Article: How an independent distributor has adapted to survive in the age of COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to independent cinemas around the world shutting their doors, The Bigger Picture spoke to London-based, female-led film production, distribution and event cinema company, Modern Films, about how they’ve had to adapt to survive. Managing Director Eve Gabereau talks about the changes they’ve put in place and how the shutdown has impacted upon future releases.

In mid-March, we at Modern Films were faced with the same situation as everyone in distribution, how to keep a theatrical releasing company going when cinemas are closed – and not stop all operations and/or limit our films’ audience potential?

We had to make a very quick decision about whether to carry on with our campaign on The Perfect Candidate by Haifaa Al Mansour or to postpone it until we had a clearer sense of the situation and future. In Germany it had just launched and was doing well, only to be shut down a week later. France had already decided to change the release scheduled for April and the US hadn’t yet, and still haven’t, dated it.

As we were 10 days off our release date of 27 March, we decided, with much consultation with the team behind the film, to keep on schedule, mostly given that the UK already had an infrastructure in place that supports day-and-date and that maybe this would only be a temporary measure for a few weeks until cinemas re-opened and life would resume. In the end, we now know that this did not happen, but we stand by our position in that we put the best interest of the film first, we knew we had options and that it would likely find its audience given its strong profile.

The Perfect Candidate for the wrong time

We had a great campaign roll-out including a BFI Audience Award, popular live events in the Glasgow and London for festivals and International Women’s Day, full feature coverage going to press, reviews in progress and one of the best key artworks I had ever developed. All of this was to culminate in a wide-ranging advertising spend and a strong  London Underground reach. We carried on, but had to move from 35+ opening sites and a solid follow-on run, to showing on two leading digital spaces: Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player.

We also added our own platform, which we built and launched in a matter of days, with a drop-down to support your local cinema with part of the proceeds being shared out. It worked as a place to watch the film under the early days of lockdown, and to keep a new release on course, even if could never measure up to a full theatrical run and cinema presence through trailers, posters, brochures, word-of-mouth, etc. Still, we positioned the film as a premium view and showed it virtually through over 50 sites and events – and hosted a number of online Q&As with the director and various partners, including Curzon, British Arab Centre, Reclaim the Frame and the Lexi Cinema, as well as a BAFTA Members special event.

Since then we have continued to develop and fine-tune our virtual screening platform and exhibition offering to cinemas and we have increased our net sales share from 10% to 50%.

We rely on the cinemas themselves having 1) the capacity to programme the films and actively promote them, 2) robust marketing tools in-house and strong communication channels direct to their audiences and 3) someone to work with our booker and platform encoding to seamlessly integrate our transactional system into their cinema. We do all the rest. The cinemas that have been the most successful have all three of these in place. Those who don’t, have seen lesser results. It’s a matter of balancing out what they already had and what/who they currently have to manage the workload.

Releasing features without theatres

In addition to The Perfect Candidate, we will have released three more films of our own in this PVOD  (Premium Video on Demand) model, including documentary Carmine Street Guitars, Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC and Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor based on the true story of the first mafia informant. With The Traitor, we are working on a hybrid model to show the film in cinemas and online at the same time, which differs from a traditional digital release in that we focus on the cinema brands and spaces for tickets sales and viewing experience, even if they are virtual. We are keeping the connection between audiences and their local theatre alive in the process and that, we hope, is both our differentiator and our singularity.

We have put together a summer tour of virtual previews and online Q&As with music festivals around White Riot, the BFI London Film Festival winner for Best Documentary that follows the Rock Against Racism movement in the 1970s. They have included All Points East with AEG, Isle of Wight with Daw Bell, Meltdown with Everyman and Spiritland, Glastonbury’s Cineramageddon with Edinburgh Film Festival and Latitude with Girls on Film, with more to come in July and August. It is set for an Event Cinema theatrical release on 18 September.

We have also worked with a number of other distributors in various capacities to help with their screening offerings, including New Wave, Republic, Signature and 606, as well as an active booking agreement with Bohemia Media on their first foray into distribution with Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Clemency – around which we have over 40 participating cinemas and 15 organisational partners.

Looking to the future

We have picked up some new films for release in the autumn, and are thinking about how best to make the most of them with audiences as uncertainty about social distancing and social convening pervade. We are excited about them – Luxor by Zeina Durra and starring Andrea Riseborough that will be part of Sundance London online in August, IFFR prize-winner A Perfectly Normal Family by amazing new voice in cinema Malou Reymann and Cannes 2020 Label official selection Falling written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, who also stars in it and did the music.  Plus documentaries Beyond the Visible about Swedish painter Hilma af Klint and Raise Hell about the American political journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Molly Ivins. More to come too.

We are looking forward to cinemas re-opening in a meaningful way and for people to feel confident in getting back into it – as well as what the future may hold in terms of widening the scale and scope of how we release new films and how audiences watch them. I do think the Virtual Screening option is here to stay, as an additional viewing choice rather than a replacement. The hybrid nature of this evolving model is inclusive of the industry value chain and mindful of audience’s interests, time, place, mobility and resources.

Established in 2017 by Eve Gabereau, Modern Films was launched as an alternative to the traditional model of the film value chain to work across borders, media and windows. Its first major projects included the distribution of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto starring Cate Blanchett in 13 different role as a Live from Tate Modern Event Cinema release and Executive Production on the BAFTA-winning  I Am Not a Witch by Rungano Nyoni that had its world premiere in the Directors Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival and went on to be the UK’s entry for the 91st Academy Awards.

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