Releasing documentaries in times of pandemic. Europa Distribution’s Case Studies at IDFA 2021

By Jesús Silva


After the hiatus imposed by the pandemic in 2020, which led to the cancellation of many professional meetings and events in the film industry, Europa Distribution came back to IDFA for the third time this year, renewing its partnership with the Festival’s Industry Talk programme. On November 22nd, some of the association’s members gathered at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam for a series of case studies on the release of documentary films. The meeting took place as a hybrid event, with members from the network joining remotely, eager to discuss some of their “successes and misses” in the documentary field during the last two years.


Hana Kijonka, marketing specialist at Aerofilms (CZ), got the ball rolling by sharing their release strategy for Gunda (2020) by Viktor Kossakovsky, a “courageous film” that offers “a view into the life of farm animals”. Strongly targeted at arthouse cinemagoers, vegetarians/vegans, and people concerned about environmental issues, Aerofilms chose the media partners and influencers for their marketing campaign according to these interests, achieving a strong presence in specialized media. The marketing materials relied strongly on the visuals, with different promotional videos including quotes from internationally renowned filmmakers who praised the film.      Gunda was released in the Czech Republic on 12 August 2021, soon after cinemas reopened in the country, in the hope that people would return to the theatres —as it happened the previous year—. “We had to find a date between the reopening of cinemas and before the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where we had many titles already scheduled”. As Kijonka pointed out, “this was a great film to watch on the big screen”, so Aerofilms decided to keep the theatrical window for over a month. Unfortunately, arthouse cinemas struggled with low attendance at that stage, as their regular audience didn’t return to cinemas as expected, which led to modest numbers in terms of admissions. On 26 September, the film was released on their own streaming platform (Aerovod), where it did comparatively good for a VOD release.


Moving up north, Fredrik Scholze (Arthaus, NO) contributed remotely talking about his particular experience with Gunda in Norway —one of the co-producing countries—. The film opened on 26 March 2021, when many theatres in the country were still closed or with very limited capacity. Scholze explained that, even though many other films in this period were released with a very short theatrical window, and then jumped straight to VOD, Gunda was “clearly made for the big screen”. Therefore, Arthaus decided to go the opposite way, making the theatrical window longer than usual and giving cinemas “time to build the crowd”. Apart from a strong social media campaign, they also decided to use a substantial part of the marketing budget to support local cinemas with their promotion. Scholze also highlighted the difficulty of organizing live events at this time, and also finding the right approach when communicating the film’s main themes, trying not to “scare” audiences more disconnected from the topics. Another key element of the campaign was the producers’ involvement and the collaboration with the farm where the film was shot. In the end, considering the difficult circumstances, Arthaus was satisfied with the results of the film, which did “pretty good compared to other films released this year, even major fiction titles”, stated Scholze.


Following some of their previous experiences with music documentaries such as Amazing Grace (Alan Elliott, 2018) or Whitney (Kevin MacDonald, 2018), Mirva Huusko from Nonstop Entertainment (SE) opened up about the challenging release of Billie (2019) by James Erskine, a documentary about celebrated jazz singer Billie Holiday. The film had its national premiere at the Tempo Documentary Festival in March 2020, and was planned to be released soon after in cinemas, “but then the pandemic came and things changed rapidly across the world, so our release was put on hold”. After a failed second attempt for a Christmas release that year, the film finally opened in theatres on 16 April 2021, when Swedish cinemas were operating under the strict 8-person rule, which limited capacity in venues to 8 people per session. “Billie became a much smaller release than we were initially anticipating, and it was heavily influenced by the pandemic”. However, the lack of competition at the time worked in their favour, and the few cinemas that were open showed great interest in screening the film. Nonstop Entertainment also joined forces with another local distributor, TriArt, to launch the film on their arthouse platform as a PVOD release. Even though the overall numbers were lower than expected, the film had a long run in cinemas and a relatively good performance. As a curiosity, The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Lee Daniels, 2021), a fiction biopic on Billie Holiday released in June, made fewer admissions than Billie in Sweden, with the latter benefiting from the media attention of the former.


The release of I am Greta (2020) by Nathan Grossman in Switzerland was another “bold move”, according to Christina Hug from Filmcoopi (CH). The film, which focuses on environmental activist Greta Thunberg, was distributed in Swiss cinemas on 16 October 2020, when audiences were still too afraid of the virus to go to the theatres. However, there was “not much of a choice”, as Hug explained. The theatrical window for the film was extremely short because one of the co-producers was a German TV station operating in the territory, which had already scheduled the free TV premiere. On top of that, the Covid situation “deteriorated drastically” in October and November, and the country went into a second lockdown, cutting the film’s theatrical potential. “The film was hit in full force by the pandemic”, regrets Hug. On a brighter note, I am Greta was very present in the national media, both mainstream and specialized outlets, thanks to the interest aroused by the protagonist and the recent festival buzz (the film premiered in Venice and was soon after screened at the Zurich Film Festival). Likewise, it managed to attract the interest of many partners, including international environmental organizations such as WWF. On the other hand, Greta’s public figure turned out to be a double-edged sword, as it also generated a significant number of hateful comments during the online promotion of the film. “A polarizing high-profile personality can be a pitfall in social media campaigns”.


Finally, Lara Meyer (mindjazz pictures, DE) and Huub Roelvink (Cherry Pickers, NL) illustrated the differences and similarities in releasing Woman by Anastasia Mikova and Yann Arthus-Bertrand in their respective countries. The Cologne-based distributor had to postpone their release date 3 times due to the ever-changing situation caused by the pandemic, while figuring out new strategies and eventually opting for an online VOD release in April 2021. Although the film did not have a proper theatrical release in Germany, mindjazz pictures implemented a way to share the revenues from the online screenings in solidarity with cinemas. Moreover, many online events were organized in cooperation with partners, most of them held on International Women’s Day. The Dutch distributor also decided to build their release strategy for the film around the same date. “The idea was to launch the film on as many screens as possible on International Women’s Day as an avant-premiere, and then do the proper release afterwards on 12 March”, explained Roelvink. The film had an excellent start on the day, but things in the Netherlands immediately started to change with the spread of the virus, and the campaign soon collapsed. Despite its good performance on VOD, and Cherry Pickers’ attempt to relaunch the film in theatres after the lockdown, it was very hard to revive. “As distributors, we are all aware of the importance of creating momentum for a film. The lockdown really showed this is crucial for a successful release”.


Throughout the meeting, several topics came up that were further discussed during the closing part of the session. One of them was the combination of online and theatrical releases for documentary films, a strategy that is becoming more popular in some countries. Lukáš Meinhart (Artcam Films, CZ) described their approach to these releases as a “marketing tool”, often organizing specific hybrid events to raise awareness of the films and make them more visible, thus contributing to their theatrical run. As Meinhart stressed, it is crucial for them to have feedback from the cinemas and explain their motivation to them. This alternative is less explored in other territories like Norway, where “cinemas would never accept a day and date release”, as pointed out by Scholze. This topic led to other exchanges about the benefits of event releases and organized screenings in unusual locations, of which many members have varied examples. Jonas Pedersen Hardebrant (Doc Lounge, SE) explained that they started organizing screenings in bars, restaurants and other social venues as a way for films to reach audiences and create word-of-mouth. “It is now part of our distribution chain”, in Pedersen words. “For us, alternative places are getting more important”, added Meinhart, “especially in venues associated with the topics of our films”. These and other examples keep showing the resilience of independent film distributors, searching for alternative answers and approaches for their documentary releases, which proved more vital than ever in times of pandemic.