Article: What will distribution in 2021 look like?

As 2020 comes to an end with many of the year’s planned releases thrown into turmoil, Jack Bell looks ahead and how distribution could change in 2021.

Distribution in 2021 is certainly going to be different with recent announcements of major distribution plans tied to streaming, release dates still tentative, and cinemas in difficult positions. 2020 has seen lots of films pulled back, yes, but it has also shown that there is no shortage of great films available and no shortage of options in how to release them.

Having worked in international repertory distribution for over 9 years, what stands out is that the majority of repertory screenings have nothing to do with the film release calendar or how they fall within the theatrical window. It’s just about when the cinema decides a film will work for their audience within that week or month’s programme.

That’s it.

Every screening around the world brings up issues including film censorship, rights and materials availabilities, language versioning, different delivery methods, localised marketing campaigns… the list goes on. But while repertory has its challenges, it does offer a niche perspective and a recognition of the importance of flexibility, as well as boundless programming opportunities.

Looking ahead

Since July (in the UK), there has been a rise in repertory programming due to fewer releases of new titles. It shows the role back catalogues have in enabling exciting and engaging programmes for audiences, whether a film is 6 months or 6 decades old, on a 35mm/70mm print (link shows KINO Rotterdam who installed a 70mm projector this year) or 4K DCP. There is a wealth of films and film history available that can provide diverse programmes audiences have never seen before. The challenge for all in distribution in 2021 is to ensure that choice is as accessible as possible so that diverse programmes of old and new films can be curated. One brilliant crossover example in 2020 saw Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables release coincide with a 4K restoration reissue of La Haine (1995); two films that are (still) so relevant to society today. What a double bill – more of this please!

Hybrid models appear here to stay into 2021. The turnaround in virtual exhibition platforms was impressive but how will online and theatrical distribution develop further? The BFI London Film Festival, like many others, presented films online this year but significantly (and successfully) they also helped present and promote a selection of films to play across the UK in theatres that were open. Glasgow Film Festival have announced a similar model for their 2021 edition, showing a powerful sign of collaboration that exists and is growing within the UK film sector.

There is also an accessibility in bringing programmes and events online (I loved being able to watch one of LFF’s Archive titles, Chess of the Wind (1976) from my home in Glasgow), but what feels undeniable is that there should be a harmony between online and physical screenings. Presenting films for audiences to watch in different spaces (at home or in a packed auditorium) with considered distributor and cinema curation, along with (online or in-person) talks or Q&As from filmmakers, journalists, programmers or industry experts that inspire, makes sense and will ultimately encourage a greater love for watching films in the long term, not to the detriment of either such space.

What will distribution look like in 2021? My hope is that there will be more of this cross-sector communication, and that it will be more accessible, creative, collaborative, diverse, industry-supportive, innovative, and open, to everyone’s benefit. I think it is all set up to be so.

Jack Bell is the Director of Theatrical Sales at Park Circus, where he has worked for 9 years. Working with over 100 countries worldwide, Jack oversees the theatrical distribution for many of the greatest films ever made, representing all the major Hollywood studios and British libraries, including ITV and Film4. Every day Jack works with rights owners, and programmers of independent theatres, cinema chains and film festivals all around the world who share his passion for seeing films back on the big screen.

You can follow Jack on Twitter via @BellJackJames

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