Xavier Albert Portrait UPI

Source: Xavier Albert

Xavier Albert, managing director UPI France

Universal Pictures International France had four big films on theatrical release – The Invisible Man, 1917, Queen & Slim and Dolittle – when France declared the closure of all non-essential public spaces, including its 2,000 cinemas, on March 14 as part of a wider lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19.

It has since joined a dozen distributors in France – also including the French branch of Warner Bros as well as local studios Pathe and Gaumont and independents such as Le Pacte and Diaphana – to tap into a special measure collapsing the country’s strict theatrical window for films impacted by the shutdown.

Under France’s notoriously strict media chronology, there is normally a four-month VoD window for films with more than 100,000 admissions, equivalent to a box-office gross of around $700,000, and a three-month window for films which drew fewer than 100,000 spectators.

But in an unprecedented move, the country’s National Cinema Centre (CNC) has been granted special powers to allow distributors to break France’s theatrical window for productions that were left high and dry by the shutdown.

UPI France has been granted permission to break the window for all four films, which were nowhere near the four-month mark: 1917 came out on January 15; Dolittle on February 5; Queen & Slim on February 12; and The Invisible Man on February 26.

In addition, in line with parent group NBCUniversal’s strategy in the US, UPI France has also abandoned any plans for theatrical releases of The Hunt and Emma and will launch these films on premium VoD instead.

Other planned releases for the coming months such as James Bond feature No Time To Die, Minions: The Rise Of Gru and Fast & Furious 9 have been pushed back or postponed at a group level.

UPI France managing director Xavier Albert spoke to Screen about the complexity of navigating the new temporary digital distribution reality in France and his hopes for the country’s exhibition and distribution sectors in the coming months.

Was it difficult for UPI France to decide to break the theatrical window?
It’s a complex situation. As well as taking out an option for an early TVoD release for our films on release on March 14, we’re also gearing up for the premium VoD releases of The Hunt and Emma. It’s the equivalent of what they’re trying to do in US with premium day-and-date releases but without the theatrical component. As long as a film is not released in a cinema, it’s not subject to the media chronology laws.

We’ve had quite a lot of discussion within the wider Universal group about the right price point for France. I’m not sure whether France will be open to the sort of aggressive pricing you find in the US, which is around $20. There have been lots of experiments with the premium VoD model here priced around the €6-7 mark ($6.50-7.50) so audiences are used to lower prices. As for The Hunt and Emma, a price for France has been set at €17.99 ($19.55) but the final dates and details will be decided in the coming week.

Have you decided if, how and when you’re going to release The Invisible Man, 1917, Queen & Slim and Dolittle on VoD, having secured permission to do so earlier than normally stipulated under France’s chronology laws?
We’re currently deciding at a group level how to best deal with these films. The new CNC powers were only made official on March 31 and the first list of approved films was announced on April 2. The thing to note is that the TVoD market is relatively weak in France. It only accounts for 20% of the digital distribution market. It would certainly be preferable in our market in terms of reach to make a deal with an SVoD player. However, once they come out on TVoD it will be at the normal market prices. 

Most these films had been on release for a while when the cinemas were closed but The Invisible Man had only been out for three weeks. It drew some 620,000 spectators in that time for an estimated gross of $4.4m. How much more do you think it could have achieved at the box office under more normal circumstances? 
We estimate that we lost at least 300,000 spectators, equivalent to additional box office of around $2m.

UPI France is also due to release The High Note on June 26. Has this date been retained?
For now yes, but we’ll have to see what happens. It’s impossible to know when the health crisis will end. I think it will be a long and slow process. There is a big question mark around whether we will be able to maintain our summer release schedule.

But in the long run, I’m in the camp of the optimists. A lot of questions are being asked about whether people will be psychologically willing to go back into cinemas when they open again. I personally think people will be eager for collective experiences again, if and only if the health context is clear.

What are you going to do with Trolls World Tour which was due to come out in France in April and has since been released directly on premium VoD in a number of territories on April 6?
For now, we have redated the film for October 14 during the autumn mid-term “All Saints” school holidays. This is traditionally a lucrative window. It is during this period that the original Trolls film came with great success in France, drawing some three million spectators. 

Most distributors in France appear to be holding out for a theatrical launch for their unreleased films. Do you think this will change if the lockdown continues? Could there be a bottleneck of films if distributors hold out for too long?
France has always been a crowded market, especially in certain months of the year. I’m convinced that the sector will work together collectively and intelligently to space out releases. Also a lot of films are not going to come down the pipeline as planned. There are studio films that have been put back by almost a year and local French films that were either shooting or in post-production when the virus struck. This means that a lot of films that were due to come out later this year or early next, won’t be there. I’m convinced it will all regulate itself in the end.

There’s talk in the French film industry of the need for a big push or celebration of cinema to relaunch the sector when the lockdown is lifted. What do you think of this idea?
We’ll need several celebrations. We’re going to have to make an enormous collective effort across the entire cinema chain – from producers to agents, talent, sales agents, distributors and exhibitors – like we’ve never made before.

Could this be around the Cannes Film Festival?
As time goes on, I believe less and less that Cannes can take place at the end of June, or beginning of July. It’s too early. September or October would be better.