Stuart Kemp

Nostradamus Panel 

After her keynote, Johanna Koljonen moderated a lively panel hungry to discuss the film industry’s future in a world of tech giants, funding issues and a clarion call for a complete change in mindset.

Koljonen was joined by Cologne-based head of acquisitions at sales powerhouse The Match Factory Zsuzsi Bankuti, 20th Century Fox Belgium managing director Maud Van de Velde and Belgian filmmaker Hans Van Nuffel, whose credits include Oxygen (Adem).

WORRY BEADS

Koljonen wasted no time in getting the panel started by asking the experts what worries them most about working in the industry right now.

Van de Velde, who has worked in distribution for Fox for seven years with previous positions at Disney and exhibitor Kinepolis, said the current pace of change worries her. “We see things happening, we start to think about solutions, how to tackle them or how we can work with them because not every change is a threat. But it goes so quickly I am afraid that we lose sight because of that.”

Bankuti, who has been in the business for 18 years and spots new talent and content for worldwide distribution, said she feels curious about what is going to happen. “But if you ask me about worries, it’s the old white men. We are old and we have been around for so many years and we come from this background of 35mm print and cinema and we don’t really see how to transfer this experience to other platforms because we are a bit outdated,” Bankuti said. “There should be a new generation with the same passion for the cinema but maybe a different approach to it.”

Not every change is a threat.

Koljonen suggested there are at least some white men who are “super progressive” and who want to forge ahead but Bankuti stuck to her guns about the general lack of progressive thinking.

Van Nuffel, a freelance director and writer in television who has recently dabbled with documentary and also video games, sees the tech companies and “the monopolisation of culture” as a huge threat to diversity in culture.“And the fragmented way we are dealing with that right now is causing most of our problems. There is a protectionist vibe hanging around, a conservative way,” mused Van Nuffel. “I think that way of thinking is not progress.”

TECH GIANTS CAST SHADOW

Referencing Koljonen’s keynote, Van Nuffel said he thought territorial thinking “a thing of the past.”

Most of the tech conglomerates “don’t think that way” and they only operate within the boundaries and laws set in those territories because they have to. “But in the end they make global decisions whereas Europe is so used to this idea of entrenchment, it’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength that you can focus on your own market and create content specifically for that market but on the other hand it also creates little islands and those islands are hard to connect,” Van Nuffel said.

Van de Veldepointed out that some films do travel well. “If I look at the Flemish product we have produced over the last few years, it does travel. The problem is we don’t have distribution structures that go across borders so you have to give it to someone else, But it is interesting to see how they look at it; how they place it in their market for their niche audience.”

Bankuti said she didn’t see Netflix as a conqueror of cinema and that she saw the company as not having niche content but rather as offering TV content. “I think the technical revolution that you can have a cinema at home is much more a competitor than the kind of platforms you can show there,” she noted. “You also mentioned opera, theatre and the circus [in your keynote] but you also cannot compare because those are live shows. You can never trust having a circus in your apartment but you can have a cinema in your flat and I think that’s what we have to work on.”

Bankuti also pointed out that until very recently Netflix hadn’t been forced to contribute to European production whereas the traditional broadcasters have had to for years.

“Even now when they are forced to contribute, they can do it by investing a percentage in the local market or by creating a show worth the same percentage but it’s actually their IP that they can sell back again. So even then there is an irony to it because it will just make them bigger in the end,” said Van Nuffel. “I do think TV series have become more cinematic over the years and there are many more of them. The advantage TV has these days is the fact that it’s binge-able and, like books, you can put it down and come back to it whenever you want. It creates a different kind of viewer.”

PROFILES, DATA AND TIME

Van Nuffel remarked that the competition for people’s time is fiercer than ever before. “These networks are so good at it because they’re run by people who are analytical and who use data mining and analysing your mind. Netflix has 5,000 user-defining different traits,” Van Nuffel said. “They have a user profile that is so specific that it’s really hard to compete here with that kind of information. And unless we start using similar tools I have the feeling we will always fall behind.”

Van de Velde said they did have profiles of cinemagoers now “which makes marketing much more effective” and that they don’t talk about target groups anymore. “We talk about 14- to 24-year- olds, we talk about people liking x or y and we target them. There can be a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old in the same age range so we do use that data. We try to acquire it ourselves and sometimes we work with exhibitors to get those insights. But we do try to use that information for every single movie we release.”

But the data gleaned by tech giants such as Amazon and Netflix is much more accurate and, despite GDPR laws, used mercilessly.

Van de Velde gave the example of not needing to know how to address Van Nuffel specifically but rather her need to know how to address people liking the same things that he does.

Van Nuffel said he has accounts with five services and they know exactly what he wants. “They will present that thing to me exactly at the moment I am most likely to want it because they have found out that as well.”

FIVE YEAR CHANGE TO 2023

When asked how she thought her job will change in the next five years, Van de Velde said the biggest challenge is in marketing and trying to catch up with audiences; shared knowledge will help. “I think we need to work together much more, with exhibition and all the other people in the industry and all the other stakeholders because we need each other at the end of the day,” Van de Velde said. As a self-confessed optimist, she thinks the company will succeed.

“Because we are a major we have a responsibility. We also represent Warner [Bros.] in Belgium too, so we have 40 titles a year. We have, to use a bad word, maybe a little bit more power. We have a responsibility to use it for the whole sector. I will be the first to try and get the smaller players onboard and do it for the whole industry because that’s the only way to succeed.”

For her part, Bankuti will try to continue to change constantly until 2023. “I always have to understand why films are successful, and understand the trends. It is basically changing every year, all of the time. I am very much doing B2B work so I am not really in touch with the audience, which is a problem of course.”

Van Nuffel quickly confessed to having absolutely no idea where the industry is heading. “I saw myself as a filmmaker first before, these days I see myself as a dreamer and a storyteller. I could work in games. I could move internationally, I work with a British screenwriter who I really like. It could be that I am mostly a TV director again – maybe not for broadcasters but for VOD systems. I could be making VR experiences. I’m really into VR.”

DISTRIBUTION AND WINDOW SYSTEM DUE A REFURB?

Five years from now territorial boundaries and even traditional release windows  might have disappeared, according to Van Nuffel. “A few global players will have consolidated more and more and they will run the market. But they will also create opportunities because as big as you can grow the more niche you can go,” he said. “I don’t know if I will like it but I do know it is the reality of things. Content will be accessible by everyone at every point in time for whatever price they are willing to pay and they will find some way to make it profitable.”

So will there be a time when content is available anywhere at any time with no dead zones for audiences to navigate while looking for their favourites? Van Nuffel pointed to the experience of the music industry and how Napster came along but lost control of the market as the tech giants moved in and took over. It happened in the games sector as well. “Piracy was huge from 2002 to 2005’ish and then Steam (a digital games storefront) came up and PlayStation and Xbox did the same thing. Now they have everything at the same time, they have sales, they have all kinds of things to hook you,” Van Nuffel says. “They’re forward thinking because they are new and they can start from scratch.”

Attention is our scarcest good. We need to grab it where it is

Van de Veldesaid that film forecasting is hard because there is contrasting research – one study will say that audiences value the cinema experience, while another study will say cinema is dying. 

“It is not just a question of changing the windows, it is changing the whole industry and everything that goes with it,” Van de Velde said. She doesn’t think five years is long enough to see real change in the industry.

Bankuti agreed. “But if we don’t do anything in terms of educating our kids – the number of people taking their kids to the cinema regularly, the pleasure of going to the cinema with the family, then cinema will disappear.”

SCREEN TIME THREAT

Koljonen noted that, with children spending a huge amount of time on screens they are incontrolof, it will have to be “one hell of a big cinema experience” to keep them interested in going to the movies.

“Curation will be a big guiding principle. In this world of overabundance, we’ve reached saturation point already,” Van Nuffel said. “Those community-driven platforms where people who have good taste can express themselves and gain a following, I think those are very interesting ways to target audiences and create new ways of interacting.”

A large amount of hype and interest is now created through Internet platforms or mobile apps, be it via Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat or Google.

“Attention is our scarcest good. We need to grab it where it is,” mused Van de Velde. “I think you need to categorise the product that you make. And I say product because I think a big movie can be product too.”

The panelists also agreed that distancing themselves from the ‘best,’ ‘better’ and ‘not so good’ labelling preferred by online, anonymous users would only be a good thing.

PIRACY STILL LOOMS LARGE

Koljonen wondered what the panelists wished their industry had realised earlier and where their frustrations lie.

For Van de Velde, the biggest frustration floated up from recent recruitment interviews.

“We’ve been hiring recently at Fox. From the 20 people who came in, We asked, ‘What is the last movie you saw and where did you see it?’ 18 of them were pirates.”

All 18 didn’t get to answer another question, let alone get the job. Some people still claim they don’t know it is pirating but Van de Velde remains unmoved by that excuse. “It’s going to be one of the biggest threats and everybody needs to address it,” she said.

Koljonen posited that piracy should be regarded as an industry failure rather than an individual moral failure; the industry needs to come up with better solutions to counter it. 

Van Nuffel reminded the audience that piracy in games was solved by creating legal platforms that were easier and nicer to use. It meant sales were approachable, subscriptions were created and, crucially, there were cheap games for people who didn’t have big money. “Piracy just stopped existing,” Van Nuffel said before making the audience gasp with his confession that he hadn’t pirated a game in 10 years, “but the last movie I pirated was probably three days ago”.

He explained that he can find and easily download a 4K version of a film that is 50 gigabytes rather than buy an inferior quality eight gigabytes compressed file for €4 legally. “The pirated copy will be way better quality,” he said pointing out that the number of pirated copies available is a strong indicator of a film’s success. 

“Our films are not being pirated right now,” Van Nuffel said. “Films are harder to find these days. The most popular pirated shows are TV shows, why? Because people don’t want to wait. There’s always a reason, get rid of those reasons. They did it for games, they completely got rid of them. There’s not a single reason why you would want to pirate a game, there are many reasons why you’d want to pirate a movie.”

Piracy wasn’t the biggest source of frustration for Bankuti, it’s unrealistic expectations about what kind of films work in cinemas today. “I talk to a lot of producers and directors but mainly the producers. I am trying to explain to them it’s not going to work. ‘Yeah it’s a super nice movie but not for cinema.’ And they start to argue, ‘Yeah yeah, it is cinema and there was this screening and that screening’ and then I ask the question, ‘When was the last time you went to the cinema and watched an arthouse movie?’ and they cannot answer. I think we should work on this, too.”

MAKE MOVIES COOL AGAIN

One CONNeXT attendee in the audience suggested it’s all about “cool” for young audiences and people who still enjoy group activities that bring people together. “Small cinemas all but disappeared, replaced by the multiplex. Netflix is cool with the kids now. It’s just not cool with the kids anymore to go to the movies. The music industry is making its money now withconcerts. Kids are willing to pay a fortune to go to a concert, stand with their phone and film the concert. Why are you doing that? It’s about coolness.” 

Van de Velde said she thought films are cool but the experience is not anymore. “We need to look at the experience. You need to make it worthwhile and it’s not just for the youth.” She suggested it should begin in schools with education to help create cinemagoing habits. And improve the experience. “When you come out of a film, you’re thrown out of the theatres, even arthouse theatres. We need places where people can gather round and talk about the movies and that’s what makes it cool.”

We need to look at the experience. You need to make it worthwhile and it’s not just for the youth.

Bankuti said she goes to the cinema almost every week. “But why should I go when I have the system at home, I can invite my friends to come and see, so I don’t have to have to have that person next to me, or the person eating the popcorn and looking at the phone which is in my eyes. And then I am thrown out. What can the cinema give me that watching it at home can’t? That’s the question.”

ONE SUPERPOWER CHANGE

Koljonen ended the lively session by asking her panelists what they would do if they had a superpower allowing them to change one thing for the industry in Europe. Van Nufell said he would create his own Netflix with everything Belgium has ever made in one place while Van de Velde said her magic power would be to change the cinemagoing experience significantly. “I think we need to make people feel welcome, feel informed, have a good time and talk about it afterwards.” 

Bankuti said she’d like to make people curious in every way. “I think there is a problem that people are not curious. From childhood they are put in front of the TV and don’t want to discover things in general.”

Food for thought for everyone.