Make Cinema Great Again!

CONNEXT Day One Panel

After a quick break for some famous Belgium hot chocolate and cakes following the opening keynote, Wendy Mitchell returned to the stage to moderate a panel emboldened with a desire: Make Cinema Great Again. Everything from social media pressure and the rise of the blogger to saying no (or maybe) to Netflix and looking after emerging talent at the beginning of their film journey was debated, discussed and digested.

Mitchell brought Karin Beyens of Diaphana Distribution (France), Daniela Elstner, head of French film promotional organisation Unifrance, Belgium producer Kobe Van Steenberghe of A Team Productions and Mike Goodridge, artistic director of the Macao International Film Festival and Awards, former CEO of Protagonist, into the spotlight alongside the returning British exhibition and distribution operator Curzon CEO Philip Knatchbull, refreshed after delivering his keynote address earlier.

And action!

Mitchell began the discussion by asking the panelists just how the theatrical market has changed in the last three years.

Beyens immediately plunged in noting audiences have emerged as being more selective than ever before.

Elstner said everyone is dealing with “a very complex public which knows very well what they want”. She said from her perspective working in both film and documentary sales before taking up the Unifrance role, she has noticed that small gems are suddenly getting attention that they would not have been getting before. “So there is hope and quality. It can be some documentaries out of nowhere. We just had one French feature in the Toronto International Film Festival that stood out. I waited 10 years for this to happen in my sales career and it just happened on the day I decided to stop.”

Knatchbull said it depends if the gems are the things people are looking for and want permission to come out for. “It isn’t good enough just to do a film, to acquire a film for distribution that would otherwise work well on Netflix, because people will stay in and watch it on Netflix.” As a positive aside, he agreed there had been a huge surge in interest in documentaries in the last three years.

Van Steenberghe pointed out his company hadn’t been in the feature film business for very long. But with two films coming out in the next few weeks – U-235 then in December Yummy, the first Belgium zombie movie – that will change.

Goodridge, the former CEO of British based international sales and financing banner Protagonist turned festival chief and film producer, thought the biggest difference as a consumer and a producer is that theatrical level talent, directors and actors, are now routinely if not preferentially working in television.

“It means it is harder to get them into independent film. It means film is becoming not the foremost venue for their careers and I think your theatrical film has to be shit hot in order to succeed,” he explained. “There has to be something special, unusual and surprising about it. Mediocrity will not work.”

He noted that as producers, that is their challenge. “As a festival director, I see hundreds of films and I just don’t see a commercial life for a lot of them. They are all the same as everything else.”

Mitchell added that while working at an unnamed film festival prior to Ghent, she had found herself among all these Euro pudding, mid-level films. “I went back to the hotel and binged on Unbelievable [on Netflix] and that worked for me,” she confessed, rather than watch a movie.

Goodridge joined the confessional. “I binged on Unbelievable over the last weekend. I think it is some of the best acting, writing and directing I have seen this year and that includes all the movies I have watched this year.  It is a very real challenge. [Director] Lisa Cholodenko is a film director and it’s a wonderful cast of film actors, so the lines are blurred like never before.”

From left to right: Karin Beyens (Diaphana Distribution), Daniela Elstner (Unifrance), Philip Knatchbull (Curzon), Wendy Mitchell (moderator), Kobe Van Steenberghe (a Team Productions), and Mike Goodridge (Macao International Film Festival)

Define Shit Hot?

Goodridge told the audience that in his tenure at Protagonist the films that took off were the ones that were surprising.

“They were the ones you couldn’t really pre-sell in that independent film model. Hunt for the WilderpeopleLady Macbeth, films that didn’t have real stars in them but films that just took people’s imagination,” he said. “I know that is hard to predict and finance on that basis but they were made for the right budget, those films, and very inexpensively. They took people by surprise.”

He said that to go to the cinema now is facing incredible competition. Imagine if you have five platforms in your home, that’s $50 a month for tons of content in your home. “I’m not being doom and gloom but I think the competition from the home cinema experience is going to get more and more intense. So cinema has to respond with incredible content.”

Atmosphere, Does the Public Respond To That?

Knatchbull, whose company runs a chain of boutique luxury cinemas in the UK as well as a home streaming platform and an active distributor, noted that the good news is people always want to leave the home.

When he first started cinema builds in 1989, cinema admissions were at an all-time low. They’ve been transformed since then initially by the arrival of the multiplexes, then the chains of boutique operators springing up across the western world and also in China and India.                             “You’ve just got to provide something for them that they want. The way I see the high street changing will enable cinemas to be part of a group. A boutique hotel, a bar, a cinema, a WeWork space, a music venue – a place where people want to come and congregate and dwell.”

Knatchbull thinks cinema should want to be a part of that experience that people want when they leave the home. They just can’t be these individual boxes any more that show films. “As Mike [Goodridge] said, the competition is not just from the streaming platforms, it’s from other leisure activities as well from 10-pin bowling to football to theatre to secret cinema [which is a growing phenomenon in the UK].

So What Ticks the Boxes For Buyers?

Knatchbull said he is looking for something singular, something different, citing last year’s acquisition of Mid 90s and Girl, two films that deliver “a certain experience, you feel something when you see these films”.

That’s one thing. “Or it’s a more mainstream film and you think ‘this is a feel-good film’, this is something an audience might go to on a Sunday afternoon and afterwards they have something back but they don’t have to struggle. It doesn’t have to be painful,” he noted.

Knatchbull suggested that as a distributor you can’t expect every film to be wildly successful but they try to get in the audience that film really deserves. “The films have to be made at the right budget level so we can pay the right MG and on top of it can then spend a lot of money to bring the audience to the cinema. Everyone forgets that we pay for the films but we have to pay a lot more money to get the audience in. We have to balance all of that.”

Mitchell wondered if film is as important to French people now as it was a generation ago?

Elstner said the CNC just published figures indicating admissions went up three per cent again in September and it is not just American films but also French titles fuelling the uptick.

“Of the 10 films in the top 10 since the beginning of the year, I think five are French. So there is something specific and in France, cultural, about cinema.”

She noted that there is a lot of work done by the government in schools and with the younger generation. Elstner, a German and former sales guru, has been trying to find out how France imbues culture with cinema. “I tried to find that in other countries in my whole career as a sales agent but did not ever find the same thing anywhere. As a German, I can honestly say I always admired that about France so that’s probably why I took over the Unifrance job.”

It remains a terrible fight as in every other country to maintain audiences for local films. “The American films take a lot of box office and there are a lot of smaller films production wise that are not getting the public anymore, so there is huge work to be done.”

After a quick break for some famous Belgium hot chocolate and cakes following the opening keynote, Wendy Mitchell returned to the stage to moderate a panel emboldened with a desire: Make Cinema Great Again. Everything from social media pressure and the rise of the blogger to saying no (or maybe) to Netflix and looking after emerging talent at the beginning of their film journey was debated, discussed and digested.

Mitchell brought Karin Beyens of Diaphana Distribution (France), Daniela Elstner, head of French film promotional organisation Unifrance, Belgium producer Kobe Van Steenberghe of A Team Productions and Mike Goodridge, artistic director of the Macao International Film Festival and Awards, former CEO of Protagonist, into the spotlight alongside the returning British exhibition and distribution operator Curzon CEO Philip Knatchbull, refreshed after delivering his keynote address earlier.

Girl, Lukas Dhont (Menuet, 2018)

Audience in Macau?

Talking of challenging markets and fresh territories, Macau certainly presents a unique challenge.

A peninsula about an hour from Hong Kong, Macau is a very small former Portuguese colony and operates now as an independent city state after being handed back to China (in 1999) under the same circumstances as Hong Kong – ‘one country, two systems’ policy.

It is the gaming capital of the world and has annual gaming revenues of $35 billion from its myriad casinos. It is a very, very rich country per capita with very little cinemagoing, Goodridge noted.

“There is one multiplex in one of the casinos and a couple of Catholic church-owned cinemas which censor the films themselves! The challenge for me – because I had never worked directly with an audience unlike everybody else (on the panel) – was to work with an audience and try and cultivate an appreciation of and embrace world cinema.”

Goodridge said the films he least expected to be popular – the first and second time filmmakers, young films with no movie stars – are the most popular. “It’s been a great journey to help build a cinema audience from scratch.”

Increasingly, the Macau Film Festival gets audiences coming over from mainland China.

“Obviously China is a very complicated country and Hong Kong is having its own difficulties now. Macau seems to live in its own world and the festival has gone from strength to strength. The excitement has been in bringing directors and actors over to meet the audiences and to elevate the experience into something special.”

How Do You Tell People They Might Like Cinema?

Goodridge noted that because of its size – from end to end it takes about 10 minutes to travel – it’s not difficult to get the word out about the festival. “But there are pockets of different nationalities that you have to market specifically. There are Chinese-language newspapers, Portuguese- language newspapers. It’s fairly traditional on the marketing side.”

So how much do you think about the audience before making a film? Mitchell wondered.

Van Steenberghe said while the directors Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallal and the writers were writing the screenplay for Gangsta, they knew it was for a younger audience for a film located between Antwerp and the Netherlands.

About the drugs trade, the filmmakers came up with a plan to cast famous rappers from Holland and one of the most famous Dutch musicians for the film. ”He [the Dutch musician] can actually act. That really helped to reach the audience.”

The producers also struck deals with all the rappers to create songs for the film in exchange for being allowed to use everything from the film to make video clips. “They sent them out through their own social media,” Van Steenberghe said. “It was the most visited Flemish movie of last year at the box office. In the Netherlands it was a big hit, the biggest movie from Belgium there for 10 years.”

Mitchell wanted to know how to hook UK audiences for a Korean film such as Parasite?

Knatchbulll said the first thing to do is to ignore the fact it’s Korean and to concentrate on the groundswell of social media activity, reactions from film festivals around the world, the incredible reviews and, most importantly, the box-office performances of the film in other countries.

“The great thing about being in this business is you can do everything right, as a producer, as a distributor, as a director, as an exhibitor, but the audience makes up their mind at the end of the day,” he observed. “The word of mouth on this film is extraordinary and a lot of it has come through social media, I believe. That’s a positive attribute when we think about films coming through.”

Gangsta, Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah (A Team Productions, 2018)

Social Media: Friend or Foe?

There can be pitfalls with social media. “It can kill a film dead in its tracks before it even comes out,” Knatchbull said, citing #metoo.

The first time Curzon had the impression that social media made a difference was with the film Mid 90s. When Curzon acquired the title the biggest challenge was bringing in a young audience for it.

“We were afraid that we would only have that audience that had a nostalgic feeling about the 90s. It took us five, six months before we released the film finally,” Knatchbull explained. “We connected with the young audience through social media with small clips, with images and we fed them for a long time with images and positive things about the film. When it opened in the US, when the film was in the Berlin Film Festival, all of sudden it became a film that people were aware of.”

Despite not being an immediate hit when released there was enough of an audience there to make it run.

The panelists agreed social media is nothing if not unpredictable, can turn against you in a second and can’t really be counted on as the only marketing tool. But it can be used to reach the audience who don’t read a newspaper anyone or doesn’t watch television anymore, the people you can’t reach with the normal marketing tools.

What are Macau audiences obsessed with? wondered Mitchell.

Goodridge said there is a massive appreciation of movie stars in Asia and hysteria around film stars as well. When the 18-year-old English actor Asa Butterfield attended as the star of World War One film Journey’s End, about 300 women flew in from Japan and mainland China of their own accord to mob him.

“They knew him from Hugo and films from when he was a kid. It was so strange to have these screaming hordes in the cinema,” he added. “But it is actually kind of refreshing. In the west, we’ve become a little bit more jaded about our star system and we are less driven to film by actors. I think it’s still very powerful.”

Is there a problem getting younger audiences to the cinema?

Knatchbull described taking his 14- and 13-year-old sons to the UK premiere of the star laden comic book tale Suicide Squad. Despite the glittering affair and the myriad film stars, the only two people his sons were interested in were YouTube bloggers.

“They were just desperate to get a selfie with these two YouTube bloggers,” Knatchbull said. “I think that tells us a lot about what we need to do to engage with audiences. Start putting YouTube bloggers into movies, then they’ll [young audiences] come.”

Van Steenberghe actually did just that.  “We organised screenings for the bloggers as we would for normal journalists. We do not do as many but you can’t do without them.”

France Counters the Decline With Film Education

While France has a slight education advantage to other countries it is getting worse, thought Beyens. Everyone is influenced by the world around them, not only by a few systems of education, after all.

“In France, we also lose the young audiences. We have to be more inventive in getting them in,” Beyens said. “As a distributor, we have to invent the marketing plan each time for every film.” While it takes a lot of time and a lot of thinking sometimes all the hard work can be undone by circumstance.

“As someone has said, we do it all well and all of sudden the president dies or an ex-president dies and all of the attention goes to something else. All of a sudden in October it’s fantastic weather and you can’t do anything against the great weather. So we have to do the best we have to do, but still then it’s not a win-win situation.”

Elstner had a question concerning social media and how to build its potential. “I always wonder to what extent with European films, that might have had some attention in a big festival, we could create a European community around these films that would help you in France and you in the UK and the Germans?” Cross border social media so the films just exist with people who really want to see the film in their country when it comes out? “I think Creative Europe tried to strengthen that with new ideas how to distribute films together but it is always very tricky,” Elstner pondered.

Panel members Karin Beyens (Diaphana Distribution) and Daniela Elstner (Unifrance) 

Is It Something For the Distributors Here That Could Eventually Help?

Knatchbull said there is a lot of public money that goes into Creative Europe. “Should I really be subsidised to show foreign-language movies in my cinemas? Probably not, that money could be better used in creating the sort of social hub that you’re talking about for people to tune into. What we’re really talking about which has existed from the first film ever shown publicly is word of mouth.”

If a film enjoys positive word of mouth, it beats any kind of marketing or any kind of trailering, Knatchbull believes. “Social media has the ability to do that and I don’t think we’ve even tapped into its potential properly yet for independent film.”

Mitchel pointed out that once the word of mouth is there, staying on a screen to allow audiences to see it is important. “Luckily we own our own cinemas!” Knatchbull laughed.

Retro Fit

Goodridge wondered if the Metrograph Cinema in New York, which plays old films, was successful? Knatchbull thought it was, citing its strategy of “event-ising” old films and bringing them back to the big screen. “They also distribute and act like an exhibitor and have created a distribution branch so they do acquire not only classic films but  also up to date ones,” he added.

“I’m intrigued because Abbey Road [The Beatles] was the number one album in the UK last week, on its 50th anniversary. How we can revitalise classic cinema in a commercial way?” Goodridge wondered.

Knatchbull said he didn’t think there was a big market in that. “I think the Abbey Road thing was probably more to do with the film Yesterday, that propels these type of secondary sales.” Not a big fan of repertory cinema, Knatchbull thinks it is a thing from the past and there are so many ways of watching all the classics at home, there is no real reason to go and see them on the big screen “unless you are a pure cineaste”.

Added Mitchell: “Or unless you are the Secret Cinema model and you want people to dress up and spend a lot of money on food.”

Elstner noted that the most talked about and best word of mouth films was the retrospective of [Japanese filmmaker] Mizoguchi (Kenji) last summer in Paris. And there were a lot of other new films playing but everyone went to the retrospective of Mizoguchi.

“We have the [Russian filmmaker Andrei] Tarkovsky Collection in the UK and we did a whole Tarkovsky season where we went on tour with a P&A campaign and then doing a box set on DVD release,” Knatchbull said. “I’m talking about where you have individual repertory screening that has no individual noise around it or context. I’m a great believer in creating strands but just doing one-off repertory screenings, it’s just hard.”

Beyens pointed out that across European countries, very different films work in different territories. “If we think, for example, Girl did very well in Belgium and France but didn’t work in England. And there are other examples. So countries have become more different even for the good films that worked in others.”

Do you have to make a good film feel like an event? With a Q&A or a dress up or a themed cocktail at the bar? Mitchell wondered.

Elstner said an event can kick-start good word of mouth but it is not possible to screen every film every evening as an event. “What we have seen is that when we do event screenings, the theatre is full. Then we release the film the following day and there is hardly anyone there. An event brings an audience to the theatre but you can’t do this all the time.”

Gangsta Rap

For Gangsta, Van Steenberghe and his team mostly worked on social media. The premiere was staged as a big event with people refused entry if they weren’t dressed like gangsters – they had to have the bling.

“You could buy bling for €5 if you didn’t have it,” Van Steenberghe said. “95% of the people who were invited came dressed up.” The event included a gold car with prizes for audience members if they took a selfie with it and used the [film] hashtag. “It became this whole living thing and two years on after the movie release everyone still remembers the car.”

Mitchell wondered if that sort of stunt might be a bit harder to pull off with a relationship drama?

Van Steenberghe: “It’s a little harder but most of the movies we make we can. We are trying to work out things to do with our upcoming movies. Like Yummy, if you come dressed as a zombie you get a goodie bag and audiences will have zombies running around between the children, it is going to work so well.” Knatchbull feigned horror: “I do not want to attend that!”

For U-235 Van Steenberghe is said they have a mould of the actual submarine tower from the film to put in the middle of the Kinepolis cinema foyer in Antwerp for a few weeks. “If people enter and think ‘what are we going to watch’ and they see the submarine tower, are they really going to opt not to see that?”

Yummy, Lars Damoiseaux (A Team Productions, 2019)

With Yummy, he is planning a theme park attraction and a ghost house audiences go through with 10 zombie actors on hand to offer up the scares.

“The premiere itself we’d like to do in an old cinema. It’s an event that you try and make the movie a little bit part of real life. It just has to be fun.”

What if Netflix knocks on your door and wants Yummy for the world but doesn’t want you to release theatrically and offers a load of money? What would you do? Mitchell asked.

Van Steenberghe is sanguine. “Since Belgium is rather small we can always talk but Netflix isn’t really that interested and if we say we want a theatrical release first in Belgium, I think they’d be okay with that. Then it would be okay for us.”

Netflix In the House

Do Netflix titles play at Macau? Mitchell asked.

Goodridge: “We played Okja, the Bong Joon-Ho film, about six months after it had come out on Netflix. It [the screening] was packed. We had about 500 people in the screening; it was bizarre.”

Goodridge believes people are not that impacted by it being on Netflix. “When I was dealing with Netflix as a seller, they had no interest in theatrical [rights] at all. Their very model was to change the way people watched films: on their platform.”

He says he is intrigued and suspicious of Netflix’s apparent shift in strategy.

So was there ever a worldwide deal on the table from Netflix that the filmmaker didn’t want when you were at Protagonist? Mitchell queried. Goodridge said: “We all have stories about that because often the filmmakers just don’t want to go there.”

Mitchell cited the case of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell which had a worldwide deal on the table.

The seller knew they could make quick money but they wanted to help build her career territory by territory so the individual exhibitors and distributors could contribute. The minute you go on Netflix no-one knows the name Lulu Wang because her name is not on the picture.

Beyens noted that in France things are very different. In France, you have to respect legally binding holdbacks. When a film comes out theatrically, it can only go on Netflix three years after the first day of release.

“You know the films that will be out theatrically for a week or two or three in other countries will be seen theatrically in France. It’s a good thing for me because it means the screens that would have been taken by the Netflix films for a week or two or three will be available to us,” says Beyens. “But on the other hand, as soon as a film is out on Netflix and it goes to the same audience as the audience that we have for it, it is competition for us.”

Could the Windows Change in France?

Elstner said the wind of change is blowing through the windows but is controversial.

“It is under discussion right now. There is a new law that will be signed somewhere before the end of this year.”

In France, everyone contributes to the French production: free or Pay-TV giants such as Canal Plus put money back into the French production system as a matter of course. “It is a very clever and long dated system and the fact is that if Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, whoever wants to have the same statutes in France with companies in France producing, they will have to contribute to it somehow,” Elstner said. “For the moment, the answer from all these big companies is that we will not have an official office in France, or a very small one, which is only press or something like that.”

Some have set up shop in Amsterdam or elsewhere outside France, said Elstner, who noted that in Cannes this year, there had been a move for Competition films certainly to reject a global Netflix deal, instead seeking all-rights theatrical distribution deals all over the world.

“It is changing every six months. Everyone is learning and changing the model and I think even Netflix is getting much more flexible than ever before,” she added. “It is interesting, and interesting for us not to give in too quickly. Something France has always been very good at.”

Mitchell wanted to know if Diaphana could compete if Netflix comes in with a big offer for a title?

Not financially was the short answer. But there are also lots of studios on the hunt for lots of acquisition targets. “Sony, Universal, they take films away and we live with that. Netflix and Amazon do the same thing,” Beyens commented. “The most difficult thing for me as a buyer and as a producer is that all these platforms have a huge product line and we need to feed these platforms, so they need a lot of content, series or films.”

Beyens said that meant they swallow up a lot of talent and have much more money than any other producer to offer. “For the last two or three years they have taken away a lot of good talent that we could all have used and worked with to have in the theatres and distributed.”

Knatchbull agreed. Wearing his exhibition hat, he added: “The cream of that production is rising to the top so 10 of the best of those films, in Netflix’s case, are coming out theatrically into our cinemas where we are effectively becoming a rental service for the streaming platform that has invested this huge sum of money.”

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese with Robert de Niro starring, is an obvious case in point. “But other films, and even foreign-language films like Atlantics is coming through us; The Laundromat, the Steven Soderbergh film,” Knatchbull said. “We are seeing a whole mixture of films coming back through the cinema with nothing to do with independent distribution, nothing to do with the current market.”

Knatchbull said he is not alone in fearing for the future of distribution, full stop. “I don’t want to end up being a rental service for Amazon and Netflix but if they are paying me good money it’s difficult not to take it, that’s the problem, There are good films coming through. (The first film Curzon did with Netflix was the [Idris Elba-starrer Beasts of No Nation, and each year they have improved the quality of the films that are coming back through the theatres.)

“I think in terms of distribution, if Amazon or Netflix want to pick something up, we can’t compete. But what we can do is to get in early [to do a deal]. They can be quite slow. If we can be flexible and adaptable, we can be quicker,” he added.

But there are still filmmakers who would like to be in the theatre and who need and want to be nurtured and helped in their careers, helped to build a reputation. Knatchbull pointed out that so far neither Netflix or Amazon can do that. “That’s the big difference that we can offer them. But we have to be the best we can to do that.”

Keynote speaker Philip Knatchbull (Curzon) and moderator Wendy Mitchell 

Elstner said Unifrance as an organisation faces the same challenge. “You mentioned Mati Diop’s Atlantics which was bought by Netflix worldwide. It’s a French co-production and what could we do with it?” said Elstner. “To what extent is it part of Unifrance’s work to do promotion. Do we help or do we not help?”

She said it is a big discussion for which no-one has the answer. “We don’t want to prevent a new talent from not being seen and not going to festivals. But if Netflix doesn’t really ask us and they don’t even want us to do it sometimes, should we put public money into films that Netflix might not even care about when the director comes to a festival? I don’t have the answer. It’s a very complicated situation.”

Knatchbull pointed out that Netflix is sometimes the only way a film gets made. “You have to ask the question, who would have financed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma? In fact, I think he took it to most studios and they all passed,” Knatchbull said. “Netflix took that gamble, financed it and let him make it in the way he wanted in black and white.”

Then came the big outcry that Roma, a film that was getting so much attention, wouldn’t be available in the multiplex cinemas because it wasn’t expecting a window. “But that wasn’t the issue, the issue was had that film been available in the big multiplex operators would they have even booked it? No, it’s in Spanish, in black and white and it’s an arthouse film. So at least Netflix is doing something that is filling a problem at the moment.”

So do film festivals have a role in building talent, financially? Mitchell wanted to know.

Knatchbull said he only just worked out that a lot of film festivals paid to have films put into theatres. “I am thinking there are film festival films and there are public films and I think we are heading more and more to people just going to film festivals and less and less to public cinema screenings,” he said. “It’s a changing model and we just have to adapt as distributors and financiers and producers to what is there. Of the six films we had in the London Film Festival, every single screening was sold out. That doesn’t happen in our cinemas.”

Do you see that as a cannibalisation of your own potential business? wondered Goodridge. “Probably. I think we are going to have start charging the London Film Festival screening fees,” Knatchbull responded.

So does Macau pay screening fees?

For some films, yes. “I used to be a sales agent so I appreciate we need to get those screening fees. But Macau is a brand new festival and if there are demands for screening fees we try to accommodate it because we have to prove that we are serious,” Goodridge said. “I think a lot of festivals pay and a lot of sales agents are very aggressive in asking for them.”

Festivals are a key part of developing a cinema audience. There are many films made that will only be seen on the big screen, Goodridge said. “I’m from the UK so I know the foreign-language films that come out there and I programme a film festival so I know the volume of films out there.”

Goodridge pondered the idea of a Europe-wide VOD platform that had all those unsold films that will otherwise never see the light of day on some sort of revenue share basis, because there are very good ones.

Mitchell suggested the marketplace might already be congested with more than 800 VOD platforms across Europe already. “That was a few years ago, there’s probably 1,200 now.”

Let’s Be Happy. Unexpected Good News?

Van Steenberghe said all expectations were beaten by the performance of Gangsta. “I truly believe it is because of the marketing. You need good content and top marketing. Not only like the normal marketing – the poster campaigns and everything – but to go much further and indeed see which people you want to reach and which media they are using.”

Van Steenberghe said he goes to his 11-year-old nephew to keep him up to speed on emerging social media platforms now Facebook has become something for old people like him.

For Yummy, the producers put 15 social media influencers on a bus in the film. They came to the set for free, they were all blogging about the film under embargo until the week before the movie. They attended the premiere, blogged from it and because they are in it, people went to screenings to look at them.

Yummy, Lars Damoiseaux (A Team Productions, 2019)

Knatchbull pointed out that whatever you think of [Quentin] Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is an event in itself that is repeated night after night after night. “We need more filmmakers like Tarantino to make things viscerally cinematic that you cannot get on Netflix.

Joker is another good example. There is no point seeing Joker on your iPhone. “All the sound design, the production design and the cinematography and the way he [Joachim Phoenix] elevates it all it just comes together and is brilliant.”

The more filmmakers can be encouraged to think about that, even for low budget films, the better.

Look out for low budget indie British film Saint Maude, an offbeat horror movie. In Toronto at the Midnight Screening everybody was screaming and shouting before the film even started with excited anticipation.

Elstner said she had a lot of positive moments after 20 years in the biz. “I was surprised in Toronto with the success of Two of Us (Deux).

She first watched the French/Italian first-time director’s title while the project was in post-production. “Sometimes you feel something. You think, this is going somewhere but you don’t know to what extent it can really go beyond,” Elstner said. “Then you get three good critics, you are hopeful but you don’t know and then when you read them on the iPhone you think ‘Okay, this is really going to make a big difference’. This is what makes us carry on; that’s what we need sometimes.”

Audience questions ranged from the rights and wrongs of public funding in film, the landscape after the battle of the streaming platforms plays out and the rising costs and effectiveness of traditional advertising methods. And 4D cinema.

Public Funding

Goodridge said he would encourage public funds to promote more ambitions from first-time filmmakers. “You’ve really only got that one shot to show you’ve got something special. If you know how to tell the story in cinema language, that belongs in a cinema.” Too many of these films don’t and they are not special enough. That’s why distributors don’t buy them and it’s why sales agents increasingly can’t afford to take them because they know they can’t sell them. So we will reach a crisis point where a lot of these films literally won’t go to market, I believe.”

Elstner pointed out that no first-time filmmaker, no filmmaker at all, starts his film with the idea to make a mediocre film.

“Unfortunately, there has to be a certain amount [volume] of films being produced so that you can get these little gems out. It is a very tricky question right now because there will be no outlets and these films will get stuck. I think it will probably naturally regulate because there is nothing more frustrating for a filmmaker making a film over three years and just seeing nothing happen. It’s a nightmare. Some first-time filmmakers just don’t continue, others try.”

Mitchell noted that, traditionally, public funding has been geared towards production, maybe a bit of development. P&A type funding from public funders could also be crucial because you can’t just put all these films out into the ether and hope that somebody sees them.”

Knatchbull said that idea goes back to Curzon’s acquisition of Saint Maude. “I think it was £100,000 budget. We managed to make a cinematic vignette and the BBC have decided to give us a bit of P&A money, money that we wouldn’t risk ourselves,” he said.

Because it is the BBC and the broadcaster’s film arm is trying to promote the film they have made, it is taking the risk. “Otherwise the choice is these films aren’t going to be distributed at all. You’ve got to connect production with distribution. We turn down many filmmakers every day who have put their life and soul into a film and it doesn’t get seen. It’s a tragedy.”

Post Platform War Landscape

Knatchbull said there will be 10 streaming platforms charging $10 a month. “No one is going to want to spend $100 a month. How do you choose between the platforms?

“We’re going to move from a subscription model back to an individual transactional model without contracts where people will just choose from a menu the film they want to see, where and be sent there and just pay for that one particular film and that will help cinema operators who have a connected VOD platform. I really believe that’s the future because you cannot have that many subscription channels coming down the road. It’s not going to work.

Goodridge described the landscape awash with platforms as potentially a fantastic time for content makers. “For the next five to 10 years there is going to be five to 10 very rich platforms making content all across Europe for local audiences. It’s quite spectacular.”

He also portrayed a huge shift in the dynamic away from the American industry making US movies and flooding the world with them. “As we see with Netflix, they are making television in local languages all across Europe. It’s desperately exciting,” he said.

Cinema Nights

Van Steenberghe hopes cinema becomes more of a place to meet, to have a drink, eat something, enjoy a movie with friends. “There’s a small cinema called The Roxy. It doesn’t have great sound, doesn’t have a great screen but it has a bar, people come over, they have a drink, they take their beers, go inside at 10 o’clock, they see their movie and I truly believe in that.”

He also enjoys the idea of something like Tuesday Documentary day with a quiz or something giving you a reason to go every week. Knatchbull described another developing model where groups of people decide what they want to see and reserve a screen for that film. “I think that could be developed through social media,” he said.

Audience attending the Make Cinema Great Again panel

Advertising and Pay Days

Beyens describe the process. “When you release a film, the first thing you do is you set a date. Then you think ‘Who is my audience, how many people can come? Then you say to make them come I have to do this and this and that but it’s too expensive.’. In France, for a small release, we spend at least €200,000, a medium release for an arthouse film is between €500,000 to €700,000 and if you talk about a high-profile film such as Parasite, for example, it is close to a €1 million.

Beyens noted her figures were general budgets, not just social media. “It depends on the film. If I was to release Yummy, for example, I would allocate a higher percentage on social media. I wouldn’t do newspapers or magazines. I would do postering, radio eventually and social media, maybe television. Every budget depends on every film, it’s always different.”

Every Budget Depends On Every Film, It’s Always Different.

Van Steenberghe said the cool thing with social media is you can reach a lot of people, the people you want to reach all for not that much money.

“For Gangsta, we spent €5,000 for our part of the social media campaign. The distributor did the same for a trailer push and then another five just to make ‘making of’ movies.”

He also used social media to work out who the people that are interested in the movie. “We do some tests to see who reacts, who doesn’t react. Do we want the people who don’t react to include them?” he said.

With U-235, Van Steenberghe and his team noticed that 70-80% of the people who reacted were men. “There is also a love story that is not communicated enough in the trailer,” he said. There are plans to do a separate vox pop trailer about the love story part of the film targeting women only.

Beyens pointed out that with social media you don’t only hire the space, you have to create each time everything. So that also costs.

Elstner said she had been having myriad discussions with European sales agents about social media marketing even during the film shoot which could then be made available all over the world. “I think there is also a lack of thinking with producers about which direction we should go across various types of film. European sales agents are currently trying to find funding and ways of making it and also how to make it, because it is not something we all know.”

There is maybe a lack of marketing knowledge [in this area] which of course the younger generation can help with.

Van Steenberghe firmly believes his role as producer does not end with producing the movie. “We have a very good distributor but we have to give them the things they need to do that. For U-235,we are doing 10 ‘makings of’, we have lots of different pictures, styles and it takes some time but it doesn’t take that much money and you have some different content.”

He said if they were not getting creative, it would be the old days of five stills, a trailer and two more pictures from the set. “But you just need more. Every time you release something onto social media it has to be new and immediate so the users doesn’t think ‘Oh I already saw that’ and click it away.”

Sometimes as a director you might just want to make your movie and not be in the spotlight but it is part of it now. “I don’t mean you have to be on Instagram every second filming yourself, but some kind of media training and being able to talk about your movie is important. If people feel you had fun making it then people will be interested and not think, ‘That looks boring’. They’ll be attracted to that energy and want to know more.”

Will 4D Make Cinema Great Again?

Van Steenberghe described the 4D screen in the Kinepolis multiplex.”It’s shaking seats, water in your face, smells and stuff. It’s a bit of an attraction and anytime I am in there, people are mostly laughing,” he said. “I do believe it may be difficult from a social aspect but I think, together with virtual reality 4D in the theme parks, maybe that could be something.”

Elstner said that for a film like Girl, there is no need for a 4D cinema because the 4D is inside you.

Cinema Will Survive

Knatchbull believes there will always be a desire to watch film together with others. “We all like to be together sometimes to see a film,” he said. “It’s a very basic thing that will still happen. As opera still exists and theatre still exists, I think cinema will always exist. We’ll have to share with the platforms as we shared with television before, but it will exist.” After all, people always want to get out of the home and enjoy having a shared emotional experience.

Every time Van Steenberghe goes to the cinema, sits down and the lights go down “for two hours I am transported in the story and I can be part of it emotionally. Most of the time it is magic.”

It is so different from sitting at home. “You don’t have to pause it because the microwave goes ting. Sitting at home listening to a CD is cool but being at a concert with other people sharing the experience, it’s so much more visceral. I don’t believe cinema will ever disappear either.”

Goodridge recalled watching Parasite during the Festival de Cannes this year. “When you’ve got directors at the top of their game like Bong Joon-Ho is at the moment, he’s making the film for cinema. He’s not making it for a small screen and you’ve got to go to the cinema to get that full experience. That’s what cinema has over television, I think. It has a language all of its own that television doesn’t and filmmakers have to take advantage of that.”

PANEL DISCUSSION moderated by Wendy Mitchell with Karin Beyens (Diaphana Distribution), Daniela Elstner (Unifrance), Mike Goodridge (Macao International Film Festival), Kobe Van Steenberghe (A Team Productions) and Philip Knatchbull (Curzon)

By Stuart Kemp