Windows debate spurred on by exhibition cancellation of titles launch through special VOD programme.

Europe’s media chronology debate has heated up as a MEDIA-supported initiative for online avant-premières has courted controversy.

The chain of events came about when Paris-based Eye On Films (EoF) and the VOD platform Dailymotion announced that they were joining forces for exclusive, free presentations on the online platform of two feature films ahead of their theatrical openings.

Brazilian film-maker Marcos Prado’s feature debut Paraísos Artificiais (Les Paradis Artificiels) [pictured] was shown Dailymotion’s site on October 29 from 22.00, ahead of French distributor Damned Distribution’s release on October 31.

And Canadian director Anne Emond’s debut Nuit #1, was put online this Monday/Tuesday (November 5/6) via Dailymotion from 18.00 to 06.00 in France and Belgium. The sneak preview was scheduled two days before the planned French theatrical release by Fondivina Films and Belgian release by Coopérative Nouveau Cinéma on November 7.

According to the initiative’s two partners, over 6,000 people watched Prado’s drama and there were some 400,000 visits to the film’s trailer. This showcasing, it was argued, would help boost the word of mouth about the film and benefit the theatrical release.

However, Yohann Cornu of Damned Distribution spoke of “a catastrophe” when a chain of cinemas decide to cancel its bookings of the film for 12 of the planned 15 screens just a day before the release. Speaking to the magazine Ecran, Cornu observed: “The media chronology has been broken, but now it has killed us.”

Consequently, Prado’s film was only shown at three independent venues from Oct 31: Publicis Champs Elysées in Paris, Le Club in Grenoble and Les Ambiances in Clermont-Ferrand, with the director appearing in person at the Paris cinema on the first day of release.

Speaking exclusively to Screen about EoF’s strategy, project coordinator Nawid Sarem explained that the presentation of films for free 48 hours before their theatrical release is “the perfect way to increase their visibility and to support the cinemas. We believe that the promotion of contents on the Internet still has to be associated with free events. People would probably be ready to pay for online sneak-previews of blockbusters, for independent first films you have to find ways to attract your audience without any well-known actors or director.”

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Cocq, who is responsible for distribution and new business models under MEDIA Mundus, distribution and new business models, pointed out to Screen that, in the case of Les Paradis Artificiels, “legally speaking, the action promoted by EOF does not constitute a violation of French law (the media chronology starts with the official release of the film in theatres). Therefore, the French distributor could take the file to the médiateur du cinema and ask for an ‘injunction’ obliging the theatres to respect their commitments. Nevertheless, Damned Distribution is a very small young company and I don’t think it will risk going to the médiateur.”

“Interestingly, most of the theatres which have decided to cancel the release are multiplexes belonging to the same group,” Cocq continued. “I believe that they have been surprised by the scope of the communication campaign surrounding the Dailymotion event and that their final decision has been led by political reasons on a sensitive issue.”

He noted that there hadn’t been any similar reactions from cinemas earlier this year when EoF staged avant-premières of Red Heart and Bartosz Konopka’s Fear of Falling.

Meanwhile, EoF’s Sarem revealed that 7,000 people had watched Nuit #1 on Monday evening (Nov 5) and 7,300 had accessed the trailer. This time, however, none of cinemas has cancelled their bookings: it was due to open Wednesday in three Parisian cinemas, Les Cinéastes, Publicis and l’Entrepôt, and Les Méliès in Montreuil.

“I guess the massive communication about the cancellation of Paradis Artificiels and that Internet users and some journalists communicated in a positive way about these online sneak-previews encourages exhibitors to maintain the film in their cinemas,” Sarem suggested. “It will also enhance the current debate about media chronology in France which is not really adjusted to support the promotion and distribution of independent films.”

Nuit #1 is also scheduled to screen in cinemas in Montpellier, Biarritz and Brive-la-Gaillarde in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, EoF’s architect, the sales agent WIDE Management, is one of the partners in the TIDE (Transversal International Distribution in Europe) grouping, coordinated by France’s L’ARP, which was one of the projects to receive backing from the European Commission as part of its Preparatory Action for “Circulation of European Films in the Digital Era.”

TIDE’s primary objective in 2013 is to stage a “day-and-date” release of four films in five European territories in cinemas and on VOD platforms.

The films will be provided by four sales agents – Fandango Portobello, Goldcrest Films International, Urban Distribution International and WIDE – and Europa Distribution will mobilise its members to release the four titles into the cinemas.

Referring back to the controversy generated by the EoF online avant-premières, MEDIA’s Emmanuel Cocq said that “the objective of the preparatory action is precisely to allow a constructive dialogue between the different segments of the value chain on these questions. We know that the issue is very sensitive (especially in France and in Germany, but not only). It will be up to the three selected projects to deal with the theatres and to find a way to include them in the game (…) and to promote a win-win model.”

In addition, Dennis Abbot, spokesman for EC Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, revealed to Screen that the Preparatory Action’s timeline “is up to February 2014, at which point there will be a workshop (possibly at the Berlin Film Festival) to present the results of the pilot project.”

Meanwhile, in a related development, the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education hosted a public hearing yesterday (Tues, Oct 6) on the “Opportunities for online access to Europe’s cultural diversity.”

In one contribution, Detlef Eckert, director of policy coordination and strategy at the European Commission’s DG Information Society and Media, described the current situation of the digitisation of Europe’s cultural heritage as follows: “We have a big mountain to climb and, as I see it, we have just arrived at the base camp.”

“When you look at film heritage, only 1.5% of film are digitised and only a fraction of them are available online. Most of the non-digitised films are out of commerce, and this is something we need to tackle and work with industry to improve and modernise the licensing.”