Southeast European Exhibitors, Distributors Plan for Post-COVID Reboot

The coronavirus pandemic might have offered an unexpected and unwelcome jolt to the movie business in Southeast Europe, but it’s just the latest in a series of disruptions to the industry whose impact will be felt for years to come.

Post-COVID planning, emerging VOD platforms, and the global rethink on theatrical release windows were among the topics discussed during “Supply Chain Interrupted: A Regional Perspective,” a panel hosted as part of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Talks discussion series.

Moderated by Cinelink industry head Jovan Marjanović, it included Igor Stanković, CEO of MCF MegaCom Film, a Belgrade-based distributor and festival organizer; Sanja Božić-Ljubičić, CEO of Pickbox, an SVOD service in Southeast Europe, and founder of the New Europe Market (NEM), one of the leading television industry events in Central and Eastern Europe; and Christof Papousek, CFO of the Constantin Film group of companies.

Papousek is the co-founder of Constantin’s international cinema operation, Cineplexx International, which has developed and acquired 25 cinemas in 11 countries across Southeast Europe. With countries across the region eyeing a restart—even as the coronavirus pandemic forced the Sarajevo fest to pivot to an online edition—he said it’s “very important to show that our industry cannot go down.”

“During this time, certainly other formats [such as VOD] could be consumed easier, and the cinema partly [left] people’s minds. And that’s the big danger,” he said. “Now, our big challenge is to reactivate the market and to reemphasize that a movie theater is the place where you can watch cinema at its best.”

The pandemic has nevertheless prompted regional players to innovate and move beyond traditional ways of doing business. “In the very first days [of the lockdown]…we started thinking in a different way,” said Stanković. “None of us could predict that this would last for already five months, and none of us knows for how many months more.”

As cinemas across the Balkans began shutting down in March, MCF MegaCom Film hosted an online film festival that drew more than 60,000 unique visitors on its opening night. In April, the company launched a premium VOD platform geared toward films whose releases had been disrupted by the pandemic, drawing what Stanković described as “huge” numbers.

Pickbox began offering its services for free at the start of lockdown, as a way to get users in an underserved region accustomed to the VOD model. “We’re still not that mature as we would all like to be,” said Božić-Ljubičić. “We’re usually in that area a little behind other parts of the world.”

Six years after launching, the region’s only streaming service has differentiated itself by putting a strong emphasis on European content. “A lot of thought goes into choosing what would be right for this [platform],” said Božić-Ljubičić. “We don’t aim to be any competition toward Netflix, which has its own content, its own production.”

Acquiring regional content, however, has been a challenge for the streamer, something Stanković attributed to the fact that launching a VOD service is seen as a “must-do business for all of these domestic distributors,” adding: “We are just saving the content for a day when we will start with our own platforms.”

The industry is nevertheless looking ahead to fall, with a cautious eye to when cinemas will be able to safely reopen, and how exhibitors, distributors, and streaming platforms alike can work together to ensure that every new title gets the strongest possible release.

“It will be challenging for us as a film distributor,” said Stanković. “It will be really important for us to find a proper place…for every single film.” Distributors and exhibitors will have to reevaluate traditional release windows, with the recognition that in an on-demand world, certain films may be better suited to a limited theatrical run—or to bypassing cinemas altogether. “Some of the films [belong] on the platforms, and like it was up till now, some of the films on TV.”

While many cinemas across the world have struggled with post-pandemic box office, Papousek sees a silver lining. When Austrian cinemas opened in early August, Cineplexx slashed ticket prices and hosted an all-day celebration. Other theaters followed suit, collectively tallying some 80,000 admissions on opening day while social distancing and other safety measures were observed.

“People have a big desire to come back,” said Papousek. “And the good thing, and this is promising and encouraging for us, is that people were not afraid to come.”