was a huge challenge. We are talking about a relatively big-budget film with a famous cast, which was meant to be a success in theatres. We had to be confident and make all the efforts to make the film visible, even though we didn’t know if the audience would be there. Eventually, it worked pretty well because we had a great campaign and promotional materials, and also because the directors did one of the most important things when it comes to promoting a film: touring. They attended screenings and discussed the film with the audience, together with the cast. We managed to make it an event film, so it also became an event for the press. We were in the media, the reviews were good, and all this helped the film to become one of the cinematic events of the beginning of the school year, making around 550k admissions in France.
What is the average split of income for your films in terms of windows?
When we have all rights, I would say 70% of our income comes from cinemas. TV and SVOD would come second, with around 15-20%, and the rest would be VOD and home video. Theatrical is still huge, and that means we have a big problem in a year like 2020, when 70% of your usual income goes down to almost zero. We have to find a way to rebalance everything.
Can you give us an overview of the different measures put in place by the government to help distributors during the pandemic?
There were basically two types of measures: On one side, the general support for all companies, including lay-off schemes and compensations for our losses. On the other side, the measures launched by the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée). These were supposed to help those films that were released during the pandemic, by incrementing the automatic funds they get for each ticket sold. It is great, of course, but when a film does zero admissions, it doesn’t make a difference.
They also set up a scheme for the reimbursement of the P&A costs for films that were stopped during the lockdown, which was also very good, but a lot of films were supposed to be released in December, January, February… All those titles won’t be helped in a meaningful way. When theatres reopen, these titles will have to face huge competition, and no promotion has been made. We can’t help films any more, we have to help companies.
What kind of measures do you think are most needed at this stage?
We need some structural help, and also to regulate the reopening of cinemas. We are afraid that, when theatres reopen, there will be fierce competition between titles, and exhibitors will go for the most efficient ones. The price we paid for some films last year was based on the admissions we made at that time. Now, these titles will be released in a new scenario: with limited capacity in theatres, curfew, etc. Meanwhile, there will be a lot of competition, which means we can’t cut on promotion. We know we would lose a lot of money in these conditions, so we have to regulate the reopening of cinemas and release films little by little.
How do you see the future of your business?
I think we will have 2 or 3 very tough years for film distribution. Not only because of Covid-19, but also because the platforms are triggering changes in the market. We have to reinvent ourselves and find the best way to work together. As theatrical distributors, we will only have a future if we manage to get that right. I’m quite confident that there is a future for arthouse cinema because the theatre audience is still there. They are willing to see great films in theatres because they love the experience.