FNE together with Europa Distribution continues its Distributor of the Month series. In recognition of the hard work and excellence of European distributors and the common problems they face, especially in the transition to digitalization, we choose a distributor from each country covered by FNE each month.
We look at the challenges and the successes faced by those distributors who are members of Europa Distribution with a special series of interviews that offer insights that other distributors of European films can benefit from and a platform for the exchange of ideas.This month we focus on the company Film Europe (www.filmeurope.cz) and we spoke with Ivan Hronec, the founder, owner and CEO of Film Europe Media Company. With offices in Prague, Bratislava and newly established representations in London and Cannes, Film Europe is a media company specialized in financing, development and production, distribution, sales and publishing, consulting and broadcasting of European films.
Film Europe has been distributing over 800 European films so far. It currently broadcasts regional cable and satellite pay TV channels Kino CS (http://www.cschannels.eu/), Doku CS and Muzika CS, and in November 2011 it started the regular broadcasting of the first European pay TV film channel, Film Europe Channel (http://www.filmeuropechannel.eu/), the first paid television channel presenting exclusively European cinema from almost all 50 European countries.
FNE: How does the market in your country differ from other countries? What is specific about the market from Czech Republic and Slovakia? How is independent distribution doing in your market today?
Ivan Hronec : We may talk for ages about differences of Czech and Slovak markets. However, those are just marginal ones. The very essence of Czech and Slovak independent film distribution is very similar to the rest of Europe. Independent distribution is weak and difficult, always under stress to fight for recognition with its stronger, rather ignorant, "bigger brother", a multiplex centered on Hollywood films. Thus, the cosmetic differences of Czech and Slovak markets are unimportant. What is important are similarities with Europe. The common principles which leads us to a very definition of the European independent film industry as a unique, problematic, as well as challenged environment.
At one point, we are extremely proud to be Europeans. We love to stress the European cultural superiority, our sensitiveness on that issue bordering with disease. On the other hand, one of the vital parts of general culture, a well-balanced business environment, is poorly handled. Europe invented the perfect and fairly objective system of film supports. Governments rightly donate millions to films with exceptional artistic quality. On the other hand, by doing so, we cripple the market. The boomerang of well structure state support materializes in the army of "hungry and angry" producers, distributors, and festivals. Paradoxically, support schemes produce "dependents" rather than "independents". Festivals, film institutes, producers, cinemas, even VOD platforms are spending all their creative energy on masterminding how to get money from national or European support schemes, as opposed to inventing how to get it from the Audience.
Film professionals in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and across Europe are facing the same problem: how to launch, finance and run quality projects with intelligent, sustainable business models, and how to accept the state support as INDEED partial support, not as the fundamental source of their finances. How many of us could survive without state money? Not many, I am afraid. We are ready to fight with anyone daring enough to put hands on the state support tap. If the Czech and Slovak filmmakers are having something extremely European, then it is for sure their instinct to torture and kill anyone who touches their "god blessed" right to get public money.
This is very romantic, and very unhealthy. And we all know that this will not last forever. However, we pretend that we don't. I am not saying we shouldn't have any state support. I am suggesting that we keep a balance and structurally enhance business activities even in high culture. In our case, that is quality theatrical film and TV distribution.
How competitive is your market for European films (national and non-national)?
Competitive with whom? Yes, there is a competition on the market. There are a few companies which are buying same films as we do. However the main competition is for the free time of our own audience. Or, if you wish, with their reluctance to move out and buy a cinema ticket for a European film. Films are competing with many other attractions. Competition between us, the independent distributors is just kind of FUN. With one exception.
I don't like to compete with the state run, or state support institution if it comes down to acquiring films on the free market. In the past, there were no private distributors who specialized in art house films. Today, we are many. Traditionally, state support was also about paying MG’s for films. Film Clubs, state run cinemas, even televisions (as in the case of Hungary) are from time to time trying to buy all rights licenses to the films.
Besides, they are bad buyers, I believe, they should instead spent state money on the infrastructure, since they are getting money from the state to fill in the gaps in the industry ecosystem which are not covered by anyone else. There are plenty of activities which must be done such as archiving, digitalization, education, etc. I am ready to fight with another private company. I found it obsolete, though, pestering state institutions by showing who is better on the market. And I it found stupid spending state funds on the things the private sector does.
The Czech Republic, like France, Italy or Russia is enjoying a high presence of its local productions in cinemas. Usually seven films out of the top 20 are often local productions. Yet, the quality is disputable. The latest Czech national box office hits are instead lowest possible denominator comedies. The other groups of Czech films are framed by soft social criticism or a cocktail of recent Communist history, smashed by the style and look of "the best of Hollywood" -- all together a fair dose of escapism. Arguably, Czech films are traditionally doing better at the Oscars, than in the A class trio: Berlinale and Cannes and Venezia, although, to be fair, with one exception: Alois Nebel (2012).
Slovakia, "a long term sleeping beauty", finally opens one eye. Mira Fornay's My Dog Killer won the Rotterdam Tiger Award. The Slovak national box office follows Romanian model, though. International festival hits are poorly matched by local audience interest. Slovakia produces between five to ten films per year and enjoys considerable advancement in the digitalization of cinemas. The state support scheme, Slovak Audiovisual Fund, shows signs of decent strategy as well as competence of the management in both knowledge on what industry needs and the scarce ability to communicate it with public.
Non-national European films are having a marginal box office effect in both republics. There were a few good tries (e.g. Untouchables). However, we should not measure it by the size of the audience, otherwise we fall into deep depression. Art house and independents cannot win against star driven and special effects commercial films. We should look into it from a different perspective. European films are the main "products" for festivals.
And festivals in these days are many and flourishing everywhere. Any city with a capable city hall management has a sort of cultural or film festival. If they don't, they should not be named a city. Festivals are our important business partners. We also deal with traditional partners, such as art house cinemas and one screen cinema chains. However, they are less important. Festivals and events are becoming the true distribution alternative. There is one downside: they have to pay for the films, and they are not ready to accept it.
Some festivals are at the edge of a nervous breakdown if we ask for a screening fee. They defend their "for free" position by arguing that a festival is a "huge" promotion for the film, which is not. It is FREE promotion for the festival. The press is always about the festival, and 80% of our audience is gone if the title is screened at the festival. We consider a festival release as a money making operation, and we need the festival to understand it and report the admissions. Thus, we are not "bar friends" with festivals anymore. We are a business partner. The good ones already have accepted the paradigmatic shift, and we are friends again.
What kind of films seem to work well with audiences in your market?
I am not going to talk about special effects, star driven commercial titles or national hits. Those are multiplex MUSTS which work in any territory. For Film Europe, the best title is the winner of an A class festival or a well-crafted film representing the unique touch of national cinematography. The winners of Berlinale / Cannes / Venezia / Rotterdam are our main targets. Ideally, we buy them before they receive awards -- easy to say, hard to achieve. However, for the past few years we have had quite a good record of picking up titles which then win festivals.
What are the major areas that you focus on? (theatrical/DVD/VOD/TV distribution, production, exhibition...)
We are a fully integrated film company focusing deliberately on the whole ecosystem of European films. Film Europe coproduces, distributes in cinemas, will soon operates our own VOD platform, and above all, we have our own pay TV television: Film Europe Channel, the only premium pay TV channel in the world which broadcasts European films only, now reaching more than 500,000 households in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the ambition to develop other territories in Europe and the world.
In Addition to that, we are going to have our own studio cinema where we will test the audience response. I am also active as a lecturer at the university, a panelist and presenter at international conferences, a member of the evaluation committee in the MEDIA programme, and I write and edit dozens of articles and interviews as we are doing now. Film Europe is a presence at all important festivals and in all European national screenings. For the second year we are developing our business presence in Hong Kong by preparing the S-VOD version of Film Europe Channels. In Hong Kong and Southwest Asia we just started working as an agent for selected European films. The very mission of Film Europe is European film and its cultivation at any level we can develop and run.
Yet, I have to stress again, we are a private, profit-driven company, so the areas we cover have to make healthy business sense. We are applying for MEDIA and national state support, but only at the level of individual films. The core of our financial income is profit from theatrical, VOD, TV operation and sales to free TV’s and festivals. Every penny counts. Once made, it is then immediately reinvested into buying new European films.
What is your film acquisition policy?
We are most likely the biggest buyer of European Films in Europe. Within less than three years Film Europe acquired around 800 European films for Film Europe Channel, 500 for VOD and TV, and more than 200 all-rights films for theatrical distribution and additional sales. As mentioned, we are buying festival winners, ideally before they are awarded, but also good genre driven titles, or titles which depict some distinctive European historical topics or topics which are now "hot" and frequently discussed. Our ambition is to create a library of European films which proportionally represents the best from the cinematography of "greater" Europe. We are buying titles from all 50 countries of geographical Europe, not just films from the 27 EC countries.
What films have been your biggest hits?
We don't have films which are the biggest hits. Actually, we should change the optic of "biggest hits" as well. There might be titles which are hits for Film Europe and not for other distributors. For us, the film which won an A festival is already a hit. However, if I find a small national film which fits our concept, I tend to name it a hit too. Arguably, the concept of Film Europe distribution as a whole is a hit. We introduce the self-sustainable business formula which is not entirely dependent upon state support and allows us to continue with buying, distributing and broadcasting European films. We are a private enterprise with a self-sustainable model and operational break-even. We are not about film, we are indeed about the concept of EUROPEAN FILM distribution. This is our biggest HIT.
What are your upcoming releases and how will you promote them?
Festival A winners: Child's Pose from Berlinale; then the Golden Palm winner: Adèle: Chapter 1 & 2; European Lux Prize winner: Io Sono LI; national awards winners: Hijacking (Denmark), No Rest for the Wicked (Spain); strong A festival competition participants: Great Beauty, The Nun, Camille Claudel 1915; good genre driven audience titles: Renoir, Paris - Manhattan, The Life of Another, Waltz with Monica; exceptional educational and cultural project: The Story of Film directed by Mark Cousins; provocations such as The Pervert Guide to Ideology and many others.
In average we release three European titles per month -- la crème de la crème of the best European cinematography. Our marketing strategy is supported by business relationships with festivals which often introduce our films to the territory. We organizes visits of talents, cross promotion with our distribution levels. TV promotes cinema, cinema promotes VOD, VOD supports schools. We also stress PR and business-to-business relationships with our VOD and Free TV clients. If we can, we cross promote each other’s activities. On the top of this, we will soon open our first cinema, VOD platform and Smart applications.
We are the only distribution company, most likely in the world, which enjoys such a complete marketing synergy at all distribution levela. We have been deliberately building such a model as a case study of how it could work in all of Europe. Actually, this is our central vision and strategy. The next step is a try to apply the Film Europe Media Company sustainable model of European film distribution to the rest of Europe and selected countries in the world. It is going to be long and tough mission. But we are ready. And we stick with our good and well define niche - Film Europe.
Ivan Hronec has been working in television and film since 1995. He was chief producer of various programmes and head of acquisitions for the Slovak channel Markíza (http://www.markiza.sk/), and production and programming adviser for the Polish channel TVN (http://www.tvn.pl/). He has worked throughout Europe as a programming consultant and project coordinator in Central European Media Enterprises Group (http://www.cetv-net.com/en/index.shtml) in London, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Ljubljana, and Bucharest. He is the founder of SPI International (http://spiintl.com/) in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. He launched Filmbox HD (http://www.filmboxextra.pl/filmboxhd), the first HDTV film channel in Central and Eastern Europe. Since 2008 he has been coproducing films in Central Europe. He is the founder, owner and CEO of Film Europe Media Company. Since 1991 he has been lecturing on management, communication and media at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava.