Réouverture des salles de cinéma
Sébastien Lachaussée & Elisa Martin-Winkel

Sébastien Lachaussée & Elisa Martin-Winkel

Distribution and operation : conditions to reopen movie theaters

Despite the support provided to the professionals through various mechanisms, COVID 19 health crisis caused major difficulties for the film distribution and exhibition sector. More than a year after the first period of lockdown and on the eve of a reopening of movie theaters, we can take stock of the past year results and evoke the new arrangements in place to allow the reviving of the sector.

  • Alarming numbers for the theatrical exhibition

In 2020, the movie theaters remained closed 162 days and attendance figures are accordingly and unsurprisingly catastrophic. Theatrical admissions fell 30% to just 65.1 million in 2020.

However, we can highlight that French pictures managed to keep up better as for their market share and admissions. Indeed, their decline is 60.7% in terms of market share, while American productions fall by 76.7% and French pictures still achieve 29.2 million while American reach only 26.6 millions.

As movie theaters were closed for much of the first semester of 2021, there is no doubt that the 2021 results will not be much better. These numbers are well below the usual 200 million entries.

It should be noted that out of 322 million euros as exceptional aid granted to the cinema sector, around 38 million were addressed for distributors, allowing maintaining the sector, without however compensating for the full effects of the pandemic.

Hélène Herschel from Bureau de Liaison des Industries Cinématographiques therefore is asking to set up a « A discussion with the (French) CNC, the (French) Ministry of Culture and Bercy to define the tools that will allow companies to hold out and prepare for a recovery by 2022 ».

In addition, reopening movie theaters may be difficult and leave little room for films released in theaters in view of the number of pictures waiting to be released.                 

  • A difficult reopening

Sanitary measures and imposed maximum capacity gauges create significant constraints for operators and do not allow optimal operation, especially as a curfew is maintained and prevents late film screenings.

In addition, distributors benefit from a very a low cash flow after several months deprived of resources and will be in difficulty to promote pictures in theaters during the reopening, especially as the possible returns on investment are very low given the conditions of operation.

Furthermore, distributors have a large number of pictures to release, which causes major problems of organization, visibility and operation life for the films.

Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Managing Director of Memento Films Distribution, explained on this subject :« The rotation of films may be increased, their visibility will be reduced. All films will suffer ”.

The French Autorité de la Concurrence, seized for this purpose by the French cinema mediator, Laurence Franceschini, authorized the possibility of a concerted release plan.

However, negotiations between distributors are unsuccessful to date, given the important differences of opinion between those involved in mainstream cinema and distributors of auteur films.

On this point, independent distributors fear to suffer the behavior of the majors, Jean-Jacques Rue of Urban Film indicates in particular « If the (French) CNC does not take things in hand, that is equivalent to letting people do what they want. Which has never encouraged good behavior

Etienne Ollagnier, Jour 2 Fête, was more optimistic and recalled “the discussion is open. It is in everyone’s best interests to come to an agreement.

Indeed, arbitrations are yet to arrive in the coming days.

French CNC and the cinema mediator already published recommendations on May 11, 2021 notably in order to deal with the problem of the overcrowding of screens.

These recommendations call in particular to “Preserve the diversity of the cinematographic offer by ensuring balanced access for spectators to the different types of works” and to negotiate “relevant and measured multi-programming schedule”.

At the same time, French CNC implemented a derogatory measure to allow cinematographic pictures to be released outside movie theaters.           

  • A measure promoting non-traditional operation of cinematographic films

In view of the exceptional situation and in particular the prolonged closure of movie theaters and the fear of a « traffic jam » when reopening, French CNC elected to implement a specific mechanism.

Accordingly, on a temporary basis and « after examination on a case by case basis of each request, with a consultation with professionals » the CNC organizes the possibility for a cinematographic picture to be releases by mean of « a first exploitation through a distribution network other than the theaters for which they were initially intended, while retaining the aids received from the CNC « .

This measure differs from that taken in 2020 as it does not aim exclusively at a pay per view release, but extend to all operation medias: DVD, TV channels, SVOD platforms … thus allowing many possibilities for producers and distributors.

In order to benefit from such mechanisms, a request can be made during the entire closing period of theaters and up to one month after the date of reopening, announced on May 19.

It is understood that the producers will be able to retain the benefit of the aid obtained for the picture released outside of movie theaters, but such exploitation will not give rise to a calculation of the production support, which is conditioned on the release of the work in theaters.

This lack of production support funds could limit the use of the mechanism by producers for whom it is a very important resource.

In addition, such mechanism is already the subject of criticism. Thus, Isabelle Madelaine, president of the French Union of Cinema Producers, noted that the terms were inoperative given the very short timeframe to be able to submit a request with the agreement of all the beneficiaries and financial partners.

Likewise, Sidonie Dumas, for the French association of independent producers, indicated that the derogation would be useful solely if it had a longer duration, at least six months.

We can see here that this exceptional release mechanism may not encounter the awaited success.

Finally, French CNC specified that the mechanism is set up solely to respond to the difficulty encountered by the sector and « to prevent the appearance, in the coming months, of difficulties affecting the regulation of the flow of movie releases » but will have no impact on the French media timeline and ongoing negotiations.

  • Time schedule of the reopening

Reopening of movie theaters is scheduled on May 19 and will take place in three stages, each separated from three to four weeks with precise attendance gauges: : 35% for the first period with a limit of 800 spectators, 65% for the second period and finally a 100% for the third and last. The end of the gauges is planned for July 1.

It is understood that the transition from one stage to another is automatic.

Sanitary conditions are very strict: wearing a mask is compulsory at all time, hydroalcoholic gel will be made available to the public, door handles, toilets and screening rooms are disinfected regularly, etc.

The time between each screening will be extended in order to renew the air in the screening room and a sense of circulation will prevent people crossing.

In addition, candies, confectionery and beverages will not be allowed in theaters at the reopening, as in all closed places in France – creating a significant shortfall for operators.

Moreover, operators will have to comply with the various stages of curfews organized by the French government and therefore be deprived of late screenings until the summer – which could severely limit the number of spectators.

Indeed, French government did not follow the requests of professionals for a « time stamp » allowing the screenings to end after the curfew as requested in particular by the National Federation of French Cinema.

Finally, it should be remembered that like all lifting of lockdown measures, reopening of theaters remains subject to local conditions and therefore is uncertain over time, particularly in the most affected regions.

Indeed, French government detailed that lifting of the restrictions could be delayed in the event of « deteriorated health situation », in particular in departments where the rate of incidence is durably higher than 400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Note, however, that to date, all departments have fallen below this threshold.

If the professional and public warmly welcomed the announcement of a reopening, it remains to be seen whether the sanitary conditions will allow an efficient recovery, if the audience will follow and if the pictures will actually benefit from a close to normal exposure.

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