By Stuart Kemp

Where Did Our Audiences Go?

CONNeXT PANEL DISCUSSION 

Bringing youngsters back to cinemas, education programmes and the explosion in different platforms and the changing ways of watching were all on the agenda for the CONNeXT day three closing panel session, entitled Where Did Our Audiences Go?. The panel of experts — Christine Eloy of European film distributors’ association Europa Distribution, Marike Muselaers from Benelux distributor Lumiere, We Are the Tonic distribution and marketing boutique agency CEO Deborah Rowland and Secret Cinema founder Fabien Riggall—aired their views on a changing exhibition and distribution sector. 

DISAPPEARING YOUTH

Film journalist/film festival consultant Wendy Mitchell kicked the session off with the question of youth. Are they going to the cinema, are they not going to the cinema? Can we ever get them back?

We Are the Tonic distribution and marketing boutique agency CEO Deborah Rowland was in no doubt. “They are not going to the cinema. We’ve seen from the studios that young audiences aren’t even turning up for Disney films. I think we’re losing the young male audience to games, particularly Fortnite.”

Rowland believes the problem is exacerbated by arrogance and self-protection across the industry from exhibition to distributors and filmmakers. “There is a history of exhibition protecting their windows saying, ‘people will see the films on our terms,’ distributors saying, ‘they will see these particular films on our terms,’ filmmakers not even understanding the distribution landscape they’re coming into,” Rowland said: “I’ve heard filmmakers say to me when I ask why people are going to come and see your film their answer is literally ‘because I have made it.’ They haven’t thought about their audiences at all.”

According to Rowland, the so-called disruptors such as Netflix and other deep-pocketed streaming services and the TV industry with its catch-up online services are showing the film industry that audiences have a lot of power and choice “and they are voting by choosing what they see and what not to see.”

She shared a terrifying European statistic: Three out of four children under age five has their own tablet. Children under the age of 5 are being put in front of a tablet that is their own and left to choose their own content from that young an age. The impact on cinema audiences from starting so young with personal screens “is going to be catastrophic,” she said.

Lumiere’s Marike Muselaers said she had been lucky enough to be in Silicon Valley for a week last year. She asked every CEO or MD that she met, from small startups to the Googles of this world, if they let your children use iPads? “All of them said no.” Muselaers noted that if the people who are actually designing these products don’t let their children use them, it indicates “even they are aware of the impact.”

Muselaers said Lumiere is not traditionally targeting youth audiences because its output is mainly TV series, crime shows and arthouse films. “But that’s a problem, we’re not targeting youth audiences. What I can say is we always try and hire young people, that always helps,” Muselaers said, citing the cinema Lumiere operates in Antwerp – Cartoons’ — as a plus. “When we took it over we hired two people in their early 20s to manage the whole thing and they set up fantastic network with students who are now completely running the cinema. When you have a film here in Belgium like Gangsta that draws in the 16 year olds and you programme that in your arthouse cinema, you kind of hope that they will come back afterwards. They don’t but at least you introduced them a little bit to the universe.”

Rowland agreed that listening to young people is a big thing “because the arrogance stretches to how we talk to those younger audiences.” She said: “We’re not those younger audiences so we tend to patronise them, not hear them they don’t feel heard, or listen to them. They’re not being spoken to in their own language.”

Secret Cinema founder Fabien Riggall, who is moving into film producing as well, agrees it is all about engaging and listening to youth and also learning how they are using technology. “It is almost like they do more online than they do offline and I think we have to accept that situation,” Riggall says. “And learn how to communicate to them in a way that Snapchat, Instagram, etc does. Learn how to engage and combine their love of gaming and find ways of using that model but turning that into ways of people coming to the cinema.”

Riggall said that a lot of his work at Secret Cinema was battling distributors and exhibitors to allow him to screen their films. “Many exhibitors would say but you’re going to be cannibalising our movies if you take our movies (for Secret Cinema) in this way. It did the opposite and is doing the opposite. I feel with Secret Cinema we’ve created a formula for getting young people to the cinema, still not young enough, but definitely younger people.”

For European film distributors’ association executive Christine Eloy, trying to catch the elusive audience is a constant challenge and one that constantly comes up when Europa Distribution members gather for panels and workshops. “You have different angles to reach out to young audiences,” she said.

Eloy pointed out that reaching out to a five year old is different to trying to market to a 15 year old, despite them both being labelled “young.” And in different countries — Belgium, France, Portugal, Romania — young audiences are hardly the same. “The differences are high because the markets are different and the accessibility to exhibition, whether that be theatres, VoD, TV are also different.” 

Educating children in schools about film and film going is a good starting point, Eloy thinks. She said there is currently a narrative between the European Parliament, European Commission and member states about a directive for film education in schools. “One priority is an exception to copyright when it comes to screenings in schools.” 

Currently if a teacher uses a film in a class, it has to be of educational relevance, it has to be shown on school premises or a place considered to be an extension of it. The school shouldn’t have to pay the rights even if the film is shown in its entirety. Each member state could — it is not obligatory — put in place a kind of minimal license so rights holders would still have some money in. “And that for us [European independent distributors] it was very important because first, I don’t think it is good that kids think that everything is for free and second, rights holders put money up front so they need to see some money back. It could be 30,000 pupils which is 30,000 Euros, but when you’re operating in Belgium that’s not nothing.”

Secret Cinema has worked with some schools in the UK. “When we do our shows we tend to go and work with the local community. For Blade Runner we had a screening so 1,000 young people from the local area came to the show,” he said. 

Riggall thinks the idea of free licensing for schools is a brilliant one. “The studios need to say free licensing for all movies in schools and create this buzz and culture of film. The culture’s gone, [young people] do not have cinema in their culture. They are literally on social media, listening to music for free and they just do not pay for films.” Riggall has young friends who do not pay for films. “It is just what happened to music and I thought cinema might catch up about what happened to music.”

Eloy says discussions among her members started at board level for a European-wide initiative for schools. “If we could find something that could work for more than five or six countries, it could be something we could work on as an association but actually it is so complicated because the situation from country to country is so different.”

Rowland recounted releasing Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank in 2009. “We felt the film obviously had a core audience of arthouse and quality independent film lovers but because it was about a young girl of 15 trying to escape a certain way of life through dance, that it had a youth audience,” said Rowland. They fought long and hard to get a 15 certificate for a film originally set for an 18 certificate because of the language and the sexual activity. A tour of it in schools ensued and Rowland remembered doing a focus group afterwards with the kids. “Would you recommend this to your friends, would you see it in the cinema,” remembered Rowland. “Literally all of them were saying they’d wait until it comes out ‘on pirate’.” Pirated content is seen a legitimate distribution format to young audiences. “That was years ago and that hasn’t changed. They’re growing up still with that mindset. It reinforces the concept if you don’t give the audience the content how they want it, they will find it,” Rowland said.

Riggall suggested making the experience something they can’t get on a pirated platform.

MARKETING MISTEPS

So what are people getting wrong about marketing?, asked Mitchell.

Rowland believes there is an audience for every film and every TV show. “There is a big responsibility on how you get the word out there, how you are communicating with audiences. It’s about being responsive, it’s about knowing your audiences. There’s not enough looking at data now, seeing what audiences are doing, what they’re looking at. There’s that arrogance to say we know what we’re doing without testing what we’re doing. Digital provides a great opportunity to test how images work, how certain trailers work.”

Muselaers added: “We’re not lost but we’re definitely searching and that’s why we, at least at Lumiere, are trying so many different things at the same time. We’re really searching for where we can find back that audience.”

Muselaers admits a loss of connection with the audience partly because of digitalisation and dealing with platforms that are not providing data back to distributors. “Yes, you’re getting cash but in the end you are not learning anything about your customers.”

Mitchell noted that distributors (and producers) can get frustrated that a company like Netflix isn’t giving enough information to content providers. “Nor are exhibitors,” said Rowland. “We get the comScore figures about admissions and attendance but the exhibitors have been slow to give us gender breakdowns, age breakdowns, what times people are coming to see shows, that sort of thing, it’s changing a bit because the studios are using their weight and showing how they can use that information from the exhibitors for the benefit for all and become the industry standard.”

“We have to work together across Europe,” added Muselaers.

Eloy agreed the problem is that the data is never in distributors’ hands. “It is in the hands of the exhibition world, when they have it, because I’m not sure that all of them are gathering so much data in general. They are trying to find ways to know their audience but it’s not that easy because you don’t have so many tools.”

Mitchell wanted to know from Riggall if his “holy grail of mailing lists” (with more than 500,000 people) make him the envy of the marketplace, especially when coupled with the fact the people trust him to deliver an experience?

Riggall said his list has grown because people saw that Secret Cinema “passionately cared about their experience and they saw we went way out over the norm to create these experiences out of the passion of films.”

Riggall said it is too commonplace to encounter marketing departments that exist completely separately from the creators of the shows. “With Secret Cinema we create the marketing as part of the overall narrative of the experience to engage, so the audience is engaged, listening and attentive. I think there’s a real opportunity for mixing these things together. Exhibitors, distributors and filmmakers can come together and stop this ridiculous protection racket.”

Muselaers said even though Lumiere is vertically integrated and it can test a lot of things, It is still operating in small markets. “We need skill in order to get all these platforms to work so that again asks for more shared information and more networking in Europe,” she said.

THE POWER OF NETFLIX

Riggall described the power of Netflix to be able to release a show like The Crown globally as “insane.” It’s online, delivered to a laptop, personal and not sharing the content. “Imagine if all the cinemas in the world got together and stopped fighting the amazing release strategies that could be built?”

Muselaers is a firm believer in long-tail theory when it comes to Netflix and global releasing at the touch of a button. “There are so many communities around the world and all these niche film and TV series can actually find their audiences but we need skill and to work together.”

The shift is definitely digital for marketing, thought Rowland. “There’s a place for traditional marketing and advertising. There is still audiences that will respond to television and print advertising. Radio has had a huge surge back in popularity in the last couple of years globally. I think that’s a nod to digital as well. It’s more about the connection you’re making and we’ve talked a bit about building communities around films so people feel engaged and involved.”

Love Island, Strictly Come Dancing, and other reality TV content, has created worlds around the programming so audiences are watching on their televisions but also are interacting with an app, their friends and a game all at the same time, Rowland suggested.

“Love Island is a phenomenon. It’s the way we should distribute film in the future. We need to create buzz in that way,” said Riggall.

Rowland said creating an experience around the film, especially independent film, is ever more popular and important. “We really need to think about the content: Can we do a fashion show or have a DJ, something more than just sitting watching?” she asked. “There are other things about the use of influencers now so really listening to the young people and who they are listening to and how you build them into promoting your content. You’ve got bloggers and vloggers who have 120 million active followers that are tuning in so these people really do have a power in their voice for what they’re endorsing.”

Even the way trailers and posters are created and launched is changing. Rowland they remain the most influential thing for people’s decision to go to the cinema. “It’s still around 83% of people are influenced by a trailer and a poster,” Rowland said. “But because of the digital migration those posters become animated, the trailer we call it a ‘thumbstopper,’ where the first five seconds is action packed and it stops somebody scrolling past it. So it’s adapting the way we have marketed to our audiences.”

Riggall reckons kids do not give a damn about physical content formats. “People don’t really think of films and albums. Albums are dead because of Spotify, you could say films are dead, that’s a good quote for an article. But what is a film when we are just constantly on our ‘phones or in front of screens?”

Riggall suggested a subscription model for new releases as a way forward.

“It’s how you sustain that though,” Rowland said. “With a television series you get into the world and you’re in it for months. With a film it feels like an investment and it launches and it’s gone. So it how you sustain that involvement?”

Riggall suggested: “Put films and television and music and music videos together. Mash it all up and then the future will be rosy.”

So why aren’t cinemas showing Game of Thrones? Most exhibitors aren’t doing that, Mitchell wondered.

“It wouldn’t be very useful if you want your films staying in the cinema,” said Eloy. “Don’t you just want people in the cinema?” Mitchell responded. “You just need to get them to one to the cinema. That’s why I think they do these huge events like opera and why people are coming to the cinema,” Riggall said.

But Eloy noted that wasn’t the case everywhere for her members. “You have the opera so you have the audience coming for the opera but it is only for the opera,” Eloy said. 

Mitchell said while the industry want more people watching independent films, no one can ignore the fact that TV is so good right now. “Why are people are going to pay €50, €80 to go out for the night, get a babysitter, when they might have TV at home that is [often] better than some independent films?”

Muselaers said they’ve been bringing TV to the cinema and the other way around for years. Lumiere organises an annual festival in the Netherlands over a weekend where all episodes of a new series are aired one day while the following day offers festival goers a marathon of 10 episodes of a new series. “The marathon is more popular. People pay €25 or €30 to see the whole thing. And they sit in the cinema all day, they have two or three breaks, we do a nice dinner in between and we bring in the talent etc.”

When Muselaers is acquiring a TV show in the current market, she always tries to secure theatrical rights as well so she can do event screenings. “I recently did one around Picnic At Hanging Rock. I always try to bring it into the cinema, the first two episodes or something. But it is difficult to get in on the regular circuit of theatres, even if we’re trying because they don’t have a place for us, a bit like TV not having slots [for films].”

Rowland said, “As a distributor it’s a real issue. I’m still emotionally scarred by a film (Parkland) I released about the assassination of JFK. It had a great cast, (Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron and Billy Bob Thornton) and we had the weekend of this 50th anniversary of the assassination all set. We had money, we had commitment, all of those things, going great guns. On the Saturday night in cinemas was the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who that just took out our Saturday night of our opening weekend. Also around that anniversary there was a lot of really really good television product and people thought the same project we had spent all that money advertising was the same film on television that same weekend.”

What about one screen in a cinema that only shows TV shows?, asked Muselaers. “One of the problems everywhere now is a place to be seen,” Eloy responded. “Quite a few films are released every year and of course distributors are participating in this, producers are releasing themselves. Competition for space is really fierce.”

HOW EXHIBITORS CAN RESPOND TO THE CRISIS

So, what do exhibitors need to do to get ahead?

Rowland is sympathetic to their plight. “I think they have the burden of the cost of real estate and the technology and keeping up with that. And they have their own marketing as well. If it’s a local community using that cinema or a multiplex, it has to be wider than that,” she said. “They do have a lot of challenges and they are businesses at the end of the day. They’re experiencing the same crisis of audiences that distributors are and platforms are. So that’s their argument for ticket prices, for having blockbusters in all the screens and they are valid arguments.”

Rowland acknowledged that exhibitors are trying new things: building luxurious screens where you can drink wine and eat gourmet food; embracing event cinema, offering gaming sessions, or other innovations just to get a more diverse audience into the venues.

“And it’s not necessarily all about film, they’re experimenting with technology. I went to see most of The Nun in 270 degrees so it’s on a screen and there are pictures down each side. You really feel like you’re in the forest and you’re in that graveyard. I don’t want to do any spoilers but it does scare the shit out of you.”

But while they are doing their bit, exhibitors need to be crossing over walls to talk to other parts of the industry more, Rowland thought.

WINDOWS NEED REPLACING

The other question related to exhibition is whether they are willing to help break down the traditional theatrical window, Mitchell suggested.

Rowland said, “For independent film there are conversations you can have with them if you feel your film hasn’t performed theatrically. We bring dates forward and more often than not they are open to that.”

Just a few years ago the acronym VOD would be enough to make people scream, Eloy noted. “It was a bit linked to day and date. What you can do to exploit your catalogue because that’s even more difficult now we don’t have DVD, box sets, special editions, etc. There is an interface with VOD that makes the cinema a VOD platform too. It’s a slow movement but it’s happening.”

Backed by Creative Europe’s MEDIA programme, the ECVI initiative offers local cinemas the chance to also offer their physical customers a chance to watch other films online. ECVI currently operates with partners in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway; the UK will be the next territory to target.

Muselaers thinks the idea is fantastic. “I love the idea of a cinema having a digital room as well where you can always watch those films.” But the problem is it can give all the power to the cinema with them getting almost all the revenue. “So until now they’ve only been experimenting with small films because distributors and producers don’t really make any money on it, so there is still an issue with the business model.”

Riggall pointed out the interesting parallel with theatre in the U.K., where audiences are getting a lot older and young audiences are not going at all. “And theatre owners have all the power. If you were to do a play in the West End you’d have to obey all their rules and it’s hard to reinvent that,” Riggall said. “For me the big point is to let the young people be a committee in local cinemas where they get the space to do free concerts or whatever. Make them a part of their culture and part of their community, not somewhere they have to pay €10 to go. By doing that and giving them that feeling of contribution then I think they will see the value of coming to a screening.”

Part of the problem of films getting kicked off, in Mitchell’s opinion, is there are too many films being released in cinemas. Should theatrical just not the holy grail anymore for all films? If more moved to VOD, would that free up the cream of the crop and give then a chance to stay in cinemas on for six weeks rather than being kicked off after three?

Rowland said it is about audiences and where they are consuming content; and yes, most filmmakers want their film seen on the big screen. ”But I think in a lot of cases there should be a reality check about if your audiences are actually watching films on the big screen and an acceptance of that,” Rowland said.

When Rowland started in the industry, distributors would make a profit on a theatrical release. A few years later if a film’s theatrical release broke even that was a sign of success. Now if a distributor takes 60% of what has been spent to release it, that’s seen as a success.

“From the distribution side, it is thinking very carefully about a place for theatrical and the cost of it. Theatrical is one of the biggest marketing tools for a film on other platforms and other formats. That’s its strength,” Rowland said.

Riggall said he found the idea depressing that the theatrical window doesn’t make any money at all and everyone is just making films to eventually sell to Netflix.

Eloy expressed concern about the assessment of the benefits of a theatrical release. “I hear the benefits from a theatrical release is not much,” she said. “There is nothing after. So actually it is not a marketing tool for anything because then it’s done. That has to change.”

She said when you look at the life of independent films, they are finished after theatrical “because there is no place to put them after. No DVD market, VOD is not interested or you are on an independent VOD platform that no-one knows you are on.”

“People only know the big global players and and some illegal sites,” said Eloy.

PIRACY PROBLEMS

A recent report indicated that piracy has increased in Europe because there are too many streaming services and some people don’t want to sign up to all these streaming services anymore. “There is a saturation among consumers and unfortunately we’re going to have to acknowledge that,” Muselaers said.

Rowland noted Google is now buying Oscar potential films (they’ve bought animation Wolfwalkers and documentary The Elephant Queen at Toronto 2018) and arrive in the market armed with a budget of a billion dollars. Then there’s Facebook about to do their own channel and Snapchat that has announced Snapchat Originals.

“The plus side is we’ve got all this content, the technology means its easier, there are platforms out there, we just need to drive audiences  to where they are. The flip side is it is all confusing.”

Riggall hates the word content: “Content is for Mark Zuckerberg to make money or selling data from.”

As to piracy, Riggall cites his inability to be able to find where he can watch Tony Richardson’s 1962 drama The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.“I wonder whether government departments have a duty to make archive accessible to everyone. That’s why the BFI Player is really good. You can find important movies by [John] Cassavetes you can’t find anywhere else.”

Muselaers thought so called find-ability search is something the whole industry should invest in.

TOO MANY FILMS SPOIL THE BROTH

Another part of our role for Europe Distribution is to talk to the European film agencies that have their own association, EFADs (European Film Agency Directors).

“One of the discussions we have with them is should we have a more holistic approach of the way they fund things,” Eloy said. “Politically, funding has usually been focused on production, which is very important, but that brings us where we are. Last year there were 1,800 films produced. These films are supposed to be released in the cinema. It is of course not what happens.”

The percentage changes from one country to another (of how many make it to the cinema). Some are made to stay local.

Muselaers said part of the issue at the moment when you look at this film and TV value chain is that all the middlemen have to go somewhere else because of vertical integration elsewhere.

“There is so much money for content that what happens is all the middlemen are moving towards production because that is where they can use their competencies and use legal advice and they know the market etc etc etc, so it means more and more is being produced instead of going the other way and connecting with the audiences.”

Remember Amazon might be paying all this money but all they want to do really is sell Hoovers, Riggall said.

Rowland thinks that is the ultimate clash of this industry. “It’s traditionally based on film as art and self-expression and it clashes with our end which is the business end, in trying to sustain that business.”

ONE IDEA TO CHANGE THE WORLD

It is all about education for Eloy. “Teach people that film is a wonderful way of telling and hearing stories. In the cinema. Create curiosity. At least raise curiosity and interest when they are young people, it is important.”

Riggall wants to ensure governments take film culture and art and entertainment seriously and its importance in people’s mental wellbeing and not just as a way of making money. “It is important they listen to stories that last longer than three minutes. We need to radically change and stop talking about, but do it.”

“It’s been proven that people still go to the cinema even if a film is available online” – Mitchell

Muselaers has a new favourite word: Co-opetition. “It means you co-operate with your competition. I think in this industry we should really look at who is my competitor and shouldn’t I be working with that competitor to create value together? Maybe we should invest in innovation together, maybe we could develop something together, maybe we can reach out to audiences together, see where the power is.”

For Rowland regular opportunity for people to come to the cinema and see films for free via a partnership between everyone in the value chain would help. “It could be a set day in the month but regularly because it is not just youth audiences, it’s black audiences, it’s female audiences, it’s older audiences. Let’s give them access to films, reignite that love and passion.”

Mitchell pointed out that theatrical windows don’t make sense for anyone. “It’s been proven that people still go to the cinema even if a film is available online.”

GAME OVER

Rowland wanted to drop a couple of jaw-dropping statistics as food for thought.

The game Fortnite has a core audience of boys aged eight to 12.

In one month (May 2018) 564 million hours were logged on watching other people play that game. “That’s not even playing themselves. That’s just people sat there watching on YouTube other people play this game,” Rowland said. “The other stat for that is in the same month, one billion dollars were made for the game company by in-game purchases on Fortnite.

So, all sectors can learn a thing or two from that gaming phenomenon.