The techniques for engaging audiences are already there, say speakers at the Europa Distribution’s panel in San Sebastián

by Elena Lazic


The last two years have proven challenging for theatres, many of which closed down during the height of the pandemic, but also for European films and the distributors releasing them. The myriad challenges they are currently facing — the accelerated rise of streamers during successive lockdowns, cinemagoing habits broken and difficult to rebuild, the effect of reduced theatrical windows on smaller films, to name just a few — have been at the forefront of conversations within the industry. However, the open panel titled “Reconstruction: How to create the spark to reignite the passion of audiences for diverse, exciting and risk-taking European film,” organised by Europa Distribution during the San Sebastián International Film Festival on Monday 19 September, focused instead on possible solutions.

Moderator Michael Gubbins put it plainly in his opening statement: “This isn’t about going back to an imagined Golden Age before Covid ruined everything.” Rather than look at the way things used to be, the distributors selected on the panel have each been dealing with the situation as it is, and coming up with strategies to help their releases of “diverse, risk-taking” European films.

Andrei Agudaru from Romania’s Transilvania Film explained that the unique structure of the company allows it to test ideas of how to reach audiences before fully implementing them. Transilvania film is part of a larger structure that also includes the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF), and much of the distributor’s release strategy for its films is based on the reactions the films are first met with at the festival. Agudaru added that a partnership with social platform TikTok during the last edition of the festival revealed surprising findings: beyond the youth audience expected on the platform, older audiences in their 30s and 40s proved to constitute a big section of viewers. A TikTok competition also unexpectedly attracted people who were generally interested in film, but had little to no knowledge of or interest in the festival in the first place. “I think that by using this approach, we can bring them a little closer to what we’re doing, even if we’re talking about European, arthouse films, and not necessarily what they’re usually watching,” Agudaru added.

The old thinking around social media, where the social platforms essentially were used the same way as “old media” — meaning newspapers, bus ads, etc — therefore seems on the way out, Gubbins noted. The new media is about creating relationships and getting people to feel more involved.

Agudaru added that the company’s unusual structure means that the festival reaches a core audience of festival regulars, while the platform TIFF Unlimited allows it to reach other people, during the festival and beyond. Transilvania Film therefore has great flexibility and experimentation in deciding where to release the films it acquires: some go straight to the streaming platform, while the winners of the main prize and of the audience award at the festival are released in cinemas, because the distributor knows that these will attract cinemagoers.

Anne Vierhout of Cinema Delicatessen, from the Netherlands, explained that distribution and marketing strategies based around this kind of community building are more crucial than ever when it comes to documentary releases. The distributor reaches the “easy target” of doc lovers by simply releasing their films in arthouse cinemas, relying on the cinemas’ own reputation and curation. But in order to reach beyond this audience, the company works intensively on creating a marketing campaign around the topics explored in a given documentary. Cinema Delicatessen begins its research process two to three months ahead of a release to find and target communities that are already interested in the film’s topic, and works with the film’s producers who are already deeply involved with those communities. Vierhout mentioned the successful campaign around Kedi, a documentary about street cats in Istanbul: the film attracted many viewers who were not necessarily interested in documentaries, but were definitely interested in cats.

Katarzyna Orysiak-Marrison of Poland’s Gutek Film concurred with her two colleagues, explaining that the company’s method is a combination of those explored by Transilvania Film and Cinema Delicatessen. “You no longer have any medium that targets everybody”, she said, talking about the fragmentation of audiences into bubbles, according to niche interests. Since the pandemic, big chunks of the company’s core audience of film lovers have been disappearing, forcing Gutek Film to find new audiences. Although the distributor works mostly on fiction films, like Cinema Delicatessen it looks for communities that already care about a given film’s topic, establishing partnerships with organisations or institutions around these topics and essentially marketing their releases to these organisations’ existing audience or fanbase.

Orysiak-Marrison emphasised the importance of this approach in reaching younger audiences, who look for films that touch on their interests, and are also very present on social media (beyond Facebook and Instagram), which remains the best way to get through to them. To this point, Vierhout counteracted that in her experience, the last hurdle to overcome in reaching younger viewers was the cost of the cinema ticket. She talked about the release of a documentary about skaters which successfully attracted a youth audience to the premiere, where they got to meet a star of the sport, but failed to actually bring this targeted audience into the cinemas: they deemed tickets too expensive for them, and said they could “watch the film online later.” She evoked her frustration at the time: “how did we miss this in our research?”

Marketing expert Ben Johnson, of Danish-based company GRUVI, explained that the drive between the company’s creation of an audience-based data platform for independent cinemas was the belief that “marketing today is broken; most distributors are reinventing the wheel with each film that they’re working on, there’s very little carry over.” The key thing that he has seen come out of the pandemic was that cinemas need to work with distributors, and allow them to take advantage of their audience data — to learn about audiences’ interests, and their behaviours. Instead of the usual marketing campaign — which Johnson sums up as “throwing money into the ether, crossing fingers and hoping for the best” — the idea is to use the data from cinemas and from online booking systems to build campaigns suited to audiences’ interests and behaviours.

Gubbins pointed out that this is the thinking behind many other industries already, and that cinema is merely behind the curve. Johnson replied that certain territories are racing ahead of Europe in those terms: in Japan, the PANDA system brings together the data from all the cinemas, which distributors can then use; while in France, online marketing is years ahead of other countries because trailers used to be banned on television.

The pandemic also emphasised the need to make the most of the data that can be gleaned from online ticket sales, which have boomed in that period. There is a need to look into the detail of how people use social platforms and communicate online, which is what Gruvi Analytics focuses on: “to communicate with someone who’s on Reddit is a very different thing from communicating with someone who’s on Snapchat.”

Gubbins pointed out the “psychological” difference between trying to turn more people into cinephiles, and trying to grow audiences by targeting non-cinephiles’ interests. Vierhout added that it was very difficult to convince cinemas to change their mindsets in this way, because their old computer systems allow for little flexibility, and because even if the distributor provides all the material for a daring campaign, cinemas do not always follow suit. Orysiak-Marrison explained that for these reasons, Gutek Film is working more closely with cinemas that the company knows will actually use their assets and work with them on the marketing campaign.

A professional from the audience pointed out the obvious hitch in this new mindset: it used to be that going to the cinema was the experience. Vierhout answered that distributors — sadly! — cannot force people into the cinemas; and that they could only do so much to make sure that people know what the film is, when it comes out and where. Cinema Delicatessen does however try to get feedback from the cinemas about the audience that did come to see the film, though this process isn’t smooth — which is where a company like Gruvi could come in. Johnson explained that their approach with independent film was to identify the cinemas that are important for independent distributors, the unions, the festivals, etc, and explain to them what they can gain by pooling their data and working together.

Transilvania Film’s Agudaru pointed out that the data from the festival however does not necessarily translate to year-round releases, which come out in arthouse cinemas but also to multiplexes: “How can we bring our usual audience to the big cinema chains?” The idea that only the most spectacular films are worth seeing on the big screen is persistent, Gubbins added. But the effect of word of mouth and the sense of urgency around a release is not to be ignored, Vierhout pointed out, citing the cinema release of the documentary The Cave, a sad and serious film which did better than expected precisely thanks to the buzz around it. Orysiak-Marrison concurred, mentioning research which singled out word of mouth and the opinion of friends and family as the major drive behind people’s cinema attendance.

It’s a phenomenon that does not always get the chance to be realised however, with releases that rarely stay in cinemas long enough for such a buzz to be generated, Gubbins mentioned. This issue particularly affects documentaries, which have always taken longer to garner attention, according to Vierhout. Festival screenings and previews however do allow the word-of-mouth process to get started long ahead of a release, said Orysiak-Marrison, which is crucial for smaller films.

A question from an audience member returned to the core of the problem: how to make people, especially young people, enjoy and understand the value in going to the cinema at all? Could distributors get involved in film education in that way? Vierhout replied that there is a large film education system in the Netherlands, from festivals and cinemas themselves, where some of the company’s documentaries are shown to large numbers of children, who then discuss the film amongst themselves. Orysiak-Marrison echoed Vierhout in talking about Poland’s extensive initiatives to reach younger audiences, chief among them the Kids Kino Film Festival: “But we’ll see if they’ll be willing to see films for adults when they grow up.” Agudaru mentioned the Transilvania International Film Festival’s new initiative working with high schools.

Distribution and publishing must therefore be seen in a broader context, Gubbins concluded. What was clear from the panellists’ contributions was that a shift was necessary from a relationship with audiences where marketing addressed a homogenous group, to a strategy that seeks to create relationships with known audiences. Distributors can build their campaigns around the elements that are in the film itself, better to reach people who already care about those elements. Many are already doing so, but this work is very labour intensive, and the connection between distributors and exhibitors is not always strong enough to ensure that it is done most effectively. The techniques for engaging audiences are already there; they simply require more collaboration. The alternative, where distributors and exhibitors do not take risks and focus on big movies that are guaranteed to bring audiences in, would be “a slow death.”

Johnson concluded the panel by calling for even wider, worldwide collaboration: “the behaviours model internationally.” Distributors from different territories working on the same film could save time and energy by exchanging notes and comparing their strategies — which is precisely what the distributors attending the Europa Distribution’s workshops are doing on a regular basis.


Note: the open panel was recorded and is available to watch here.


With the support of the Creative Europe MEDIA Programme of the European Union