On 19 February, the event hall of the Berlin’s Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation hosted a panel titled “Surfing the Waves: Audience Building in a New Period of Changes,” organized by the European Film Market (EFM) in partnership with Europa Distribution and moderated by British journalist and analyst Michael Gubbins.
During his opening talk, Gubbins provided a snapshot of some of the key trends in distribution and exhibition, highlighting how things finally seem back to normal. “The Berlinale is hectic and annoying, as I remember,” he joked.
Gubbins reported that the independent film distribution industry had partially recovered in theaters, but audience levels are still a third lower than before the pandemic. While US-based streaming players remain dominant, new elements “such as the rise of AVOD (Advertising-Based Video on Demand) and FAST (Free Ad-supported Streaming Television) channels” are emerging, suggesting that the ecosystem is becoming more stable. Speaking of TVOD (Transactional Video on Demand), Gubbins added: “Despite being one of the “easiest, most transparent [options], it hasn’t really taken off. Figures from Switzerland have suggested that those numbers are pretty low and reflective of [the state of] the exhibition industry, around 50% down on the pre-pandemic period.” He underscored how the audience behavior is significantly changing, quoting data provided by the French Association of Arthouse Cinemas (AFCAE). The figures show that 30% of French streaming subscribers shifted away from theaters, with the economic crisis also hitting household spend on subscriptions.
On the whole, Gubbins argued that an “emerging ecosystem of cooperation between exhibitors, producers, and distributors,” combined with technological innovation, is helping the industry adapt to these changes.
The mic was then handed first to Noortje van de Sande, the Managing Director, Picl, a Dutch-based platform launched in 2016, “way before the rise of streaming.” The platform enables viewers to watch films on the same day they are released in cinemas, with a portion of the revenue going to a partner theatre. She described Picl’s business as based on a day-and-date model and its evolution came about because of the low availability of certain films in theatres. Despite an initial phase of skepticism, Picl now actively collaborates with 39 theaters nationwide. The platform is also involved in a research project on virtual cinema to explore the opportunities of online exhibition, with a focus on hybrid consumption and release strategies which aim to help distributors and theatres with planning their marketing efforts and maximizing their impact.
The floor was later given to Eduardo Escudero, CEO, A Contracorriente, the Barcelona-based distribution firm. Without mincing his words, Escudero said: “We need to find our consumers wherever they are and, if possible, bring them [back] to the theatres, because they are essential for the future of the independent film industry. All digital ventures are ‘complementary’ – a good one, and we need to take advantage of that flexibility – but we also need to strengthen audience attendance.”
Escudero added that going to the cinema and creating audience loyalty schemes are more cost-effective in creating a brand for the “long tail” of a film. He then highlighted the importance of creating audiences, citing the example of acontra+ (the firm’s own streaming platform), which offers one free ticket every month as part of its subscription price to promote cinema-going. In this sense, Europa Cinemas’ program, Collaborate to Innovate, has also proven to be successful, as it brought audiences together through simultaneous premieres and Q&As in 30 different Spanish cities.
Algirdas Ramaška, director of the Vilnius International Film Festival in Lithuania, admitted that the survival of festivals and other businesses in the industry depends on their ability to adapt and implement new business models. Vilnius, as an example, faced the problem of expensive festival licenses and limited reach. Therefore, the team developed a successful model based on buying the distribution rights of a given title, showing it during the festival, investing in branding and marketing to promote it and later screening it in many theatres nationwide. The exploitation of these films can then continue in other forms, for example, through sales to TV channels and VOD platforms, or through new screenings – including those having educational purposes taking place in schools and prisons.
Agnete Juul, distributor for Camera Film as well as for Copenhagen’s Grand Teatret, stated that attendance in Denmark has been rising again after the various lockdowns. However, Juul explained that Danish theatres are dealing with a much more fragmented audience than before, so they have to work on different online campaigns to intercept a number of market segments. The Grand Teatret’s reputation relies on a wide catalog of high-quality films ranging from “a small Polish film to ‘Tenet’.” The team’s careful approach to curation, she added, is also reflected on the theater’s own streaming platform, operated in conjunction with LevelK.
Before concluding the talk, the panelists touched upon several other topics, including diversity and data sharing. In terms of diversity, the speakers agreed on adopting an all-embracing approach, which includes marketing, programming and education, adding how it can be achieved by taking content beyond the big cities and towards more peripheral locations. Finally, they spoke about data sharing as an important tool to foster collaboration. They noted that sharing key insights can help distributors and cinemas to target specific audience segments with tailored campaigns, and can have a positive impact on both theatrical and online releases.
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