The role of cinemas in a digital world was one of the main points of discussion at the annual conference of the Europa Cinemas Network. Melanie Goodfellow reports

“I don’t want to see people waking up from a coma after three months with perfectly shaved legs. I’m not interested in acid flashbacks, hippy movies or 1960s sex where no-one uses contraception as if HIV doesn’t exist. Princesses and passive women don’t do it for me either,” Saskia Walzel, one of the more youthful speakers at the 17th Europa Cinemas Network Conference in Paris (Nov 22-25) told delegates.

The copyright specialist from UK group Consumer Focus was using herself as “a case study” for a demographic that does not regularly go to the cinema, in a panel devoted to the cinema auditorium as the essential link between film and the audience.

Walzel’s comments had delegates laughing but behind her tongue-in-cheek explanation of why she does not go to the cinema, there were more serious questions: what is the place of the cinema in a digital, multi-format, video-on-demand world and how to appeal to a younger audience? These were leitmotifs running through the conference as Europa Cinemas marked its first 20 years of existence.

Other related hot topics over the four-day event included release windows, day-and-date strategies, video-on-demand and how to help exhibitors in poorer European nations digitise their theatres.

When it was set up in 1992 with a grant from the MEDIA Programme, Paris-based Europa Cinemas numbered 45 theatres across 12 European countries. Its aim was to ensure 25% of films shown in the network were non-local European titles. Today, the organisation has 864 member theatres from 32 countries in the MEDIA Programme and the percentage of non-national European films screening across the network is 36%.

“You might think we’d be celebrating some of our many achievements over the last 20 years but instead we’re debating our very future… the future of the cinema as a place to see films,” commented the network’s general director Claude-Eric Poiroux after the first day of the conference.

His words echoed that of Europa Cinemas president Ian Christie in his opening speech: “The real challenge cinema faces today is how to make the ‘cinema part’ of film - which is everywhere, on our TV, on our computers and tablets and on our mobile phones - how to make that ‘cinema part’, only 6% on average of all film viewing, really matter.” It was far from doom and gloom, however, as speakers talked about how they engage local audiences to fill theatres as well as the need to embrace the internet and other formats. “Engagement”, “audience involvement” and “community” were among conference buzzwords.

In the same panel as Walzel, producer Ted Hope told delegates: “We have to collaborate with our community. If we just curate and educate, the audience will remain passive and our doom will be foretold.

“We need to build these communities into all of our processes. We can’t just let films be great stories that unfold passively. We have to think of movies as just one aspect of a greater story world, which unfolds across numerous modes of engagement and discovery,” continued Hope, who was in Paris in his new guise as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society.

In an example of such a joined-up approach, Finnish producer Tero Kaukomaa talked about the crowd-sourced sci-fi comedy Iron Sky and the film’s close relationship with its online fans.

Mark Cosgrove, head of programme at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol, UK, described how events at the theatre such as the Filmic film and music festival and Afrika Eye, which showed titles such as La Pirogue and Weapon Of War, had helped reach a new audience.

“You have to work in partnership with other art organisations, community organisations, individuals, anybody interested or passionate about a certain subject matter,” said Cosgrove, revealing that Afrika Eye had been spearheaded by “a couple of white Zimbabweans living in Bristol”.

Tackling the issue of release windows, Cosgrove cited the example of the documentary Marley, which was released in the US via Facebook at the same time as its theatrical release earlier this year.

“When you see the Facebook page has got 35 million friends, you kind of think it makes sense if you can access a 35 million audience. I don’t think it diminishes the theatrical experience - it should challenge us to make our showing unique and essential. What we did with the Marley documentary was have an authentic Jamaican sound system in the bar and I can assure you that you will not get that on Facebook,” he said.

Other workshops and panels over the four-day events were devoted to the role of cinemas in supporting European film, the level of digitisation in cinemas, the role of film in education, how film studies can in turn bring in new audiences as well as the implications of the on-demand age for theatres.

Alongside the conference programme, the meeting also screened a selection of 16 recent European films including Bence Fliegauf’s Just The Wind, Baltasar Kormakur’s The Deep, Sacha Polak’s Hemel and Hervé Lasgouttes’ Crawl at the Les 7 Parnassiens and L’Entrepot cinemas.

There was plenty of sex, none of it set in the 1960s though not all of it safe, but not a princess, hippy or shaved coma victim in sight.

Europa International conference

There was a transatlantic feel at the first conference held by Europa International, an organisation representing European sales agents. By Melanie Goodfellow

Europe’s exhibitors were not the only ones discussing the future of their industry in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower last weekend. Europa International, the year-old body representing European sales agents, held its first international conference (November 24) on the fringes of the Europa Cinemas meeting.

There was a transatlantic feel to this inaugural event with US players Ted Hope, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society; the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s executive director Rose Kuo and digital strategy head Eugene Hernandez, Kino Lorber founding chief Richard Lorber and IFC Films/Sundance Selects’ Ryan Werner among those joining the panels.

“It is interesting for us to know what’s going on in the US because it seems to be a few months ahead of us in Europe, at least in terms of the VoD market and social media,” commented Daniela Elstner of Paris-based sales company Doc & Film, a vice-president on the Europa International board presided by The Match Factory’s Michael Weber.

Titled ‘From Pipedreams to Pipebusiness’, the meeting focused on two areas: social media as a marketing tool and the evolution of platforms and VoD distribution.

“We should be having this discussion on Twitter rather than here,” quipped Hope, who has some 20,000 followers on the social-media site. “I just put out a tweet asking for the best practices for a film distributor or film-maker regarding social media and got back 32 replies in less than 30 minutes.”

Kuo discussed her initially tentative embrace of Twitter to help promote the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s activities. Henry Lim of Paris-based social-media agency Cinémur talked about his company’s official Facebook campaign for the release of On The Road, and Dan Light of UK interactive agency Glass Eye, gave a presentation about the viral ‘James Bond: The Nymphographic’ his company created ahead of the release of Skyfall.

Commenting on the constantly changing landscape for distributors and sales agents alike, Lorber said in a separate session: “A lot of us are looking at this from the trenches… Today, windows are out the window, the market is driving us towards simultaneity, non-exclusivity and ubiquity. There is no way of knowing whether your films are going to be seen, especially in this specialised world, so the only choice you have is to make sure they are available everywhere.”