By Joachim Soudan
René Wolf walks us through the Eye Film Museum and his work as distributor and curator for the institution, his love for new and old releases, extreme films and the importance of the big screen. He shares his fears about the fierce competition between films that might happen at the reopening of the cinemas, and his hopes for the European cinema heritage.
Can you describe for us the editorial line of the Eye Film Museum?
The Eye Film Museum is a distributor but also an exhibitor, a film archive, an exhibition space, a film museum and many more. We distribute classics, restorations and new films, often related to thematic programs or exhibitions.
Since we are a subsidised institution (about half of the overall annual budget of Eye is subsidy), we have to refrain from any form of competition. This means that for new films, we wait and see if they are not picked up for the Benelux market by other distributors. If we think the film is worthwhile being seen on the big screen we try to buy it.
Every summer, we present the Previously Unreleased program in our venue, which has become a brand. It’s the main vehicle for buying new films and we present eight to ten new titles each year. In the past we acquired a new or spare 35mm print for our archive collection and since we often got it in connection with theatrical rights, we organized a tour with it before the print went to the archive. For the upcoming year, we will release titles such as: I Never Cry (Piotr Domaleswski, 2020), Uppercase Print (Radu Jude, 2020) and To The Moon (Tadhg O’Sullivan, 2020). We also like to follow directors: as the most recent film of Tsai Ming-liang, Days (2020) was not distributed in Benelux, we bought it to show it in the program. We already have a lot of his films in our archival collection so it was an extra stimulus to buy this one.
We select films that are interesting both in form and content. We can select a rather slow title or a very experimental title. We are not looking for harmless films. We would rather select extreme films that provoke mixed reactions, films that are both very much liked and disliked. When they have reviews in newspaper, I prefer films with 4, 5 stars… or only 1, rather than the 3-star reviews.
Can you share with us your point of view over the Benelux market and its challenges?
What’s very good in the Dutch market is we have a good infrastructure. Even in smaller cities, you have an arthouse cinema subsidised by the local government. So even difficult movies are seen on fifteen to hundred screens. It also means that in places where there are only commercial cinemas, some volunteers or group of people will rent it to show an arthouse film.
The difficulty comes when you look at Benelux as one territory. The countries are very different, both in infrastructure and in terms of audience. In Belgium they are partly oriented towards France and huge differences exist within this territory, such as the language difference. So when you buy Benelux rights, you have to deal with France and you need both French and Dutch subtitles. That’s why we often buy rights for theatrical release and for the Netherlands only. When we buy rights for Benelux, it’s often for the classics. And sometimes – especially when we acquire more than only theatrical rights – we collaborate with a Belgian distributor, such as Lumière or Cinéart. In those cases, they will do the Belgian theatrical release and take care of the home entertainment for the whole Benelux, since theatrical is our core business.
As a subsidised institution what are your specific challenges, on the commercial point of view and how do you conceive your promotional campaigns?
We often buy films in relation to our exhibitions or special programs and that helps to launch the national release. With a stand-alone title it’s more difficult to get a lot of attention, especially in this highly competitive market with a lot of releases every week. If there is a connection to a retrospective or a thematic program or an exhibition, we are assured the release will get more attention and free publicity. We like to choose challenging titles and often have rather unknown ones without any big names as director or stars. With the Previously Unreleased program, the small titles within the selection will benefit from it, it’s assured to get a lot of attention. Same goes of course for the classics that are linked to the thematic program.
For example, we re-released all the Andreï Tarkovski’s titles in 2019. We had a big retrospective with all his films but we also had a huge exhibition curated in collaboration with Tarkovki’s son and we acquired the documentary he made about his father. Everything came together. That’s ideal: an exhibition, a special program, releases of both old titles and new titles, and everything being connected. A lot of the people who were familiar with the titles and had seen them in the analog-era were willing to come to see them (again) and only needed to know they were back in the cinemas. Therefore, our publicity campaign was directed to a new and younger audience that never had the opportunity to watch his films on the big screen. So we made new, contemporary artwork directed to a young audience and promoted a lot through social media.
On your own scale, what do you consider a success for a new European release?
It really depends; your success is always relative. Every film that is able to make back the investment is a success. It can be even less than 1.000 admissions, if it’s a highly experimental film, for instance, but for other titles, more expensive or with bigger appeal, we aim at a bigger share. It is also related to the kind of title, not only the investment. With some of the classics we buy, we aim for 10.000 admissions, and that is considered a success.
In recent years the more successful releases were the re-release of Les Uns et les Autres (Claude Lelouch, 1981) which did much more than 22.000 admissions in the Netherlands only. The film didn’t get much attention from the press, but it had not been available with Dutch subtitles for a long while. We didn’t need great reviews because the audience itself was eager to see the film again on the big screen. That was a really huge success. I am also particularly happy with Shirley (Gustav Deutsch, 2013), which you can consider as a very experimental and extreme film, but we did almost 10.000 admissions with it, so for that title that’s a huge number.
We are a non-profit institution, so we reinvest a lot. It’s balanced: when a title makes more than 10.000 admissions, it enables us to pick a film where we can afford to make 1.000 admissions or less. And since almost all the titles are also screened in our own venue, we can keep the risk rather low.
Can you tell us how you see your job and how it helps the distribution of European movies?
I always have the different tasks of programmer, distributor, and curator in my mind. When we buy a film it’s also because we want the film to be part of our archive collection. Otherwise, only Dutch films and co-productions automatically come in our archive. So distribution is also a tool for safeguarding films we want to have in our archival collection. That’s important. I also buy the films with the program in mind. Or it can be the other way around: I try to see if the program is enabling or asking for a distribution title that we want. Since we have films in our archival collection, when they are restored, whether by ourselves or by others, it can be the reason to buy it for distribution. So you could say everything comes together.
I think it is important there is a distributor that can afford to look at titles made by unknown directors with little resources, that otherwise wouldn’t make it to the big screen. Because it will help the fame of the title and the director, and it will help him/her make a new film in the future. That’s our contribution and it’s something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Even big stars started with a small and low-budget movie, and it was very important that the film was picked up and shown in many places and not only in festivals, but also bought for distribution. It helped him/her make his/her next movie. The Eye Film Museum often bought films from directors that are now considered really well known and will easily find a commercial distributor to release their new films.
Furthermore, in terms of classics, it’s very important to say that restorations are not made only for home entertainment or streaming channels but are to be seen on the big screen. In a lot of countries, you see that there are not so many classic titles that make it to theatrical distribution, but instead only get to festivals and/or event screenings, so our work as distributor really helps to keep the European cinema heritage alive and make it more and wider visible.
How do you deal with the different release rights and how has it evolved recently?
For some titles we are only able to buy theatrical rights. Like for the studio titles we do re-releases, such as Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), where the only rights available were theatrical rights. When we can, we buy all rights, like for Tarkovki’s titles or Béla Tarr’s. But we consider ourselves, and our know-how, related to theatrical release. So when we do all-rights, we seek partners for Belgium and home entertainment parts.
This year we launched our VOD platform called Eye Film Player. It has content related to our archival collection. With Previously Unreleased, we often acquired rights for a limited time, one or two years, so now that we have launched this VOD platform, there are titles we acquire for the second time with VOD rights, many for Netherlands only, and some for Benelux. It’s important to us that the audience can also see the program’s history and past selections’ films.
The Eye Film Player is not a subscription platform, some of the restored films from our archival collection and shorts are free and some titles have a rental fee for 48 hours. We want this platform to differ a lot from the others. The content is really special, really different and unique for some part. Of course, we hope it will also be profitable in a way, but the most important thing for us, our main task, is to make this archive collection more accessible to the Dutch (and Benelux) audience. But as I said, we are mainly a theatrical distributor and VOD has not been compensating last year’s loss of income from theatrical box-office.
How were you affected by the Covid-19 crisis? Did the state put any Covid-19 related recovery measure in place to help distributor compensate the loss of income?
We have had three lockdowns, between mid-March and June 2020, a very small one in November, and since mid-December we are closed… And I don’t expect us to reopen before the end of May or first half of June. Looking back to 2020, the period between June and November was a rather good time for our kind of movies. The absence of commercial content really benefited to small titles and classics. Even though the cinemas had reduced capacity, the number of screenings for those titles was bigger than ever before.
There is general state support for staff costs and loss of revenues. That goes for most distributors, but we can’t apply for that. The Eye is the only film museum in the country and we are part of the basic infrastructure for art, so we got an overall support and it helped cover the cost and loss of income so far.
We had to postpone quite a few of our releases, which implies delayed revenues. What I fear for the near future is that so many films will be released at the same time because they have been on shelves for half a year: the competition will be really fierce. There will be simply too many films to be released and I think a lot of films will not make the revenues they should make.
As a distributor we usually try to choose the release date, and make sure there are not too many arthouse movies released on the same day, but the longer it lasts, the more difficult it will get to coordinate in a good way.
The Previously Unreleased program is in summer. These months are normally relatively slow in term of new releases, but this year it will be really different. We will do it anyway but I expect more competition than for any other summer. When it comes to the classics, as they are connected to thematic programs, when we postpone the whole program, we delay the releases of these classics as well.
Anyway, I am also very positive the audience will come back as soon as the cinemas reopen. That’s the other side of things. There will be a lot of appetite for movies!
On a more personal note, what brought you to distribute/curate films?
I started to work at the Film Museum as a civil servant. I had to do my military service and instead I did civil service in this cultural organization. After one and a half year they hired me for a regular job. I didn’t leave the organization since. I started at publicity and became involved with programming, and then I also became part of the distribution department and in charge of the acquisitions. I had different positions within the company through all those years. Before that, I also did some volunteer work at a local film house with both old and new films, so I always had that interest in arthouse movies and distribution.
Anything else you would like to tell us?
I think it’s really important to be involved both in films from the past and new films. What I think is still lacking in the system of European subsidies is a support scheme for the European film heritage. You can apply for new titles, production, European exhibitors, but there is no support for restoration of European classics and there is no support for distribution of European classics either. A really fruitful European cinema also celebrates its heritage and history. I can’t emphasize enough on how important that is.