I am very pleased to be talking about the movie theatres, which play such a fundamental role in the success of the cinema’s overall chain of value. Before getting to the heart of the present situation, which is suffering so keenly from the pandemic, I should like to give an idea of what Europe’s movie theatres can offer. In the countries we observe (MEDIA Salles came into being in 1991 and since then has been constantly monitoring the evolution of the cinema sector), from Iceland to Russia, from Portugal to Turkey – and thus a far broader territory than that of the European Union alone – there are over 40,000 screens today. This is a number that has seen overall growth in the past thirty years. At the same time, there have been significant changes in cinema-going. After the great crisis in the Eighties – when ticket sales, especially in Western Europe, plunged to a historical minimum – the phenomenon that most marked the exhibition sector was the advent of the multiplex, which can also be described as a concentration of several screens in a smaller number of places. Let us take for example the United Kingdom, one of the six leading markets in Europe together with Russia, France, Germany, Spain and Italy: in 1993 the country had 1,800 screens, 27 years later 4,500. In 1993 there were 700 cinema sites, whilst 27 years later there were “only” 800. This means precisely that the type of offer has changed: many more screens concentrated in a relatively lower number of places.
As well as screens, audiences, too, have increased. In 2019 Europe* registered a record number of ticket sales – around 1 billion, 350 million – with a box office of approximately 9 billion euros.
It is a highly fragmented market, in the sense that trends are quite diverse, according to country. Let us take admissions as an indicator: how many times a year does a European citizen go to the cinema? On average s/he goes fewer than two times but there are some enormous differences. In Bosnia Herzegovina for example, average admissions are 0.35 per capita, so it takes 3 people to sell one ticket. In France average admissions are over 3 tickets per person. For the sake of curiosity, the record belongs to Iceland. Every citizen of Iceland goes to the cinema three and a half times every year. Italy is placed around the European average of approximately 1.6 tickets per person, obviously with slight variations according to the year.
What do Europeans see? A lot of our cinema comes from the United States followed, according to the country, by a larger or smaller number of domestic films, with high points in France but also - to quote only a few countries - in Italy, Germany and Turkey. A strongly varying percentage of ticket sales comes from films from other European countries. In the United Kingdom only 5% of the tickets sold regards films that are neither domestic, nor from the USA or other countries in the world, which generally achieve a very low market share. In Switzerland – a country that speaks Italian, French and German – many films produced in these three languages are seen and thus the proportion of European films rises to 25%. As previously mentioned, it is fairly difficult to speak of a European cinema market on the big screen as though it were homogeneous throughout the various countries.
With some exceptions, it can be stated that it is not easy for films produced in an individual European country to win other markets. On this scenario, which Italian productions manage to cross the borders of the Bel Paese?
In order to give an idea of the Italian productions that cross the borders of the Bel Paese, some categories are presented here, quoting significant examples.
Italy is considered a country of fundamental importance in cinema history. It enjoys considerable prestige and this is reflected in the fact that the great classics remain amongst the films seen abroad. Even today, especially in countries like France or Belgium, we regularly find presentations of films by the great masters, such as Fellini or Visconti. Titles such as “Senso” or “La dolce vita” are evergreens that still reach the big screen today, perhaps during film weeks. If we consider 2019, “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” came seventh in the classification of films most seen in Norway, where “Cesare deve morire” was also viewed. There are also heritage films that return to theatres in the wake of new ones. To make the concept clearer, I might quote, “Suspiria” by Guadagnino which was released in Finland with a series of Dario Argento films. The idea of creating links between new Italian output and the films that could be considered their roots or points of reference, continues to be topical.
All this shows that the Italian films that work best as exports are generally those known as art-house films or quality cinema, which does not necessarily mean niche cinema. One example that might stand for all could be “La vita è bella” which was seen in Italy by more than 5.7 million spectators and in Europe as a whole by almost 20 million spectators.
And what does not travel well? Popular comedies or comic films do not. Italian ones do not travel well, but in general neither do those from other countries. A famous saying might well explain this: “Throughout the world people cry for the same reasons, whilst they laugh for completely different ones.” As a consequence, the more popular films that aim to amuse – those that can transform the whole year’s box-office at home – travel very little.
What are the factors that can contribute to the success of an Italian film abroad? Amongst the reasons for their success on other markets there is, for example, the presence of foreign actors. One example dating back to 2000 is that of “Pane e tulipani” which achieved great success in Europe and in particular in German-speaking countries, because Bruno Ganz was in the cast: an eminently Italian story but at the same time with an element that could clearly be recognized by foreign audiences.
Co-productions also work. 2018 was an exceptional year for the reputation of Italian cinema because Guadagnino’s film “Call me by your name” was not only widely successful both in terms of admissions and the number of countries it reached, but also in terms of its release schedule. One limit that emerges in the circulation of Italian films is that it sometimes takes one or two years for a film to reach all the countries for which the theatrical rights have been purchased. A very different scenario to that of day and date. Guadagnino’s film - a co-production backed up by international distribution guaranteed by a major - not only had considerable success, but this affirmation also came more or less contemporarily throughout the world.
Co-production and an international distribution scheme are elements that may not always work, but in general they make things easier.
I should also like to consider a relatively new aspect. Since they made the shift to digital projection, especially with satellite connections, movie theatres have turned into hubs for the spread of cultural and artistic productions via the big screen. A considerable body of productions has thus grown up of what are called “added content” or “event cinema”, of an essentially cultural nature, based on art, music, great exhibitions in leading museums all over the world, which have been specially transformed into audio-visual productions and a big-screen experience. This has been the novelty of the past few years, starting from the First Nights of the Scala, right up to concerts by “Il Volo”, passing through art films about great Italians who have written universal art history, such as Caravaggio, Bernini and Raffaello.
The image of Italy on the big screen is now also entrusted to this new type of production, positioned mainly in the previously mentioned current of art-house cinema, quality theatres whose target is an audience that is certainly more demanding and usually includes older spectators. This is a type of audience that is also prepared to pay a higher price than that of the classical cinema ticket for this type of experience, but which nonetheless remains competitive when compared to a ticket for a concert or any other live performance.
Amongst the more recent titles is the Italian, U.S. and French co-production on Pavarotti, which has been internationally distributed, in the USA, too. But there are other markets, as well. Such as Hungary, where the genre of art films is highly successful.
And here, I would include another winning card: the presence of distribution companies that in some sense specialize in productions from Italy. It may be sufficient – for films but even more so for the less widespread market for added content – for a single distributor to focus particularly on Italian productions for the latter to succeed in obtaining highly flattering results. In Hungary this is the case of Pannonia Entertainment.
What do foreign spectators look for in Italian productions, in particular contemporary ones? The fact that they wish to rediscover the experiences and knowledge they already have of Italy is curiously demonstrated by the way Italian film titles are translated. We have carried out a little investigation in the Scandinavian countries. For example, a film called “Quanto basta” (literally: Just Enough) in Italian, has a title in the Scandinavian countries that means more or less: “The Taste of Tuscany”. In the same way, “Le meraviglie” (The Wonders) has been translated “Miracle in Tuscany” and “A casa tutti bene” (All Well at Home) as “My Italian Family.”
There is a recurrent idea of attracting spectators by reminding them of their experiences in Italy, perhaps on holiday, but also by confirming clichés or evoking symbolic figures. “La paranza dei bambini” (The Trawler of Children) is translated as “The Children of the Camorra”, whilst a rather enigmatic title, “Loro” (Them) has been transformed into “Silvio and the Others”.
The basic concept remains more or less the same, linked to the fact that – as they say – we all prefer to recognize than to get to know. This way of translating titles seems to me to appeal to the phenomenon of recognizing something of Italy, something beautiful and at times rather stereotyped.
To remain optimistic but not far from the reality of things, I would conclude this part by saying that the world of the cinema couldn’t make it without Italy. The prestige of Italian cinema and culture is so high that sometimes it is “others” who produce “Italian sounding” films. I remember, for example, a delightful Danish film called “Italian for Beginners” which told the story of the relationships between people brought together by attending Italian classes. The class concluded the course in Venice, the idea of the film – which wasn’t even a film about Italy - being to convey a bond with the Bel Paese and love of Italy and its lifestyle. Or we might think of the first added content that really achieved great international success: an exhibition-based film made in Great Britain on the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum. A sort of indirectly Italian production.
In the same way, there are art films that are not produced in Italy. What can we say? A great opportunity. If the Italian cinema industry manages to take it up, wouldn’t that be better? There would be less risk of seeing “Italian sounding” products made abroad. A sort of “Italian sounding” transferred from the agricultural-food sector to the audio-visual…
I would like to go back to the aspect of Italy as a location. Returning to the example of “Call me by your Name” we can say that Cremona has become a popular international tourist venue, thanks partly to Guadagnino’s film, even though it is not a city like Florence, Venice or Rome, or even Matera which has a cinematographic tradition. There is a very close link between the territory foreigners would like to see and the film. I remember a U.S. cinema programmer telling me once his audience complained that few films brought to U.S. screens the Italian landscapes and places that Americans could recognize. This is a factor that takes us back to the phenomenon of “Italian sounding” cinema we have just been talking about.
I am pleased to answer the question about what has happened to cinema-going during Covid.
I would distinguish an initial phase starting on different dates but more or less in March, when theatres practically all over Europe were closed by measures imposed at a national or regional level. At that point many exhibitors racked their brains to find formulae for staying in contact with their audiences, because if, on the one hand, it is true that cinema-going on the digital platforms underwent incredible development – Eurovod estimates that its members have seen increases of between 15% and 1,000% - on the other hand it became clear that even those who watched films on these platforms, somehow wished to reproduce the theatrical “release” experience. The proof? In Ireland sales of popcorn in supermarkets rose by 63%.
This means that not only do audiences want to see the films, but also to have a cinema-going experience. Many initiatives – for example the one called “Remote Cinema” organized by the art-house chain “Budapest Film” in Hungary or “Cinema on the Sofa” in the Slovak Republic – were launched by movie theatres using their own platforms or supported by existing platforms but so as to refer customers to their own cinema. The objective was to propose cinema on the big screen again, for example with screenings at fixed times or with the intervention of a film critic, as if in the movie theatre itself.
There have been all sorts of activities, more or less innovative or based on digital technology, like those quoted. I would nevertheless add the second life of the drive ins. They seemed to be extinct and declining even in their native land, the United States, yet various forms of drive ins have been reborn. In the USA a widespread solution was to transform cinema parking lots into drive ins, projecting films onto the outside walls of multiplexes.
But creativity knows no limits: in Mantua – combining the idea of the drive in with the more usual summer arena in Italy – the eco-friendly bike-in came into being. Thanks to blow-up screens it was relatively easy to organize open-air screenings and thus guarantee safety in a very versatile fashion. To quote a few more examples from Italy, the Beltrade Cinema in Milan offered films on its own platform, whilst Piccolo Cinema Paradiso brought screenings to the beaches using those very blow-ups screens.
What conclusions can we draw? Some say, “those who talk about movie theatres in times of Covid want to bring back an old way of consuming cinema,” but I believe instead that the collective experience of viewing on the big screen has remained a strongly felt need, perhaps even made keener by the lack of it during the first lockdown. With differences between one market and another – but diversity is the key to the cinema-going mode in Europe – as soon as the theatres were re-opened and, crucially, some new titles with popular appeal (unfortunately very rare) arrived on the big screen, audiences returned to the cinemas.
More or less all over Europe, we are now experiencing a second waves of cinema closures which, however – unlike the first wave – has not come about in the same ways within individual countries or even regions. There are therefore cinemas that are open with restrictions and others that are closed, whether by decree or because of a decision by the cinema chain itself.
And on the side of distribution, new films with great popular appeal are tending to postpone their release dates. This is not a situation that makes it possible – apart from some local situations – to exploit the traditional increase in audiences over the Christmas period in order to make up part of the losses suffered in the first nine months of the year, when the first figures available spoke of box-offices that had fallen by 30%-50%. As a consequence, the wealth of energy that had emerged in the first lockdown, allowing movie theatres – in particular in small places and in the art-house and quality sectors – to maintain their relationship with their audiences, risks coming up against growing economic difficulties. The capacity for reaction shown by the exhibition sector faced with this overwhelming new phenomenon of lockdown represents an element of hope but it is impossible to hide the shadows looming out of the economic difficulties – already experienced – and the new business models – for example the release of films on digital platforms before their theatrical release – heralded for the near future.
* Click here to see details of the countries monitored at the end of 2019