Cannes offered up a ‘wonderful harvest’ of films for distributors in 2023, so can this year’s festival deliver another bumper crop of arthouse titles? Screen speaks to four top European distributors to discuss the outlook for Cannes and to reflect on the state of the distribution market in 2024.

Euro buyers

Source: Screen file

Clockwise from top left: Kim Foss, Louisa Dent, Anastasia Plazzotta

Louisa Dent

Managing director, Curzon Film

Curzon Film has distributed films such as The Quiet Girl, The Teachers’ Lounge, Triangle Of Sadness and Parasite. Curzon also operates 16 arthouse cinemas across the UK and runs Curzon Home Cinema. It has a development fund with Australia’s Madman and Benelux’s Cineart. Since 2019, Curzon has been owned by US-based Cohen Media Group, which acquired UK sales agent HanWay Films in 2022.

Eduardo Escudero

Co-founder, A Contracorriente

Barcelona-based A Contracorriente’s distribution division releases more than 35 titles a year, with credits including Perfect Days and The Teachers’ Lounge and local comedy La Navidad En Sus Manos. It also operates Verdi cinemas in Madrid and Barcelona, runs SVoD platform acontra+ and has two cinema genre FAST channels under the Verdi brand. A Contracorriente co-produces up to three films a year. Escudero is co-president of Europa Distribution.

Kim Foss

Managing director, Camera Film

Denmark’s Camera Film has distributed acclaimed recent films such as Perfect Days, The Boy And The Heronand Four Daughters. Camera Film also runs Denmark’s main arthouse cinema, the Grand Teatret in Copenhagen, which has six screens. The company has its own TVoD platform, which is home to more than 1,000 film titles. Foss is co-president of distributors’ organisation Europa Distribution.

Anastasia Plazzotta

Founder, Wanted Cinema

Launched in 2014, Italian distributor Wanted Cinema initially focused on documentary releases but has expanded to arthouse fiction features. Recent releases include Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Simple Comme Sylvain and Marguerite’s Theorem. Wanted also runs its own TVoD platform and it started producing last year with a focus on documentaries. Plazzotta is a board member of Europa Distribution.

Ahead of Cannes, Screen International gathered together four leading European arthouse film distributors to discuss market trends and acquisition priorities. The conversation spanned topics such as prices for Cannes films, how cinema audiences are increasingly focusing on a handful of top-quality arthouse films, the challenge of releasing ‘smaller’ films and the pros and cons of pre-buying titles.

How has business in 2024 been so far for you?

Kim Foss: Speaking as a distributor and cinema owner, it’s a different story for each business. In the first quarter, we’ve had about 15-20 high-quality, well-reviewed films in cinemas, like The Zone Of Interest, Perfect Days or Anatomy Of A Fall. It’s been terrific for our cinema. We’re back to 2019 numbers, or approaching them.

For distribution, what has changed is that the audience is not taking as many chances as they used to before Covid. They are playing it safe. They know they have quality content at home from platforms such as Netflix.

During Berlin, I saw happy, smiling faces among my fellow distributors who had the same handful of titles, like Perfect Days, Anatomy Of A Fall and The Teachers’ Lounge. If you’re at the level where you can acquire those prestigious titles, in my mind you’re doing well. But if you’re a company which is picking up the crumbs, you’re in a much tougher situation. In Denmark, for example, a director like Hirokazu Kore-eda used to be something, but is not performing at all anymore.

Louisa Dent: In the UK, the last three or four years have been tough because of Brexit and Covid. I do feel finally that things are looking up — it is feeling a little bit more optimistic on the exhibition side. Curzon Cinemas are up 32% so far this year because of the great titles in the awards season, whereas the [overall exhibition] market is down 2%. What the rest of the year will be like is a different matter. But audiences are going back to see top quality films. That’s exciting if you have films like The Zone Of Interest, Perfect Days or Anatomy Of A Fall. But it’s feast or famine and that is a real problem. It’s all concentrated on the top films.

The UK market has a real issue with smaller, more fragile but amazing films. We feel it more than any other distributor because we get no subsidies or help with distribution in terms of P&A or for our cinemas. [Curzon is owned by US-based Cohen Media Group so it is not eligible for support from the BFI’s audience fund.] It is a dangerous moment in the UK for these other smaller but fabulous films.

Eduardo Escudero: As Louisa says, we’ve had a wonderful harvest of top films recently. But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to repeat that concentration of quality in the coming months. We’ll know after Cannes and Venice. But it’s five to 10 films we are talking about. What happens with the other more than 100 non-national independent films that are released in Spain is a key point. Obviously, we cannot invest the same amount of P&A in all of them. We are investing but sometimes it’s a waste of money. We need to reinvent how to reach our audience, because the traditional model where we start from scratch for every single product — a new product is a new film — isn’t working.

Anastasia Plazzotta: The situation is similar in Italy in the sense there are the big winners, but we have had some national exceptions that have got great results, unexpectedly, sometimes. But I’m optimistic. People had fallen out of the habit of going to the cinema. Now they are back, and like in the past, some are watching more than one movie per month. They’re starting to see cinema as part of their daily lives again.

Has the fact a handful of titles are performing strongly changed your buying strategy? Are you prepared to pay more for fewer, stronger titles?

Dent: Within reason. If you spend too much, you don’t make your P&A back. You have to look for the films with a hook or something that you think audiences will really want to go and see.

Plazzotta: I think the prices for the buzz titles at Cannes are going to be super-high, even higher than before. They will be crazy for the titles that are thought of as the winners. We will keep the same strategy as before. As well as theatrical distribution, you have to think about TV etc — there are a lot of variables. One title might go well, another one less so. Variety is important for finding a balance and hopefully some revenues.

Foss: I’m surprised what you say about different windows, because my experience is crystal clear. I make up to 90% of my living from theatrical; the rest is icing on the cake. TV sometimes comes in but they don’t pay big. VoD is smallish. We still release on DVD but it’s not much business. I detected last year that some films were surprisingly expensive. There was competition for the bigger titles. I felt in some cases, we even overpaid. But we’re also buying films “on our nose”. When we bought Four Daughters, we didn’t buy it because we knew we would make money, we bought it because we loved it, big time, and we just hope we will recoup.

Dent: You’re lucky, Kim, because in the UK very few films make a theatrical profit.

Foss: We also have [Creative Europe] support, which makes a difference. If you have no support because of Brexit and no local support, you’re in a different situation.

Dent: Exactly, that changes everything.

Foss: Creative Europe is important for us, and any local or semi-local Nordic support we can get. It’s part of the equation. It also influences buying policies: we’re more careful, say, buying a Japanese film because in principle there’s not much support there. So it might be a wise move to buy an Italian film instead.

Dent: You still go with the films you love. But I know that Italy at the moment is supporting Italian cinema, and that’s a factor in the acquisition process. So we are distributing La Chimera and Kidnapped, and perhaps releasing fewer French films as a result, because the French support is much smaller.

Eduardo, do you also make 90% of your revenues from theatrical?

Escudero: Unfortunately not. A much lower percentage of our total turnover comes from theatres so we are focused on increasing the theatrical performance while we continue working on other windows. We acquire many films that sometimes skip theatres and go directly to tele­vision and digital platforms. We’ll do DVD or Blu-ray in wonderful editions, but it’s nothing — just icing on the cake.

Our FAST channels have performed amazingly compared with when we launched them a year-and-a-half ago. It’s a small business that brings in a limited amount of money per title but the volume gives you something and, if the alternative is to have titles waiting for a licence from third parties, it’s better to work those and fulfil the mandate that, as distributors, we have from producers.

Given audiences seem to be focusing on a handful of titles now, has this affected at what point you buy a film? Are you trying to board projects earlier?

Dent: It varies. We’ve always come on board some titles early if they are ones we really wanted. It’s more of a gamble but it can be beneficial. For example, we boarded [Irish Sundance breakout] Kneecap at a very early stage. We put money into the production and joined forces with Charades on international sales, and distribution with Wildcard for Ireland. It’s not out yet but international sales have done extremely well — there’s a real buzz about it.

Plazzotta: I’m sure many Cannes Competition titles have already been sold; it’s becoming more common to acquire them in advance. But it is a risk and you have to really believe in the project. It’s not cheaper, it can be more expensive if the sales agent makes you think their titles are going to be the big ones. I rarely acquire titles in advance because I made some mistakes in the past — it can be hard to know at that early script stage what’s going to work or not. For Cannes, I’ve not decided to buy anything in advance.

Foss: I avoid pre-buys as much as possible. I have done them in the past. As Anastasia says, they’re not necessarily cheaper, which they ought to be because you’re taking the risk. I’ve had some nasty surprises as well.

What are each of your companies focusing on for the rest of 2024, bearing in mind the challenges and opportunities we have discussed so far?

Foss: We are taking on more local Danish documentaries — it’s a passion thing for us. And, of course, there’s support in Denmark for local films. We’re also doing more Nordic films; in order to get into production, a lot of producers need a signature from my part. So we are gambling but avoiding minimum guarantees and helping those films gain some production support. There might be a lucky surprise if one of the films works theatrically. We’re also releasing fewer films than we did before Covid. We have moved from around 20 releases a year to 15. It’s a more focused approach.

Escudero: We are working to recover audiences to cinemas and trying to explore new ways to approach them. It’s important because, for independent cinema, theatres are the most secure way to release films. We are licensing to platforms and streamers — but they can change their policies at any moment in the future. So we need to keep the theatrical market strong, not just for romantic reasons but because it’s a question of survival for independent cinema.

We will also continue focusing on local productions, in addition to our foreign acquisitions, to reinforce our streaming platform acontra+. The platform is a good way to be in contact with our customers. It’s important to create a community, like Curzon has done for many years, to bring people from the platform to the theatres and from the theatres to the platform.

Dent: It’s an ever-changing market at the moment. We’re looking for different opportunities and are very open to working in partnership with more people. Of course, we’re always looking for top-quality films that can reach audiences and we want to make the whole cinema experience very special. It’s about working closer with different partners, different sales agents, different platforms, different distributors. It’s about finding new opportunities, that’s the key — not being fixed in having one way of doing things.

Plazzotta: We will continue diversifying our line-up. We will always choose the movies that we really like, but we will also make experiments. I feel much more brave in the sense that I would like to buy a very crazy movie with apparently no audience, to test out the market. I feel this year is going to be so challenging and so exciting — we can experiment to try to find very special titles.

Foss: We also have to remember that we are privileged to be in this business. It’s both business and pleasure. Of course, we try to acquire the arthouse blockbusters, but we have to feel something for the films. That’s the beauty of this business — we’re mostly very passionate people and we insist on following our passion. That’s also what drives the films when we eventually release them. The passion you put into the release of a film is easily detectable to audiences; they go by your passion when they buy the tickets. We cannot just look at it as an economic investment.

Plazzotta: I agree. Every release is like an adventure. It’s also important to say that we are in a new world in terms of marketing promotion, with digital and artificial intelligence. What comes next is going to be very different. We’re not afraid of that. It’s going to be an opportunity and is exciting from the point of view of marketing strategies. We are studying the new AI tools to help us do things better and faster.