FNE Visegrad YR2021: Distributors in Hungary See Cause for Optimism

    Toxikoma by Gábor Herendi Toxikoma by Gábor Herendi source: nfi.hu

    BUDAPEST: Although film distributors in Hungary had predicted an upheaval in film distribution patterns as a result of COVID-19 – with streaming and VOD as likely winners – their worst fears have not come to pass during the recovery period, and they are now looking ahead with cautious optimism.

    Distributors were faced with unprecedented problems when cinemas reopened in May 2021. There was an unusually high number of films ready to be distributed, compared to previous years, and fewer cinema-goers. Many films had waited for over six months to be released, and they needed to appear in cinemas over the course of a few months.

    “In this tumult, it’s easy for small and mid-range films to quickly disappear from the cinemas. Communication channels are even more saturated, making it even harder for a film to stand out, and there is less available space for these smaller films in cinemas,” said Balázs Bert, the Director of Distribution at Vertigo Média.

    Indeed, it is common for distributors to be forced to spend more if they want to achieve the desired goal with their films. "There is a lot of competition, a lot of films, and a bigger campaign is needed now to reach the same audience that it could have attracted before the closures - so the risk in this investment has also increased," he continued.

    Today, lighter films, falling into the category of mainstream entertainment, are finding their way to audiences, while interest in art films has declined  - at a much steeper rate than in tentpole films: the most watched film of the year in 2021 was No Time to Die, distributed by Fórum Hungary with 303,115 admissions, followed by Venom - Let There Be Carnage, distributed by InterCom with 274,627 admissions. In the field of smaller foreign films, the 28,000 admissions of Another Round, distributed by Vertigo Média, constitute a pleasant surprise in the current situation.

    However, the vast majority of Hungarian films released this year have fallen short of expectations, with the exception of Toxikoma by Gábor Herendi – which reached 103,000 admissions despite it’s difficult subject-matter - and this success needs explanation. Adapted from the autobiography of the famous actor Győző Szabó, it depicts his spiral into drug and the torments of withdrawal in a naturalistic way.

    FNE asked the distributor of the film Berta Balázs about the reason for the success: “The high numbers of audiences in the first weeks can be attributed to the successful marketing campaign and the attractiveness of the names of Gábor Herendi and Győző Szabó. Herendi has, once again, proved that he understands his audience, and he knows how to serve them. The only slight decreases in the following weeks are clearly the result of the film's high quality, and the strong word-of-mouth which has been built around Toxikoma.”

    Director Gábor Herendi is no stranger to success in Hungary and, indeed, he had made the most watched Hungarian film of the last decade, Bet on Revenge / Kincsem (which boasted 456,666 admissions). On the other hand, the early expectations for Toxikoma were much more modest, with the director being warned that this type of drama could only attract 20,000 cinema-goers if the film was very good. This prediction was proved false by the director this autumn.

    Christmas Flame by Dániel Tiszeker, photo: Takács AttilaHungarian films usually have a weak advertising campaign or, if they come up with creative ideas, the amount spent on marketing, and thus the films’ visibility is dwarfed compared to its Hollywood competition. This is why it is very important to develop a strong word-of-mouth around the film. This year, Toxicoma was not the only film which succeeded in this, and Christmas Flame / Nagykarácsony, distributed by InterCom, also started its run promisingly, with the same number of people watching it on the second weekend (20,110 cinema admissions) as on the first (20,118 admissions). However, the Christmas-themed romantic comedy was released only recently (25 November), so the extent of its success is yet to be determined.

    Fortunately, Hungarian cinemas are currently not threatened by another closure. Although the fourth wave is taking many lives in Hungary, the government wants to avoid repeated closures. This is good news for distributors, since it seems they can stick to the premiere dates set for the coming months, together with exhibitors.

    "In any case, we plan with more care than we used to," Balázs Berta said about their business policy. “We will also be taking less risks during film purchases, because it is not clear whether the current market trends are stabilising or whether some rebalancing is expected in the long run. If not, we will unfortunately have much less opportunity to distribute smaller, valuable art films.”

    These sentiments are echoed by other stakeholders. ”The short term challenge for all distributors right now is to accommodate the increased number of releases in the schedule wisely, and this goes both for Hollywood and local releases” said Máté Takács, the publicity manager of Fórum Hungary, who also mentioned the long term challenge to make the cinematic experience irreplaceable.

    Hungarian distribtuion companies have been working hard on ensuring that this experience remains essential to cinema – a challenge when cinemas were closed twice, with the last shutdown occurring between November 2020 and May 2021. During this period, distributors tried to survive by cutting expenses as much as possible. By way of example, although the main profile of Vertigo Media is film distribution, the company has been trying to expand for a long time and has focused on film production and tenders during these months.

    Distribution work did not stop however, and new dates had to be found for the cancelled premieres, while there were regular talks with sales companies about buying film rights. “Sales companies were hit by the crisis caused by the pandemic in the same way, but, in many cases, it was not taken into account that, in the absence of cinemas we could not release films, and they still demanded the royalties due at the time. It was a very hard job to force them to compromise and also to reach a compromise with domestic partners,” Balázs Berta asserted.

    During this period, the importance of streaming services and VOD platforms increased in Hungary, as it did elsewhere. For example, Mozinet held pre-premiere screenings on Budapest Remote Cinema, which is a pay-per-view online platform, established last year in reaction to the closure of cinemas. The art film distributor also brought the online premieres of some films forward and made them available on another local streaming service called Cinego. But these have not yet been a big enough source of revenue in Hungary to replace the revenue coming from cinemas.

    The situation of distributors was further aggravated by the fact that, while cinema operators received emergency support twice, distributors did not receive financial support from the state during the crisis.