Day one of the IFFR Reality Check conference delivered a series of panels designed to lift the fog of uncertainty around current and future distribution methods and models.
By Nick Cunningham
Topics debated by panellists yesterday were the increasing importance of curation, national and pan-European policy and 'event' cinema. As these were debated into submission, certain motifs were recurrent, such as Netflix (some panellists were pro, some were anti), Brexit (everybody was anti) and IFFR Live/Unleashed activities (all pro).
The day opened with IFFR director's Bero Beyer's doom-laden assessment of the distribution world to come - if we don't act now. Domination of our screens by 'spectacle' films, no space allocation for independent films which are (as a result) becoming bleaker in tone, no youth audiences (other than for the spectacles) and little to no penetration of foreign-language cinema within global film markets. "So basically, we’re totally fucked. Now let's all take a deep breath. Have a relieved smile and let's get our act together. It’s time for a Reality Check!," he said.
Daniela Elstner from Doc & Film International offered consolation and took up the challenge during her key-note speech. "We are not so fucked up, I actually believe that there are still things that can be done," she said, and underlined how, "I personally do not want to give in and live my life and work to a business-oriented machine, telling me which algorithm would be the best one to make money with. Culture will always survive, but it will only survive if there is enough of us believing in it and keeping it going."
At the opening of Reality Check, Daniela Elstner delivered a keynote speech. Read more about it orWatch it here
During the session on curation IFFR's Melissa van der Schoor outlined the raison d'être behind the online distribution platform IFFR Unleashed which will itself be unleashed this Tuesday. "These IFFR films [both present and past] attract huge audiences but once the festival is over …they don’t often find another outlet, and that’s a pity because there is definitely an audience for them," she pointed out. "So we developed a playing field where we can decide what the guidelines are and also offer these filmmakers the opportunity to decide where and when they want to release their films online." IFFR Unleashed will be subscription-based in the Benelux and "transactional-based" worldwide (excluding the US), she added.
MUBI’s Bobby Allen responded: "From MUBI’s perspective this is a great innovation, similar to what we have been doing…In the space of arthouse cinema, there is plenty of room for more players to develop a more mature market addressing what happens to these films."
After 52 minutes of conference talk the subject of Netflix was finally broached. Dan Schoenbrun, co-creator of The Eyeslicer got straight to the point: "We would have made quadruple our budget [with Netflix] just on SVOD alone, it [was] very enticing. But these questions go to the heart of that concept of curation and the way these platforms programme. They are clearly these massive money corporate grabs [that] attempt to control the worldwide market. I find it very scary that an algorithm can tell you what the best film is."
Added Mubi's Allen: "Why we are here and why we are at IFFR is that we believe in cinema in a different way… we share Daniela's values of sticking with it and not giving up. IFFR Unleashed can be a good counterbalance to [Netflix]."
Meanwhile leading Dutch distributor Cinemien's Babette Wijntjes explained her shift back to basic principles in determining the company's curation strategy. "Cinemien started in the 70s from the feminist movement, and for a while…we didn't want to be called the feminist company or the one that only does women's films. Nowadays we are, like, let's go back to that. We have now done that and are proud of that…and celebrating the fact that we have done a lot of LGBT films, and we also know where those audiences are and we curate better for them… First find the audience and then deliver the movie."
Shifting Sands Panel
On the Shifting Sands panel that followed, producers Bertrand Faivre (France/UK) and Uzma Hassan (UK) were more positive about the disrupting effect of Netflix and Amazon.
"I did a panel a few months ago in Deauville and it was striking for me to see that American people saw Amazon and Netflix as a new opportunity and everyone in Europe was seeing that as a threat," said Faivre, "Amazon and Netflix are disruptors to the distribution system because they bring a third way [besides] tv and cinema."
Hassan was equally enthusiastic: "I found it really interesting and exciting to be working with disruptors because one of the things it allows you to do, if you are perhaps yourself outside of the establishment, is to work with companies that are more free and perhaps feel that they have a better understanding, and a closer link to the consumer… For myself I have used those disruptors in order to get quite difficult stories off the ground, certainly in an English-language context out into the world."
Added Eurimages'Enrico Vannucci: "I am a bureaucrat so I have a very strict set of rules that I have to abide by, so of course we see the disruption and we can try to adjust but we are slow in reacting and we need to stick to the rules as they are… We have to take into account the context in which we operate."
Moderator Isabel Davis (BFI) weighed in linking the themes of Netflix, national and broadcast funding and the perennially thorny issue of windows: "We seem to be in a very prolonged moment of disruption where we know there is uncertainty, but we suspect that on the other side of this uncertainty there is one global mass without windows, without barriers, territorial or otherwise, and in the meantime we are just trying to overcome these hurdles, and I just wonder whether that moment is ever going to come…when nobody has any money for anything… The territoriality of everything is a predication of the money, and I wonder if we will ever get beyond that."
The session moved on to the subject of data (to be addressed more fully today during the Conference on Monday). Faivre suggested as data is the main asset of Netflix then similar Europe-wide data collection should be co-ordinated by one of the European institutions. Moderator Davis suggested that Vannucci, in his Eurimages capacity, should step up to the plate. He thought the European Audiovisual Observatory would be better suited to the task.
Hassan felt that we have had access to data since the early days of the film industry, but that everybody has hitherto ignored it. "These conversations have been going on for a very long time and still sales agents and distributors make their decisions [using] the knowledge they have had for 20 years of going to market and their feelings, so I think it has hopefully accelerated the fact that data is very important and can be used intelligently, but again I would say, 'with great power comes great responsibility'."
Eventful Distribution Panel
Director Bero Beyer rejoined the fray for the Eventful Distribution panel during which the debate (understandably) centred around IFFR Live. "The feeling that we find to be most positive during the festival is the ‘plus’ feeling, the feeling that this is more than just a screening, that everything comes together within a venue with lots of people, having the cast and crew there …We try to export that feeling… that it has to be something interactive, that it has to be something additional and that you feel part of a bigger circle of people together, and you can feel each other’s warmth because you are humans and you want to discuss what you have seen. If you can have that as an event that is able to travel to as many places as possible on and off line, that is the basis of IFFR Live."
Daniela Elstner responded, citing her own past IFFR Live experiences both as an attending producer and an advocate in persuading international cinemas to take part in the event. "It was not easy to convince a Spanish theatre [in Madrid] to be part of it, it took a lot of energy… but they [eventually made] a lot of publicity out of it, and I think they really tried to be part of Rotterdam and the festival, and then they showed the films and had an interaction. This is something we all need today, because it offers something specific on the film and the public are asking for that."
Joanna Żak, programmer of New Horizons Cinema in Wroclaw, Poland, told of her successful experiences in 'event' cinema by offering discounts to the "brave humans" who would sing or dance in front of the box-office, as well as silent disco offerings in the cinema foyer that "were nearly as popular as the screening of Groundhog Day that played for free all day long."
"We loved IFFR Live, but it is difficult for our audience. The box-office is not as big as we would want it to be, about 30 people per screening, but at the same time we are ambassadors of IFFR live and we are sending the message to our audience that this is something that you should be looking at."
Beyer was asked to define the bolt-on element of event cinema. "Great films first, but no talent, no show. They have to be there. They have to represent the film. They have to be able to speak about the film," he answered.
Nathan Fischer of Stray Dogs had the last word on the subject of event cinema. "Non-theatrical is the new theatrical," he concluded.
On Monday IFFR panellists and guests will grapple with attracting new audiences and the ethically sound manipulation of raw data to boost independent distribution, and they will hear the results from four working groups tasked to find solutions to key distribution problems.See the schedule