FNE Visegrad YR2021: Slovak Distribution Facing Challenges in Fight to Recover

    Scumbag by Mariana Čengel Solčanská and Rudolf Biermann Scumbag by Mariana Čengel Solčanská and Rudolf Biermann

    BRATISLAVA: Slovak distributors recovered some momentum during the second half of 2021, releasing several long-awaited domestic titles, which had been waiting to premiere since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as several new titles.

    Thirty domestic films (15 documentaries, 14 features and one animated film) have been distributed in Slovakia in 2021, an increase of 50% compared to 2020.

    The largest number of domestic titles released by one distribution company was seven, launched by the Association of Slovak Film Clubs (ASFK), whereas the progressive distribution company Filmtopia and the alternative distribution company Film Expanded, which focuses on creative documentaries, launched five titles each. Moreover, three domestic titles were released by Bontonfilm and ITAFILM; two titles by Continental Film and CinemArt SK each, while Forum Film, MEDIA FILM and Garfield Film released one title each.

    Six of the domestic films which premiered in 2021 were Slovak productions, with no coproduction involvement; 10 were majority coproductions and 14 were minority coproductions. Although most of the distributors waited to premiere their films theatrically, three Slovak documentaries had their distribution premiere online during the lockdown.

    The Man With Hare Ears by Martin ŠulíkOne of these was a documentary about cryptocurrencies, called Libertas, directed by Boris Vereš and produced by Fullframe s.r.o."Originally, we considered cinema distribution, but at the time we wanted to premiere the film, the cinemas were closed and we didn't want to wait any longer," director Boris Vereš told FNE. Libertas premiered on its own website in January 2021, where is it still available for audiences. Another two titles, both distributed by the ASFK, had their online premieres later, on Kino Lumière's Cinema at Home platform: Everest, the Hard Way / Everest – najťažšia cesta by Pavol Barabáš, produced by K2studio, was released in March 2021, and The Commune / Komúna by Jakub Julény, produced by HITCHHIKER Cinema in coproduction with RTVS and Background Films, was launched at the beginning of May 2021.

    On the first day of the summer holidays, the distribution company Garfield Film premiered the long-awaited film by Martin Šulík The Man with Hare Ears / Muž so zajačími ušami , produced by TITANIC s.r.o. and In Film Praha, in coproduction with RTVS and the Czech Television. At the end of July 2021, two years after its completion, CinemArt SK launched Mira Fornay´s Cook, F**k, Kill / Žaby bez jazyka, produced by CINEART TV Prague, in coproduction with RTVS, the Czech Television, Synergia film and MIRAFOX. Slovakia's candidate for the 93rd Academy Award, The Auschwitz Report / Správa directed by Peter Bebjak, produced by D.N.A. in coproduction with Agresywna BandaEvolution Films, Ostlicht Filmproduktion, RTVS, the Czech Television and TVP, which was distributed in Slovak cinemas in September by Continental Film, topped the box office during it‘s opening weekend.

    Several feature-length documentary debuts of young Slovak women directors have also been released since the summer of 2021. ASFK premiered King Bee / To ta monarchia by Vladislava Sárkány, while Film Expanded released On Your Marks / Na značky! by Mária Pinčíková, The Sailor by Lucia Kašová and, most recently, Lines / Čiary by Barbora Sliepková, the winner of the Opus Bonum award at the 25th Ji.hlava.  

    The Slovak cinema distribution is finally breathing again after six months of closed cinemas and a chaotic situation in 2020. However, distribution companies are aware that the changes brought by the pandemic require a flexible response: “There must definitely be changes in film distribution after the pandemic. These are already practically happening, as it is not possible to plan things well in advance; it is necessary to act flexibly and quickly, combine online distribution with cinema distribution for certain titles and create some added value for films to attract audiences,“ Silvia Učňová Kapustová, the head of the Filmtopia distribution company, told FNE.

    Of all segments of the film industry, distribution suffered the biggest losses during the pandemic, as was confirmed by the 2020 Annual Report released by the Creative Europe Desk.

    To mitigate these losses, the Slovak Audiovisual Fund has allocated the most resources to aid film distribution in its entire history. The total distribution support in 2020 amounted to 612,900 EUR. The year-on-year increase in distribution support was 180,000 EUR, an almost 42% increase compared to 2019, and this was only possible thanks to a special contribution the fund Cook F**k Kill by Mira Fornayreceived in August 2020 from the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic as extraordinary support for cinemas and distribution.

    However, the year 2020 began with strong predictions about the potential growth of revenue from Slovak cinemas. There were 1,428,840 admissions and 8,740,136 EUR in gross profit in the first two months of 2020, with three Slovak films claiming a 44% share of the box office. Two domestic titles, released by Continental Film, topped the box office since the beginning: The New Year´s Kiss / Šťastný nový rok by Jakub Kroner, produced by INOUT Studio, which reached the first place in the box office and remained there for six weeks. It was shifted out of the top spot by another successful minority coproduction, Far Too Personal / Príliš osobná známosť directed by Marta Ferencová and produced by Czech Joy Department in coproduction with Slovak NUNEZ NFE and Trinity Pictures, which replaced it for the next two weeks. More good news for Slovak distribution also emerged in February, when CinemArt SK released the Slovak majority coproduction Scumbag / Sviňa directed by Mariana Čengel Solčanská and Rudolf Biermann, and coproduced by CinemArt SKIN Film Praha and Magic Seven Slovakia, which set another record during its opening weekend and became, with 389,358 admissions after the first few weeks, the second most successful film in the era of Slovakia's independence.

    Several long-awaited premieres of domestic titles were hit at the beginning of the pandemic, as a result of the sudden closure of all cultural events in Slovakia as of 10 March 2020. Most of them had had their release planned for Febiofest Bratislava, which was ruthlessly hit by the pandemic’s first and later second wave. The premiers of these films were rescheduled several times during the year and some domestic titles were unlucky enough to experience cinema closures just after their distribution release.

    “Distribution losses are huge, and not only financially. A number of exceptional films paid the price for this period and only a small number of viewers will eventually see them,“ Silvia Učňová Kapustová said.

    After weeks of total distribution paralysis, Scumbag / Sviňa became the first film to launch an online screening, the first to try a new form of distribution for domestic titles.

    "We had a lot of inquiries from people who did not see our film in cinemas, not only from Slovakia, but also from Slovaks living abroad. We thought about a way to satisfy the obvious interest and, together with the distribution company CinemArt SK, we decided to test this new, revolutionary online journey, during which people can virtually watch the same film together at the same time," said producer Rudolf Biermann in April 2020.

    The Auschwitz Report by Peter BebjakThe online screening platforms that emerged in Slovakia during the pandemic were different from the usual VOD platforms. Viewers bought a ticket to the online screening and watched the film in real time without the possibility of stopping, so they had the opportunity to see the current cinema premieres even when the cinemas were closed. For selected titles, the audience also received lectures or bonuses in the form of short films.

    The first online screening platforms, which started in April 2020, were Cinema at Home launched by Kino Lumière, which inspired other cinemas across the country to also start to use this platform (cinemas such as Kino Úsmev Košice, Kino Iskra Kežmarok, Kino Akademik Banská Štiavnica, Kino Fontána Piešťany); and KINO Z GAUČA, in which 23 cinemas participated during the first wave of the pandemic. Another similar platform #kináspolu, based on the same principle, was launched during the pandemic’s second wave in December 2020, in order to support the functioning of local cinemas during the lockdown.

    In addition to Edisonline, the first Czech/Slovak online video library, which focuses mainly on award-winning European titles, and dafilms.sk, the largest VOD platform in Slovakia, primarily focused on local content, some distribution companies have also set up their own online platforms. ASFK launched a new VOD platform, while the distribution company Filmtopia started the project Filmtopia Online at Your Home. However, competing with large VOD platforms was not their priority. As Silvia Učňová Kapustová from Filmtopia told FNE: “I assumed that the online projections of small art distribution companies could not compete with established platforms such as Netflix, HBO, and so on. However, we wanted to get closer to our viewers and respond to the current situation, so we decided to include several older titles in the online offer.“

    This experience has brought valuable knowledge to distribution companies, as Lucia Mandincová from ASFK told FNE: “A novelty which we solved during the pandemic was the purchase of online rights, as well as the purchase for films which we had already planned to release theatrically. Now when we're buying a new title, we're also interested in these types of distribution rights. During the pandemic, we have joined the Cinema at Home project, launched our own VoD platform, organised online discussions after screenings, and so on, which are all valuable experiences for our future work.“

    Lines by Barbora SliepkováThe pandemic has undoubtedly brought a new perspective on film distribution. Distributors agree that the need for more flexibility and finding new ways to reach audiences is essential.

    “The whole cultural sector has had to do a lot of overtime since the beginning of the pandemic, which was often very exhausting. We have never had meetings so often and so urgently, and we have never projected the future again so often. The chaotically and suddenly communicated anti-pandemic restrictions did not help either. However, the COVID-19 crisis has also taught us that there is a need for a parallel planning of several versions of one project for its successful implementation, and the need for more flexible marketing as well as the abandonment of established schemes,“ Matej Sotník from Film Expanded told FNE.

    However, when the train which had been so drastically stopped by the pandemic finally managed to restart, the pandemic situation worsened sharply and cinemas are now closing again. So it seems that challenges for the distribution sector will continue.

    Sources: Slovak Audiovisual FundUnion of Film Distributors of the Slovak Republic, film.sk