IDFA Industry Talk on innovations in online distribution, a follow-up to an event from 2020, took place at the Brakke Grond on Sunday afternoon, where representatives of three innovative distribution platforms from the UK, the US and the Netherlands talked about their work with cinemas in the times when the pandemic is not yet over.
The talk was moderated by Wendy Bernfeld of the Amsterdam-based consultancy company Rights Stuff. She introduced the speakers who described their methods of distributing films in pandemic times, which combine theatrical releases and different forms of VoD in various combinations of day-and-date and window models.
First up was Eve Gabereau of Modern Films, set up in 2017 as a "London-based, female-led, social issues-driven production, distribution and event cinema company."
Modern Films partners with cultural organizations, brands or companies, such as the Royal Opera House, British Library and Tate Modern, as well as music festivals and publishers, who have a link with the thematic of their library of 65+ films. In March 2020, they launched a virtual cinema and released over 75 films, out of which 22 were their own acquisitions.
Among their films are music documentaries such as White Riot, Poly Sterene, Sisters with Transistors and Keyboard Fantasies.
"We found music documentaries worked very well online," Gabereau said. "There is a natural connection between music and streaming."
They planned to release White Riot when lockdown happened, through partnerships with music festivals which had to be cancelled, but they all also moved online.
"We were able to create a music festival atmosphere online through talks and music and screenings of the film. We did a six-month rollout with music festivals online and then we released the film in the cinemas when they reopened temporarily."
The box office split between the virtual and physical releases was 50%-50%.
Poly Styrene was launched at Glasgow FF and its whole distribution was online, but the company positioned it as a theatrical release on their own platform in partnership with cinemas, where the audience buys tickets for a cinema and watches the film online.
This is already becoming a standard model that has emerged during the pandemic, with independent streaming platforms supporting cinemas by sharing revenues and in turn building their own audience.
"The big thing that has changed is the windowing. Traditional windows are different in every country, but for commercial releases it used to be 16 weeks historically, and now it's looking like 31 days in cinemas, 45 days to transactional models such as pay per view, and 75 days to SVoD, so everything is shrunk," Gabereau explained.
Elissa Federoff from one of the biggest independent US distribution companies, NEON, joined the panel remotely from New York. They famously distributed Parasite, the first non-US film to win the Best Picture Oscar.
"The pandemic happened and things got complicated and people had to start thinking of new ways to engage audiences and get them to watch films while sitting on their couch. There's a buffet of options out there and we had to rise to the occasion to make ours stand out," said Federoff.
NEON's windowing model has been flexible from the very beginning: they would release a film in theatres with the idea to keep it there for 17 days before putting on VoD, but if the release showed legs they would keep it in cinemas. Now big players like Universal are catching up and employing a similar approach.
"It's not that this stuff hasn't been happening before, I just feel people are now open and these large corporations are able to get on board and work with us on it," Federoff said.
At the beginning of Covid, it seemed that every distributor set up a virtual platform. But NEON has an output partnership with Hulu, one of the strongest streaming services in the US. They were able to play with windows, as did many other distributors in the territory.
"There are SVoD windows, PVoD windows, TVoD windows, we've done it all, and we also used drive-ins to amplify our films with an audience in a safe way during Covid," she reflected.
She then gave three examples of films they distributed through the same model: Pig with Nicolas Cage, Ben Wheatley's pandemic-themed folk horror In the Earth, and Palme d'Or winner Titane. These titles were successful upon their theatrical release, and when they were sent to TVoD or PVoD, they kept going in the cinemas.
"It's really interesting to see the overlap when TVoD came into play because all our strong arthouses kept the films in theatres. That's a testament to the fact that these audiences and forms of distribution can co-exist," she said.
However, with the Sundance-winning animated documentary Flee, they had a different approach.
"Flee is a film that we strongly believe should be in theatres and should grow in the way we released films before pandemic. It is a beautiful film that absolutely belongs in the cinemas, and I feel that buzz needs to grow. We have awards campaigns going around it, it will build with prestige and incredible reviews, and it belongs with a 90-day window," Federoff explained.
Also founded in 2017, the Dutch-based Picl is a distribution platform that Anke van Diejen says was started because they noticed the difficulty that arthouse and documentary films had with finding audiences.
"Even if we had a great marketing campaign, we realized we just couldn't reach all the people that would want to see the films," she said. "So we started thinking about a virtual cinema platform, which back then we didn't see as a virtual cinema. We figured if these cinemas want to present a film and reach audiences, why not present it to people at home at the same time?"
Initially this was a proposal that was hard to sell to cinemas. Picl started with six theatres and with just one film that they released themselves, and they kept adding films to their platform. More cinemas started joining in as they saw the advantage of reaching additional audiences.
"And then of course Covid came along and we were actually ready for Covid. By then we were working with 22 cinemas, and when lockdowns came, they all said to their audiences, we have to our doors but films can be seen in our online screening room," van Diejen recalled.
Picl is now working with 40 cinemas across the Netherlands, which made theaters in Flanders reach out to them, and she says it looked quite easy because a lot of distributors have rights to films for Benelux. They started working in Belgium a couple of weeks ago with five cinemas, but Wallonia is a different matter because their cinemas often work with French distributors who have strict laws on windowing.
All three speakers agreed that the most feasible model of the present, and a strong pointer for the future, is the combination of theatrical and digital distribution. The theatrical release serves as a marketing tool in addition to its own value - audiences are more aware of films on offer, and now they can often pick on the same day if they are going to see them in a cinema or at home. They, together with all other distributors and exhibitors in their territories, are experimenting with the exact relation between the two, and, as Bernfeld put it, at IDFA 2022 we will have a reason to have another talk on this topic.