In a bid to assess the challenges that face the cinematic landscape, and the increasingly intricate task of getting films in front of an audience, we asked leading professionals from the distribution and exhibition sector to forecast what tempests the industry might have to weather, and what trends we might be likely to see in 2020.
See all the predictions below
Our cultural mission should mean engaging audiences with the cinema that streaming platforms, television and multiplexes leave behind
“A major challenge facing the independent sector is in maintaining our cultural film programme integrity under the auspices of attracting new, younger and more diverse audiences. The idea that individuals belonging to those groups of people, not currently attending arthouse and independent cinemas, would only be tempted by the latest American Indie fare (often also showing at the local multiplex) is both untrue and insulting. Cultural cinemas absolutely should be reaching out to new audiences and trying to break down the upper- and middle-class barriers (among others) to entry but, doing so shouldn’t mean only championing English language or mainstream screen content. If, for example, we can get a younger audience to come see Eighth Grade, which is great, how does that then help us engage them with world cinema, film heritage and our venues as spaces for critical and cultural discourse?
It occurs to me that our time and energy – as well as our cultural mission – should mean we leave the Eighth Grades to the studios to sell and focus instead on engaging audiences with the cinema that streaming platforms, television and multiplexes leave behind. This is a tough but important collective challenge we need to address.”
We’ll see more effort from all distributors, exhibitors and festivals in raising their consumer profile
“We seem to learn something new every year in this industry. I hope next year we’ll learn that it’s perfectly reasonable for a foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars or wherever. The key thing that’s on my mind at the moment is closed data. Our industry has always operated in an open data world, but with more box office numbers being withheld, I’m interested in how we as an industry adjust to that. Will Programmers and Cinema operators have to be much more instinctive and passionate about the films they book or focus more on customer experience and loyalty to overcome it? As much as it seems like a threat right now, it could be result in a wider range of films being played. I think this is the year that accessible screenings in sociable slots, especially open caption screenings for D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences will become the norm and mainstream. It’s long overdue.
We’re also entering the year of the brands. With entertainment businesses becoming direct to consumer, we’ll see more effort from all distributors, exhibitors and festivals in raising their consumer profile. Expect more gifs, memes, banter and merchandise from everyone. BFI candles coming soon.”
I welcome cinema opening doors to and planting its flag firmly in internationalism for 2020
“In 2020 both of our UK-wide FAN-supported seasons will look outward to other countries. Cinemas are an extremely local space in which we can debate and explore global issues, and the place that a local independent venue can hold in both giving room to lesser-heard voices and deep discussion is invaluable. Cultural organisations have a responsibility to both reflect their cities and to help us understand the world we collectively share, so I welcome cinema opening doors to and planting its flag firmly in internationalism for 2020.
I expect to see continued increase in energetic micro-venues and communities presenting niche and highly curated programmes – particularly younger programming collectives in the Film Audience Network. We are now some years in to a generation of young adults who grew up creating content and communicating through screen-based media, who are hungry for individual experiences, who value expertise and knowledge, and for whom access to projection equipment and pop ups is easier than ever before. It’s up to those of us in bricks and mortar venues to recognise this and look at how we engage, co-curate, and expand our models so that we serve this audience – whose definition of ‘cinema’ might be different to yours but who are still very hungry for collective, active, engaged viewing and discovery.”
Programming will cater to specific needs, not just based on generation, but also interest, or specific situation
“2020 shall bring even more diverse programming for audience development, based on specific needs of our audiences. One approach is generational, where we consider specific needs in certain stage of life. In Kinodvor cinema we offer cinema for parents with babies, cinema babysitting, cinema for families, programmes for elderly audiences etc. But we are also challenged to think of not just different needs, but also interests, if we really wish to contribute to audience development. Based on the interests of youngsters, we developed a programme for youth, made by youth, called Kinotrip. We are also exploring how to reach children at hospitals through paediatric visits but we are considering and developing solutions to approach children in hospitals also through an online platform of quality films. I believe that in the future, innovative practices will need to answer to the specific needs not just based on generation, but also interest, or specific situation.”
We’re going to see people across the industry collaborate more to benefit audiences, and move away from the traditional approaches
“The thing that unifies MUBI’s vision and strategy is our desire to bring incredible films to as wide an audience as possible. MUBI has always had an audience-first mindset, and this guides how we approach partnerships, distribution and curate content for subscribers.
One of our advantages is that we can operate with agility, and have the freedom to experiment given our business model. We’ve distributed films theatrically in the UK since 2016, and this year, supercharged our efforts significantly. This came from a desire to bring the freshest content from markets like Cannes directly to audiences, but also as a way to develop partnerships across the industry.
We regularly experiment with distribution models, and have tried a variety of approaches: full 16-week window, day-and-date, festival-to-platform, shorter windows, and event releasing. We launched our Direct from LFF series last month, which was well received, and now we want to use that model in other markets. Our UK cinema-going initiative MUBI GO was also an idea we had that has become well established and successful, and we’re expanding to other markets.
MUBI and Curzon partnered to show The Souvenir on MUBI shortly after cinemas, and we will do the same with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We think we’re going to see people across the industry collaborate more like this to benefit audiences, and move away from the traditional approaches. The landscape is altering rapidly, and we think it’s crucial to remain nimble, open-minded and ready to learn quickly from both failure and success.”
We should share data more openly in order for us all to become better in identifying, understanding and reaching audiences
“How do we gain and share better insights so as to harness the power of the audience? Who are we writing and producing for? How and why? Since developing the concept of Audience Design for TorinoFilmLab, who in 2018 published the free e-book on our experiences in building a strategic approach, the question of the audience has become more and more urgent, widespread and there are an increasing number of initiatives that approach the audience question from a multitude of angles. With increased choice, comes an increased risk of never reaching the people for whom your content is relevant, and desired. How do we bridge these distances? This is an issue that especially our sector needs to focus on finding ways to tackle. Can we share more data openly in order for us all to become better in identifying, understanding and reaching audiences? Can we share concrete cases more efficiently across borders? The audience is international – if they want to see something, they will find ways – and so we need to approach them internationally. We need to rethink how we sell, premiere and market audiovisual content as we step into 2020.”
I envisage a closer synergy between regional and localised production and the film exhibition sector
“Audiences are already responding positively to culturally relevant narratives and a trend for localised content: stories told in their own voices and that represent them and their own environments, culture and heritage. I predict that this trend will grow, fuelling the new generation of film programmers who will curate films organically and culturally, to create authentic peer-to-peer shared experiences. To this end I envisage a closer synergy between regional and localised production and the film exhibition sector to provide an authentic representation on screen. Independent cinemas will continue to develop as hubs to facilitate this movement, providing a home for clubs and societies to flourish and curate their own seasons and programmes; thereby reclaiming exhibition spaces to provide a platform for their own curatorial voices. Screenings will be increasingly embellished with mixed-media and live elements from the wider creative community to create meaningful shared experiences with measurable impact in cinema attendance.”
We need the appetite for film to be met with a diverse offer of international cinema and gatekeepers to realise their role in making and sustaining that change
“It’s humbling to see that cinema audiences show commitment and maintain excitement about the experience we deeply believe is unique: the collective viewing of film on the big screen, in the company of strangers… It’s also encouraging to witness the relentless battles of marginalised individuals and groups to be heard through film, for multiple points of view to be represented and for new voices to take part in the economy of dream works and realities accounted for through film. At the Barbican, we keep insisting on exhibiting fantastic films by and about women, people of colour, queer and of less familiar filmmakers from all corners of the world, handpicking them to be programmed in a variety of seasons and series that draw audiences to the less familiar but vitally exciting and provoking.”
Our challenge in the next year and beyond it to merge these trends and make sure that market forces are not the only ones to dictate what’s truly available on our screens and to a wide audience. That the appetite for film is met with a diverse offer of international cinema and that gatekeepers realise their role in making and sustaining that change. We’re also looking at ways for new models for collaborations between online platforms and traditional exhibition to enable both to flourish and complement each other. I would like to see how the model is not ‘either/or’ but rather ‘this, as well as that’. So it would be questions concerning Netflix, MUBI and many more and the way we work in collaboration to mobilise audiences across platforms while maximising the variety of worthy films which get recognition and exposure.”
Those who thrive will be those who combine tech and irl experience
“I think we are currently working in one of the most exciting times for exhibition and distribution, ever! At both ourscreen and elevenfiftyfive we try to take the view of the audience and now is a great time to be a film fan.
Audiences have so many possible ways to enjoy film today and including various formats and existing work there has never been as much quality product available. However, with a landscape changing as rapidly as it is now, we can’t stand still. Of course that poses huge challenges, especially to the largest players who need to find new ways to be nimble. But, what an opportunity this is for new players! A shifting market means threat but also an opportunity and now more than ever the power is with the audience which has the power to break down barriers.
My prediction for the future is that this is the new norm for our industry. Perhaps like the gaming industry we need to always plan for the unimaginable impact of tech and always remember the effervescent desire for real world experience. Maybe those who thrive will be those who combine tech and irl experience.”
The sector needs to seriously commit to widening networks, and reaching out to those who can help us learn and develop
“Film Hub NI, based at Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast, is one of eight Hubs around the UK that make up the BFI Film Audience Network, working in the sphere of audience development for independent film. Working in the creative sector in Northern Ireland can be challenging, partly because of being geographically separated, and and partly because of our difficult political issues.
One of the most useful aspects of the work that we do is based around networks. We are a membership organisation, a network of passionate and committed film exhibitors, who all want to provide a great experience for their audiences and showcase great film. This year we have developed Collective, a new marketing initiative to tour NI, Irish and UK films around a core network of exhibitors, and to bridge the gap between audiences, exhibitors, distributors and filmmakers. We have also strengthened cross-border networks by hosting an all-Ireland Programmers meeting, and working with Dublin-based Access Cinema to bring their VIEWING:SESSIONS conference across the border for the first time in it’s 41 year history.
These very positive recent experiences have reinforced our belief that the sector needs to seriously commit to widening networks, and reaching out to those who can help us learn and develop. Through this we can only strengthen our offer and continue to deliver creative and impactful projects to audiences of all types, whatever the external challenges.”
We need to find audiences in the places they are, not where they were.
“Though there’s a lot of doom and gloom about the digital landscape and its impact, I don’t buy the accusation that the smartphone world is killing collective cultural experiences. Campfires change, but our desire for story and connection does not.
Because of the power of digital platforms, I firmly believe it’s never been a better time to connect great creative work with audiences. The distance between a great story and the audience it engages – the people it moves, makes laugh, makes cry – has never been shorter. The real issue is the onus is now on you – the creators, distributors, funders, exhibitors – to be creatively bold and stand out in today’s ‘attention economy’. There’s a lot crowding discovery of brilliant, bold independent storytelling. But the independent sector arguably has more opportunity to break the mould and be really innovative. Digital gives you more opportunities to iterate ideas and you can get incredible insight into what does and doesn’t work – so use that.
Ultimately you got to think about how to stop a person’s thumb mid-scroll to grab their attention for your story. It’s all about being people first, because whether you like it or not we are living in the audience age right now. It’s no longer a broadcast world where ‘if you build it they will come’. We have to innovate our approaches to audiences if we want to thrive rather than just survive. We need to find audiences in the places they are, not where they were. We need to reach beyond what we assume is a core audience – because people want to see other people’s stories as well as their own.
A great example of this is Alma Har’el and the early success of Honey Boy. She’s speaking directly to audiences with authenticity, passion and real insight – letting people into the process of getting her incredible film. She’s not diluting her authorial voice, she’s enhancing it, and that’s what audiences love these days.
If we can all take this lead and embrace a more outward, engaged and audience-first approach, we’ll have some of the most exciting campfires around.”
We can expect the theatrical window debate to intensify
“Undoubtedly the big question facing cinemas in 2020 concerns theatrical windows.
The big UK chains insist all their movies are held from TV, digital or home entertainment exploitation for 16 weeks from their theatrical release date. Most studio and saturation releases still rely on the major circuits to generate sufficient box office to turn seven-figure P&A budgets into profit; and to drive down-the-line ancillary and licence revenues.
However, in recent years, many independents have joined Curzon in releasing films ‘day and date’, launching in cinemas and on demand on the same day. Furthermore, short window releases are more prevalent with distributors content to explore releasing without multiplexes in favour of multi-purpose marketing campaigns, early digital exploitation and broader national access in the home as well as in limited cinemas.
Since Roma played Curzon and selected cinemas on its way to awards success, Netflix’s theatrical activity has drawn the windows debate out into the open. A line in the sand of theatrical windows has been drawn with exhibitors choosing a side on which to stand.
The majors (including Picturehouse) are unmoved in their stance on full windows. However, as I write, The Irishman is enjoying sellouts across Curzon’s London cinemas ahead of its regional rollout in a few days’ time. Scorcese’s opus will play across an estimated range above 150 independently owned cinemas in the UK & Eire, making it the widest short window release ever (in 3 weeks it launches on Netflix). By turning down The Irishman, the majors are handing a major tentpole opportunity – with studio-level marketing support – to their independent competitors.
With Apple TV+ launched and Disney Plus coming soon – and both platforms expected to harbour theatrical ambitions – we can expect this debate to intensify in 2020. Will the traditional model of a 16-week theatrical window endure?”
More not-for-profit initiatives can and should exist to shore up the future of specialised European cinema
“We believe Reclaim the Frame – our UK audience development mission bringing ever-greater audiences to films by women – is vital not only for a gender equal film future but also, we believe, provides a model for the survival of specialised film in the UK and beyond.
Public funding for the production of European films is well established but access to audiences for these films is generally an uphill battle and small actions are made to address but this issue is hitting crisis levels now with so many films funded and unreleased. Our 10-city project (increasing in 2020) is backed by lottery funds from the BFI Audience Fund and helps to frame specialised films from around the world as more appealing, exciting and accessible to audiences so that they have a meaningful impact in a crowded and competitive market place. As a charity we are not-for-profit so we bring resources and funds to the releases of the films we support but we leave the income to the distributors and cinemas and financiers.
The funding of not-for-profit audience development and film marketing remains comparatively unexplored because so much funding and focus stays on making films not the rest of the process – and we believe a greater onus on the latter is essential to the survival of specialised film.
Reclaim The Frame is a unique model that addresses and aids these commercial challenges while furthering an important social mission which is to celebrate wider perspectives of the world by drawing ever-greater audiences to films by women through advocacy, conversation and community. We empower audiences to make a difference by encouraging them to attend our special event screenings in 10 cities that feature post-screening discussion and activities. We are growing networks of influence to generate word of mouth on and off-line for films such as The Souvenir by Joanna Hogg, Atlantics by Mati Diop (through exclusive theatrical deal with Netflix) and documentaries like For Sama and Seahorse. We’ve celebrated 22 films written or directed by women this year, 90% new, 10% classics that we reframe and reclaim.
Eighteen months on from our launch, the project is going from strength to strength. Now in 10 cities/15 cinemas across the UK and with well over 100 screenings hosted in 2019, RTF continues to reach young and diverse audiences (31% are under 30 years old) and to enjoy a very high approval rating with 96% of our 2000+ survey respondents rating RTF events 4 or 5/5, and 70% indicating that they were ‘very likely’ to recommend the film they had seen.
Our prediction is that more not-for-profit initiatives can and should exist to shore up the future of specialised European cinema and expand and uphold its relevance and quality. Without an audience, we don’t have a film, we have a light show…”
We will focus on practical solutions and sustainable approaches to the challenges that the sector faces
“As This Way Up, the UK’s Independent Film Conference, gets set to deliver it’s 6th edition we’ve been reflecting on current conversations and challenges in the exhibition industry, the need for resilience and the celebration of cinema in all of its forms, this feeling vital in a time of uncertainty and change. The conference is a space to share and discover, with discussions on pertinent topics ranging from redefining the film canon, combating the climate crisis and staying creative during a cinema rebuild. The conference brings together individuals from independent cinemas, film festivals, community film clubs and everything in between to explore the challenges facing the country’s independent film exhibition sector – always with a focus on growing audiences.
When a ‘good’ year for film exhibition overall can still mean a challenging bottom line for exhibitors we look at how we as an industry can stay relevant to our audiences and communities whilst examining well-being and the importance of shared learning. Above all we will focus on practical solutions and sustainable approaches to the challenges that the sector faces.”
Cinema will remain a strong choice for film-goers who continue to crave the unique social experience
“In my view, 2020 will be a critical year for the continuing industry debates around traditional release windows and the role and impact of streaming platforms in the film economy. The biggest streaming services, including several new high profile platforms launching in 2020, are going to be competing against each other in a developing market, so my guess is that they will substantially drive up the overall volume of subscribers; but I wonder whether there will be enough space for all of these services to operate profitably. It may depend on how deep their pockets are, and how long each company can stay in the market to build their share.
As has been demonstrated before, I believe the cinema will remain a strong choice for film-goers who continue to crave the unique social experience and big screen and sound capabilities of a cinema visit the more they consume media privately and on smaller devices. Independent cinema operators have, generally, been a step ahead of others in the film industry in adapting their businesses to changing audience tastes, and they will continue to fine-tune their operations to maintain cinemas as robust sites of entertainment and culture. As part of this, I expect independent cinemas, and those distributors looking to close the theatrical release window completely, to reach some form of compromise which will enable everyone to get most of what they want. Perhaps the current Netflix/Altitude release pattern, offering a limited theatrical exclusivity, provides a template moving forward.
It’s probably too early to tell how Brexit, if it happens in 2020, will impact the industry and culture during the year. However, in the longer term, I would expect more damaging cultural consequences with a reduction in the number and proportion of European films available to UK audiences, and a much more challenging environment for British filmmakers whose work has been supported by European funding, co-production and audiences.
In the end though, I’m ever optimistic as I believe that there will always be some more resourceful programmers and exhibitors who will find a way of showing the films that a wider range of audiences want to see.”