Europa Distribution discusses documentary release in times of pandemic at IDFA

– The network of distributors presented several case studies at the Dutch festival

After the break imposed by the pandemic in 2020, which led to the cancellation of many appointments and professional events in the film industry, Europa Distribution returned to IDFA for the third time this year, renewing its partnership with the Festival Industry Talk program. On November 22, some members of the association gathered at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam for a series of case studies on the release of documentary films. The meeting took place as a hybrid event, with members of the network joining remotely, eager to discuss some of their “successes and failures” in the documentary realm over the past two years.

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Hana Kijonka, Marketing Specialist at Aerofilms (Czech Republic), got the ball rolling by sharing its exit strategy for Gunda [+see also:
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(2020) by Viktor Kossakovsky, a “courageous film” which offers “a look at the life of farm animals”. Strongly targeted at arthouse moviegoers, vegetarians / vegans and those concerned about environmental issues, Aerofilms selected media partners and influencers for its marketing campaign based on these interests, achieving a strong presence in specialized media. Marketing materials relied heavily on visuals, with various promotional videos featuring quotes from internationally renowned filmmakers praising the film. Gunda was released in the Czech Republic on August 12, 2021, shortly after cinemas across the country reopened, in the hopes that people would return to the cinema – as happened the year before -. “We had to find a date between the reopening of the cinemas and before the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where we already had many titles scheduled.” As Kijonka pointed out, “it was a great movie to watch on the big screen,” so Aerofilms decided to keep the window in theaters for over a month. Unfortunately, arthouse theaters have seen low attendance at this point as their regular audiences did not return to theaters as expected, leading to modest admissions numbers. On September 26, the film was released on their own streaming platform (Aerovod), where it performed relatively well for VOD release.

Going north, Fredrik scholze (Arthaus, Norway) contributed remotely by talking about his particular experience with Gunda in Norway — one of the co-producing countries—. The film opened on March 26, 2021, when many cinemas across the country were still closed or with very limited capacity. Scholze explained that while many other films from this period came out with a very short cinema window and then went straight to VOD, Gunda was “clearly made for the big screen”. Therefore, Arthaus decided to go the other way around, making the theatrical window longer than usual and giving cinemas “time to gather the crowds”. Besides a strong social media campaign, they also decided to use a substantial part of the marketing budget to support local theaters in their promotion. Scholze also pointed out the difficulty of organizing live events during this time, and also finding the right approach when communicating the main themes of the film, trying not to “scare” an audience more disconnected from the topics. Another key element of the campaign was the involvement of the producers and the collaboration with the farm where the film was shot. In the end, given the difficult circumstances, Arthaus was satisfied with the result of the film, which did “rather well compared to other films released this year, even to major fictional titles,” said Scholze.

Following some of their previous experiences with musical documentaries such as amazing Grace (Alan Elliott, 2018) or Whitney [+see also:
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(Kevin MacDonald, 2018), Mirva Huusko from Nonstop Entertainment (Sweden) spoke about the difficult release of Billie [+see also:
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(2019) by James erskine, a documentary about famous jazz singer Billie Holiday. The film had its national premiere at the Tempo Documentary Festival in March 2020 and was due to hit theaters shortly thereafter, “but then the pandemic happened and things changed quickly across the world, so our release was put on hold.” . After a second unsuccessful attempt at a Christmas release that year, the film finally opened in theaters on April 16, 2021, when Swedish cinemas were operating under the strict 8-person rule, which limited theaters’ capacity to 8 people per session. “Billie has become a much smaller version than we initially expected, and it was heavily influenced by the pandemic ”. However, the lack of competition at the time was in their favor and the few open theaters showed great interest in showing the film. Nonstop Entertainment has also teamed up with another local distributor, TriArt, to launch the film on their arthouse platform as a PVOD release. Even though the overall numbers were lower than expected, the film had a long run in theaters and a relatively good performance. Out of curiosity, The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Lee Daniels, 2021), a fictional biopic about Billie Holiday released in June, has seen fewer admissions than Billie in Sweden, the latter benefiting from the media attention of the former.

The liberation of I am Greta [+see also:
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(2020) by Nathan Grossman in Switzerland was another “bold move”, according to Christina Hug by Filmcoopi (Switzerland). The film, which focuses on environmental activist Greta Thunberg, was released in Swiss theaters on October 16, 2020, when audiences were still too scared of the virus to go to theaters. However, there was “not much of a choice,” as Hug explained. The cinema window for the film was extremely short as one of the co-producers was a German TV station operating in the territory, which had already scheduled the first free TV. On top of that, the Covid situation “deteriorated dramatically” in October and November, and the country entered a second lockdown, reducing the film’s theatrical potential. “The film was hit hard by the pandemic”, regrets Hug. On a brighter note, I am Greta was very present in the national media, both mainstream and specialized, thanks to the interest aroused by the protagonist and the recent buzz of the festival (the film was presented in preview in Venice and was screened shortly after at the Festival du Zurich film). Likewise, it has succeeded in arousing the interest of many partners, including international environmental organizations such as WWF. On the flip side, Greta’s public figure has proven to be a double-edged sword, as she also generated a significant number of hateful comments while promoting the film online. “A high profile polarizing personality can be a trap in social media campaigns.”

Ultimately, Lara meyer (mindjazz photos, Germany) and Huub Roelvink (Cherry Pickers, Netherlands) illustrated the differences and similarities in the release Women [+see also:
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through Anastasia mikova and Yann Arthus-Bertrand in their respective countries. The Cologne-based distributor had to postpone its release date 3 times due to the ever-changing situation caused by the pandemic, while also finding new strategies and ultimately opting for an online VOD release in April 2021. Although the film did not have a real theatrical release in germany, mindjazz pictures has set up a way to share the income from online screenings in solidarity with theaters. In addition, many online events have been organized in cooperation with partners, most of them on the occasion of International Women’s Day. The Dutch distributor has also decided to build its film release strategy around the same date. “The idea was to get the film to as many screens as possible on International Women’s Day as a preview, and then release it appropriately on March 12,” Roelvink explained. The film got off to a great start to the day, but things in the Netherlands immediately started to change as the virus spread, and the countryside quickly fell apart. Despite its good performance on VOD, and Cherry Pickers’ attempt to relaunch the film in theaters after lockdown, it was very difficult to relaunch it. “As distributors, we are all aware of the importance of creating momentum for a film. The confinement has really shown that it is crucial for a successful exit ”.

Throughout the meeting, several topics were discussed which were further discussed during the closing part of the session. One of them was the combination of online and theatrical releases for documentary films, a strategy that is becoming increasingly popular in some countries. Lukáš Meinhart (Artcam Films, Czech Republic) described their approach to these releases as a “marketing tool”, often organizing specific hybrid events to raise awareness of the films and make them more visible, thus helping their theatrical release. As Meinhart pointed out, it’s crucial for them to get feedback from the theaters and explain their motivation to them. This alternative is less explored in other territories such as Norway, where “cinemas would never accept a date and date release”, as Scholze points out. This subject gave rise to other discussions on the benefits of event outings and screenings organized in unusual places, of which many members have varied examples. Jonas Pedersen Hardebrants (Doc Lounge, Sweden) explained that they have started hosting screenings in bars, restaurants and other social venues as a way for films to reach audiences and create word of mouth. “It’s now part of our distribution chain,” in Pedersen’s words. “For us, alternative locations are becoming more and more important,” Meinhart added, “especially in locations associated with the themes of our films.” These and other examples continue to show the resilience of independent film distributors, seeking answers and alternative approaches to their documentary releases, which have proven to be more vital than ever in a time of a pandemic.

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