A far-reaching study, to be discussed for the first time in detail at the Regional Forum, reveals the eclectic viewing habits of Europeans. Geoffrey Macnab talks to experts about its findings.

Welcome to the world of ‘digital natives’ and ‘hyper-connected movie addicts’. The panel on day 2 (August 21) of the Regional Forum and Creative Europe - MEDIA conference brings together European experts to explore the different ways films reach spectators throughout Europe.

The starting point is a far-reaching Film Audience Survey, which has been carried out across Europe by Headway International with Attentional and Harris Interactive on behalf of the European Commission.

At Cannes in May 2013, industry delegates were given a first glimpse of the study. There was a follow-up workshop in Brussels in December that year, and a presentation at International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2014. Now, its finding are being debated in Sarajevo.

“The most surprising thing, for me, was the impact of film [on people],” notes Arnaud Dupont, managing director of Headway International. “We asked many different questions regarding cultural habits, and film was the number one activity. A full 97% of the respondents said they watched films.”

‘We have to fight for our audience. The solution is to use the possibilities offered by digital distribution’

Jasmin Durakovic, DEPO

UK-based Madeleine Probst - programme producer at Watershed, a cross-artform venue and producer, and forum panellist - is heartened by the results. “What this indicates is that there’s a real appetite for watching films and that digital is enabling film watching and culture to be more accessible than ever,” says Probst.

“It also shows we’re only beginning to grasp the extent to which access to vast amounts of content on a proliferating choice of platforms might affect audiences’ perception of cinemas as places, cinema-going habits and the wider engagement with film.”

The research, which took the form of an online survey of 4,608 Europeans aged between four and 50 in 10 countries (Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain and the UK), has mixed messages for European cinema. Respondents warmed to the “originality” and “variety” of European movies by comparison to more “stereotypical” Hollywood. However, there are also pointed remarks about the “boring”, “slow”, “heavy” nature and complex plotting of much of the European fare.

“Bear in mind there are quite a big number of people who don’t like European films,” says Dupont. “They have all these clichés about the films being boring, slow and focused on social topics.”

‘Audiences expect more from their investment of time and money. This creates opportunities for cinemas’

Madeleine Probst, Watershed

But he also highlights the enthusiasm some respondents showed for European films. “The fact people think European films are dark and slow paced is not always a bad thing for them,” he states. “The key point is that European films are different to US films.”

This difference, Dupont suggests, should be celebrated; European cinema should provide an alternative to Hollywood rather than trying to imitate it.

The study includes some intriguing findings about film education. For example, some 43% of respondents ‘watch or have watched films as part of a course of study at school, university or in adult education’, while 87% of film viewers go to the cinema.

Reaching fractured audiences

Panellist Dragoslav Zachariev of EuroVoD, a network of independent European VoD platforms, is looking forward to debating how small independent operators can use technology to reach a new and fractured digital audience.

“Part of the industry is not open to experimentation because they fear this is the first sign of a major change,” Zachariev suggests. “But they have to find ways of developing legal VoD offers that are respectful to the rest of the value chain. Our objective is to create strong brands, very well identified by users, that present us as a one-stop shop for independent films.”

EuroVoD is active already in Poland and is looking to advance further into eastern Europe. One of its members is Austria-based online film portal Filmmit, whose CEO Karin Haager will also sit on the panel. Haager points to the practical benefits of the study for her business as she and her colleagues are now looking at different ways of marketing films to the various tribes identified in the study.

“You have to approach the ‘occasional hit grazers’ and ‘movie indifferents’ in a very different way to, say, the ‘mainstream blockbuster lovers’,” Haager says.

She is also intrigued by the study’s insights into national differences in viewing habits. “For example, Twitter is used heavily by Spanish film lovers, but by contrast, Twitter is far less of a factor in German-speaking markets.”

‘Dark and slow paced is not always a bad thing when it comes to European films’

Arnaud Dupont, Headway International

While this may be an era in which films are downloaded and watched on laptops, mobile phones and tablets, in certain parts of Europe, audiences rely on travelling cinemas to see movies. Southeast Europe in particular remains very under-screened, with around 60,000 people per screen in Bosnia. War, the subsequent break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the creation of six or seven much smaller film industries meant multiplex construction was not a priority and DVD and digital piracy is rife throughout the region.

Travelling cinemas screening a mix of European and US fare, including Operation Kino, which involves Sarajevo Film Festival, has long been the way many Southeast European audiences have watched films. Significantly, Operation Kino also operates a VoD service.

Bosnia-based producer and director Jasmin Durakovic, who will also sit on the panel, is one of a number of influential figures in the region trying to “be part of the new game” in distributing content digitally and legally. His company, DEPO, distributes movies, TV series, documentaries and other video content to the Balkan diaspora across the world.

“We have to fight for our audience,” he says. “The solution is to use the possibilities that digital distribution offers.”

Forward thinking

The Reaching The Audience report provides a long-awaited tool with which the European film industry can investigate itself. For years, there have been complaints about the lack of data on audience habits. One question now is whether the research will continue.

There is new European Commission leadership in place that will have to decide whether to follow up on the study. If it does, there are new areas to address. For example, the original survey group consisted of only 10 countries and its respondents were all under 50 years of age. Yet the 50-plus audience demographic is growing fast.

“We are moving into an environment where audiences expect more from their investment of time and money, whether it be event driven, experiential, participatory, curatorial or editorial,” notes Probst. “This creates
opportunities for cinemas that have an understanding of their audiences and are active with their online and social spaces.”