Industry Report: Distribution and exhibition
Strategies and future of European cinema (Part 2)
by Fabien Lemercier
21/12/2011 - Present and future of arthouse theatres
Beyond the usual anxious corporate talk, real dangers currently threaten Europe’s arthouse theatres. Here’s an overview and accounts from exhibitors in six European countries.
An alarming account is given by Hungary’s Tibor Bíró (Cine-Mis in Miskolc), vice-president of his country’s association of arthouse cinemas. As a consequence of the crisis that hit the MMKA (former organisation that managed public funding), funding has been blocked for two years and nine of Hungary’s 44 arthouse cinemas have closed, including in big cities. And while public funding is now the responsibility of the Ministry of National Resources, the terms of allocation are not yet known. On the other hand, for digital screening, the State has launched a scheme covering 75% of the financing of installations. This is a decisive advance for arthouse theatres unable to self-finance equipment while the multiplexes (90% market share with the dominance of Cinema City) have no difficulty in going digital. Moreover, the number of films screened in arthouse theatres is continually falling, with access to films becoming increasingly difficult because financially-squeezed distributors are limiting themselves to release runs of 1-4 prints. Inevitably, admissions suffer as a result. Finally, Hungarian theatres desperately lack films for educating young audiences to become film enthusiasts.
Lithuania’s Greta Akcijonaite (Kino Pasaka, Vilnius) reminds us that her country has only three self-proclaimed arthouse cinemas and that US productions monopolise 80% of admissions in Lithuania compared to 17% for non-domestic European films and 3% for Lithuanian features. "We’re still surviving" she adds, pointing out that there is no public funding for exhibition and distribution. "As distribution is mostly American, an arthouse cinema has become a distributor so as not to become a theatre of minor distribution."
Branching out into distribution is also the solution chosen by Hrvoje Laurenta (Kino Europa in Zagreb). "In Croatia, there are only two distributors, one of which also has the monopoly over multiplexes. We acquired 15 films, organising an event centred around each of them thanks to some sponsors." Some good news recently came regarding digitisation: the State will take on 70% of the cost of equipment if the exhibitor can cover the remaining 30%. "But marketing is more important than the programming and digitisation. You have to be creative, even if you have little money Belgium’s Michail Bakolas (Cinéma Le Parc, Charleroi) prepares this creativity in the form of an intermingling of art forms with his plan for a cultural centre for the world of images, which will include a cinema.
With 2,000 arthouse theatres amassing 45-50m admissions annually, France could consider itself very fortunate. But Patrick Brouiller, president of AFCAE (French Association of Arthouse Cinemas) calls for vigilance: "for the past six years, all the regulatory authorities promoting diversity have been losing ground. Some would like to deregulate more and change the distribution windows. We believe that movie theatres are the natural place to see films and they are also the biggest contributors to the film economy." About the digitisation that has been well organised by the French authorities (compulsory VPF from distributors and support plan for small theatres), Patrick Brouiller is nevertheless worried about the risks of concentration of theatres and pressure from distributors on the programming. And he emphasises one point: "there is no creative diversity without diversity of distribution."
Finally, Detlef Rossmann, an exhibitor in Oldenburg in Germany (where 600 arthouse theatres account for 12% of admissions) and president of CICAE (International Confederation of Arthouse Cinemas) pointed out two problems in large countries: excessive film production that is continually on the rise, set against more or less stable audience figures, and the disappearance of town-centre cinemas confronted with exorbitant rents. According to him, "only public funding can save these cinemas." Linking this subject to the question of digitisation, he was rather pessimistic about the future of small, private arthouse theatres, particularly in central and Eastern Europe: "They will close because they’re not profitable, and won’t have VPF. And in the current crisis, their countries’ states can’t afford to help them."