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“The question is whether things are still in transition or have changed permanently”

Industry Report: Distribution, Exhibition and Streaming

Anne Vierhout • Distributor, Cinema Delicatessen

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The distributor spoke about her company’s editorial policy, the Dutch market and how her work has changed over the last two years

Anne Vierhout • Distributor, Cinema Delicatessen

We caught up with Anne Vierhout, managing director of Dutch distribution firm Cinema Delicatessen. Our conversation revolved around the company’s line-up and editorial policy, its most successful campaigns and how distribution is developing in the current post-pandemic phase, among other topics.

Cineuropa: Could you please talk us through your company’s line-up and editorial policy?
Anne Vierhout:
We’re a documentary distribution company focusing on theatrical distribution. We started operations in 2007, and I’ve been the managing director for 11 years. We mainly focus on Dutch documentaries, which means they’re either led by a Dutch producer or helmed by a Dutch director. Around 70% of our work is with these titles, whilst the remaining 30% is with international documentaries, including both European and non-European productions. Sometimes, our Dutch documentaries are also co-produced with other European countries or in co-operation with the MEDIA programme.

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Right now, we have a very important Dutch documentary in the cinemas – namely, Pieter-Rim de Kroon’s Silence of the Tides [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
. It’s a nature doc about the largest wetlands in the northern part of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. It’s doing really well, with results higher than expected. Lately, I haven’t handled many international documentaries, owing to the coronavirus. My latest foreign, non-Dutch film was Elizabeth Lo’s Stray (USA), winner of the Hot Docs Festival. We released it during the pandemic, but it didn’t prove successful. We have had highs and lows, and we’re still looking for a larger European or international title to release next autumn. That’s why I’m looking for new projects to acquire now.

Could you break down the complexities and peculiarities of your market? What about the challenges and opportunities of distributing independent films, especially European ones?
I can speak about the Dutch market only. We operate across the Benelux region, but with our main focus resting on the Netherlands. Before the coronavirus hit, it was a very healthy scene, especially for arthouse titles. We have 50-60 arthouse theatres and a very strong, loyal audience. On the other hand, we also have many arthouse distributors. The field was very competitive, but for good reason. We’re the only distributor in the Netherlands that is releasing solely documentaries. Usually, we operate separately from commercial theatres. The outbreak changed things, though. The question is whether things are still in transition or have changed permanently. In the Netherlands, we have the largest number of screens per capita, in comparison with other European countries. For such a small country, we also have the highest number of theatrical film distributors. The main complexity of this market is that if you’re a small distributor like me, even if there are 50-60 arthouse theatres, you still need to fight tooth and nail to find some space.

What has the impact of the pandemic been on the habits of the local audience, especially when it comes to independent European films? How do you see the near future for these films?
For documentaries, the pandemic has been really dramatic. We operate only in arthouse theatres, and the visitors are usually older audiences. They basically shied away for two years. When there was no lockdown, we tried to release some films, but there were always restrictions in place, such as 30% of the seating available or theatres forced to close at 5pm. Overall, they’ve been two devastating years. It’s been a few months since everything fully reopened, yet things aren’t back to normal. All of the arthouse films are now underperforming. I think that’s because people are not used to going to theatres any more, and maybe there’s much more competition with other activities, including theatres and restaurants. Competition among distributors is also tougher because everyone has five, six or even ten titles that have been postponed and need to be released now. With my documentaries, I’m also bound to the windows, since they need to air on national TV channels, so sometimes I have to release them, otherwise the field gets “too crowded”. Every week, we see 12 or 13 films being released, but it’s just too much for the audience to consume or choose between. We’re not back on track yet. We think things may continue to go this way until the end of 2023. Only then, perhaps, can we start comparing [figures] with those of 2019. We expect this busy situation with many titles and too few visitors to go on for a long time, in any case. It’s very sad. Everyone has done a huge amount of work to bring films to the cinemas, and they end up underperforming.

How do you see your job as a distributor and its future? What is your added value, especially when it comes to making European films available to the local audience, both off- and online?
I see my role as a distributor as being crucial to making documentaries available in cinemas. It’s not something that occurs automatically for non-fiction, since most docs are produced for, and by, television. Here in the Netherlands, we have a strong tradition of high-quality docs. My “ethical” role is to always make sure that docs are entering cinemas. Many good docs deserve to be seen on screen; that’s what we fight for and why we’ve started the company. We’re not willing to change that. Silence of the Tides is a very good example of why a documentary should be seen in the cinema. It was shot in 4K with Dolby sound. When you see it, you get immersed in nature; it’s such an experience, almost like a trance... The big screen enables you to experience all of the tiny details and sounds of nature. It’s meant for the big screen, not for the small one. On Netflix or on Amazon, it won’t be the same sort of film.

What is the most successful promotional campaign for a European film that you’ve had so far? What was its secret ingredient?
Our most successful film is Kedi, but it’s a Turkish production. It’s a film about stray cats in Istanbul, and we recorded some 75,000 admissions, an absolute record for my company. We handled a huge marketing campaign. We went beyond the arthouse cinema niche, as we intercepted the wider audience of cat lovers. We also made a website where people could upload photos of their own cats, and we managed to have both the commercial and arthouse theatres on board. As for European projects, Alexander Nanau’s Collective [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
has been quite successful. We released it on three different occasions. The first was during The Best of IDFA on Tour – together with the festival, each year we organise this travelling programme. The programme includes four winning titles or audience favourites. The IDFA tour with Collective was held in 50 theatres from January-March 2020, and the film was seen by 5,465 people. Then we had a separate release after the first lockdown, in July 2020. At that time, the movie was seen by an additional 2,649 people. Finally, it was the winner of the LUX Audience Award in 2021 [see the news], and thus we organised free screenings in 12 cities in March 2022. The aim was to promote the award itself as well as European cinema. Generally, the exposure of Collective has been quite high, and we have recorded over 8,000 admissions in total.

How is the income split between each release for your films?
It is close to 100% theatrical income. We don’t produce DVDs any more; we stopped working on them three or four years ago. Most of our documentaries are placed on VoD platforms, but the income largely depends on the importance of the film and how well it performed at the box office. But it’s just a fraction: the split is around 95 to 5. Generally, working on VoD with documentaries is quite hard. Here in the Netherlands, they tend to perform really well in cinemas, better than in most European countries. But they definitely underperform on VoD.

Has that changed over the last two years?
It used to be worse before the coronavirus. Over the last two years, we’ve recorded an increase in VoD views, but now that everything is getting back to normal, we’re seeing a drop again. So we don’t know whether the growing trend will restart, and even if it does, it’ll move very slowly.

What led you to work in film distribution in the first place?
I used to work for IDFA. That’s how I started working with documentaries. I was part of the Forum department, and there, I collaborated with distributors and sales agents. Then I was offered this job and ended up working in distribution.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
What worries me a bit is that the large VoD platforms, such as Disney+, Amazon and Apple TV+, are buying a lot of good documentaries. Thus, a film premieres at a festival and then ends up being added to the catalogue of National Geographic, let’s say. Then there are still some distributors buying these documentaries that have already been acquired by the platforms. Then, they put them in cinemas for a few weeks. It’s a problem because this is eating up all the space for other documentaries or other [fiction] films. As a small player, I cannot compete with these giants; they can easily buy world rights!

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