With theatrical space for independent cinema being squeezed it is important to consider the complex process of interaction that leads to a cinemagoer buying a ticket, says Jonathan Olsberg

This month, the Berlin Film Festival will celebrate the very best that world cinema has to offer, from anticipated films from major auteurs like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick to brand new work from rising talents who will be hoping to light up Potsdamer Platz.

The Berlinale is a major launchpad for new work. However, away from the rarefied air of a major international film festival the theatrical landscape for independent cinema is undergoing seismic change – and conditions can be unforgiving for independents.

 In the UK, for example, recent years have seen the number of releases rise significantly.

According to the BFI 698 films were released in 2013 in the UK and Republic of Ireland – an average of more than 13 per week, and 51 more films than were released in 2012.

Release length is also under pressure. According to the 2014 Film Distributors’ Association Yearbook only 27 features out of the 700 released in 2013 ran for longer than six weeks.

Making any kind of impact in such a crowded window is expensive and risky for independent films. As BFI data shows, the top 100 films in 2013 claimed 91% of the box office, with the remaining 598 accounting for 9%.

Global squeeze to tighten

Looking to the future, this global squeeze is likely to get much tighter.

As underlined by Vue Entertainment International Founder and CEO Tim Richards at the Screen International Film Summit in December the blockbuster pipeline over the coming years is very strong, with a wealth of superhero and animated tentpoles.

This includes new entries in behemoth franchises such as Bond, The Hunger Games, Avatar, Star Wars and Ice Age. Notably, such tentpoles are dated relatively evenly throughout the year.

Event cinema competition

Independent films face even further competition for screen space from event and alternative cinema, with Billy Elliot the Musical – Live opening number one at the UK box office last September.

It is, of course, remarkable and not a little ironic that this was achieved through a live broadcast of a musical adaptation of an original British film.

Battle for engagement

Independent distributors are not just fighting for space, however. They are also battling for engagement.

The fight for consumer entertainment spend is fierce and the level of noise – from other screen products, and from other entertainment sectors – that distributors need to cut through is considerable.

The sector is trying to adapt to these new realities – it knows that reaching relevant consumers and translating their engagement is something of an artform.

Indeed, establishing ongoing engagement with cinemagoers can be seen as key in leading to ticket sales. It is helpful to consider this process of interaction in detail, though the steps are certainly common sense. SPI describes this as the “ADOD Principle”:

Awareness: success starts with this. Even with a significant marketing budget distributors need to be creative to get future audiences even aware of the existence of a screen product. With a limited budget creativity in achieving this is essential.

Desire: translating awareness to need is vital. For some titles such desire may be inbuilt – particularly for a project that is part of a series, has stars, or has been made by a director with a pre-existing fanbase. For others, instilling desire depends on deep insight into a project’s unique hooks – and the market demographics who will respond to these. This is where audience development comes in.

Opportunity: clearly, desire only becomes a ticket sale if the audience has a real opportunity to see it. In such a crowded theatrical market, this is perhaps the greatest challenge.

Decision: everything rides on this – the customer’s decision to prioritise visiting a cinema over the many other entertainment options open to them. And there are compelling reasons for consumers to stay at home. A positive decision in this regard is hard-fought and should be considered the fulcrum of the previous three steps.

It is now more important than ever that independent distributors and government screen bodies are closely engaged with this process.

After all, there are incredible film-makers able to light up screens – but in such a crowded landscape we must ignite audience desire to get those screens filled.

Jonathan Olsberg is Chairman of UK creative industries consultancy OlsbergSPI.