By Jesús Silva
We spoke to Vit Schmarc, CEO of Artcam Films, who shared with us some insight on the situation of independent film distribution in the Czech Republic. Despite the promising results of VOD platforms during the first lockdown, the numbers are going down again while cinemas across the country are closed since mid-October. In the meantime, Czech independent distributors have been fighting hard over the last few months, trying to get proper recognition for their job as an integral part of the audiovisual industry.
How would you describe your company’s line-up and editorial policy?
We are an arthouse distribution company established in the year 2000 by the great producer and filmmaker Artemio Benki, who passed away just a few months ago. From the very beginning, Artcam Films focused on acquiring titles by exciting and visionary authors within independent cinema. We introduced many talents to Czech cinemas, and we are trying to continue with that legacy. Now we are a bit more focused on the documentary field, releasing titles such as Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, 2019), For Sama (Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts, 2019) or Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, 2018). We are also expanding in the territory of national productions, especially first features, so as to support young talents in the Czech Republic. This is our main focus for the year 2021.
Can you tell us a bit more about your other lines of work?
Production is basically the second line of our business. We overtook the projects Artemio was developing, so we are now working on a few documentaries and a very promising first feature. We are not considering stepping into the exhibition business, because the market is pretty much saturated in the Czech Republic. Also, given the circumstances and the repeating lockdowns, it is too risky to make that move. It feels more logical to focus on building relationships with well-established exhibitors that are already present in the market.
Talking about the “bigger picture”, what would you say are the main particularities of the Czech market?
I think the main complexity is that almost every distributor in the country operates its own cinemas, which is pretty unusual in a European context. However, these cinemas are in a way independent, so we can still work with them. In fact, this side of the market is actually quite big, with a lot of small independent theatres spread across the country, supported by the municipalities, as well as the classic multiplex chains.
We are now exploring the territory of the so-called ‘boutique cinemas’, which is the hot topic at the moment. People are demanding something extra, so a few cinemas are profiling in this way, combining gastronomy or coffee with the films. I think this will be the way for the future. Of course, they are also curating their content and organising events, so this is also a challenge for distributors. We have to offer them a good package, not only the films, but also some special content. This is something that we are solving on a daily basis.
How do you see your job as a distributor and film publisher? What do you think is the added value it brings?
I think I like the term “film publisher” more than distributor, because we are not distributing just any product. It is a work of art. We need to work with great care for the individuality of every film. We also need to be actively in touch with the audience, because the films we are distributing are not the obvious pick for the mainstream public. That’s why we are relying on the personal values we add to the films, our personal recommendations. We try to explain to our audience why our films are so special, and why they should take the risk and get out of their comfort zone.
What is generally the taste of the Czech audience?
National cinema is very strong here, and it was further proved this year. Between the two pandemic waves, people were coming to see Czech national films. Big national productions like Havel (Slávek Horák, 2020) or Charlatan (Agnieszka Holland, 2020) were very successful and somehow overcame the deficit of American films. Speaking about independent cinema, we are still fighting hard to expand this segment of the audience. We are talking about maybe 10,000 people that are coming to see this kind of films on a regular basis, and you can reach only part of them. This is an ongoing fight, but thanks to the festivals and the distributors curating the content it is getting better. The behaviour of the audience is changing now because of the pandemic, and I hope they will be more willing to come to see something different from what they can find on their Netflix account.
What was the most special promotional campaign that you had for a European film?
We were really proud of the campaign we did for Honeyland, because it worked within a very limited time frame, just after the first wave in May. It was actually a pretty cheap campaign, launched fully online. We produced a few videos with people that are connected or interested in honey and bees, and it created a beautiful sense of community. The film was like a window into a different world, away from the depressing reality of coronavirus. It is all about the relationship between humans and nature. In the end, the film made 4,000 admissions during the holidays, which is usually a dead period for us, and another 3,000 people saw it on VOD. It was a success and a message of hope.
What is the usual repartition of income between the different windows for your films?
The biggest income still comes from cinemas, around 80% of the total revenue. If you manage to sell a small independent film to TV, then this becomes a pretty substantial part of your income, but it is not usually the case. We heavily depend on theatrical. Of course, when the situation changed this year and all cinemas were closed, the numbers from VOD went through the roof, but it is not something we can rely on. Now it is going down again because people are kind of fed up with it. It was a boom after the first lockdown, when everyone was looking for somewhere to watch films. Now it is more moderate. However, I think it is going to be a growing trend in the future. As for DVD, we don’t even consider it anymore because it is too niche, and our audience is more leaning towards digital.
Can you give us a quick recap on the situation of the pandemic in the country?
As of today, it is pretty simple: Cinemas are closed and we don’t have any clear idea when they will open again. It is a time of big uncertainty for everybody because our government is not very good at clearly communicating what is going to happen, and what are the criteria. This is the biggest problem. We don’t know when the restrictions will be lifted, so we are still wondering. Hopefully, cinemas will open before the end of the year, but to be more realistic, I think it is going to happen in January or February, maybe even later.
How does that affect your calendar of releases? Are you postponing your films or going straight to VOD?
We pushed everything back. We did some VOD previews, but it doesn’t really work for us. Many of our films depend on a big screen. For example, we have Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson, 2020), which is a really cinephile experience that is totally built for the cinema. We have some pressure from festivals and VOD platforms to release it online, but we are totally refusing because it doesn’t make any sense. It should be exhibited on a big screen. For most of our films, we are just waiting for the possibility to show them in the best possible quality, and I’m still willing to wait a few more months for that to happen.
In the meantime, were there any measures put in place to help distributors overcome the crisis?
This is actually a scandal in the Czech Republic because the audiovisual sector, as a whole, wasn’t included in the cultural measures, and it wasn’t included in the business measures either. At first, we were left alone without any help. Thanks to the Czech Film Fund we are getting some support. It is not covering all the losses we suffered during the pandemic, but it will help us to survive in the next few months. There was no direct government help, and I must say it was very frustrating because we had to fight even for the recognition that we are not doing this in our free time. It is not a hobby, it is a big part of the audiovisual industry, which is employing a lot of people.
What about European support?
Of course, it helps to get the MEDIA selective scheme for some films. However, the problem now is that you can only get support when you actually release the films, because it is bound to the sales agents. We acquired an animated feature called The Prince’s Voyage (Jean-François Laguionie & Xavier Picard, 2019), which was supported by MEDIA selective. We spent a lot of money on the promotion campaign, we paid for the dubbing, but now we are waiting because cinemas closed right before it was supposed to be released. And of course, the sales agent is hesitating to proceed with the 1st instalment. They are responsible for it, so they have some concerns about whether we will be able to distribute the film or not. This is something that is happening, and we have to cope with it. As for the Automatic scheme, I am not sure if we will be able to reach the necessary quota with almost 5 months in lockdown, but we certainly hope the MEDIA rules will take into consideration the current situation.
What keeps you motivated and how should tomorrow look in your view?
What keeps me motivated is that it makes sense to be a film publisher. It is rewarding to see that the audience is grateful for what you bring to the cinemas, even in these difficult times. We are trying to stay in touch with our audience and keep them motivated to return back to the cinemas. We have great films that we are very proud of, so we are still trying to keep this communication alive.
As for the future, I still think that cinemas will prevail, but I don’t know in which shape. I believe that for our independent segment the future is not so depressing. People will always demand this kind of stimulus. It is something you can only experience in cinemas. Being next to people, having this direct communication and this special feeling when the lights go dark and the screen lights up. I think this is something sacred. It has survived for many years, and I hope it will survive for many years to come.