European Film Market Chief Dennis Ruh on Challenges of Staging Virtual Market
Art and Experience:
As the European Film Market prepares to launch on Monday in a digital format, its new director Dennis Ruh talks to Variety about the rationale behind the structure that he has chosen, and the challenges he’s faced in staging this edition of the event.
Why will the European Film Market take place March 1-5 in a digital format rather than later in the year when it will be possible to hold a physical event?
We took into consideration that the film industry follows a certain rhythm each year. The European Film Market, as one of the largest distribution platforms for audio-visual content, is kicking off the film year, followed by Cannes, the AFM and others. If the EFM moves to a later time we collide with the other markets.
Furthermore, whether a pandemic is preventing us from having a physical event or not, there is a huge need for content by broadcasters and streaming platforms, but also by theatrical distributors in countries with open cinemas, and those with a clear opening perspective that needs to be met.
After talking with many industry representatives during the last year I evaluated that digital markets were used effectively by most of the regular participants.
Taking these various aspects into consideration the decision to hold the EFM as a virtual event in the first quarter of the year was pretty clear. And when we decided about the two-step Berlinale, postponements of later events were not confirmed and still under consideration.
What were some of the major challenges of setting up the EFM this year?
What was particularly challenging last autumn was the uncertainty and not being able to project what the COVID-19 situation would be in February.
You have to set up a market with 100% commitment whilst knowing that maybe things will be different and have to be reorganized.
So, early on, we set up different plans, to be prepared for different scenarios. Sure, this costs a lot of time and the work you do is partly redundant. But I think that this is something that challenged us most during the last year.
Did you consult with the organizers of previous digital markets? What did you learn from those events?
After the first lockdown last March and with markets like the Marché du Cannes starting to move into the virtual world, the industry buzz and discussions were all about whether online events work or not.
In September when I started as EFM director of course we consulted with the organizers of other markets and festivals. Even though everyone was very skeptical at the beginning, the feedback showed us that despite many difficulties and challenges online markets worked better than expected; participants talked about packed meeting schedules, virtual market booths, well-attended online screenings and extensive panel programs. It also turns out that for some of the smaller distributors with lower budgets the access to a virtual market is an easier one with no travel cost and travel time.
But with all online offers finely tuned to everyone’s needs and expectations one thing cannot be replaced: the personal face-to-face experience of a physical meeting at a market or festival. After all, the film business is a people business. At the same time the intense examination of digital options also opens up a space for new possibilities and ideas.
Will there to be a larger number of accredited participants this year? How many films will screen?
The numbers are promising. We have had a very positive reaction with regards to registrations, which remain open until the end of the market. But the recent numbers illustrate that the online market seems to be as popular as the physical market.
As of February 26, we have 820 films in market screenings, compared with 732 in 2020. Two third of the films will be presented as market premieres. That’s more than in 2020. We count more than 250 virtual booths with 503 companies from 60 territories, over 200 of which are attending the market for the first time.
What are the advantages of having the Berlinale festival films screening as part of the market?
We see a huge advantage and it was one of the key elements for us to create the Berlinale in two steps with the online EFM in March [and the festival screenings for the public in June].
The festival and the market are mutually dependent. The selection of the festival gives the films a cachet of curation and makes films accessible for the market. It will help the distribution of those films. It was important for us to not only give a selection label, but to keep the festival sections for the selection, including the competition, as each section stands for its very own curatorial signature and profile.
An important aspect of this concept is that the filmmakers and producers don’t need to hold back the premiere until films are shown to the Berlin audience in the summer. The films are free to travel and to be released right after the market.
Why did you decide to allow the press to view the festival films when Cannes chose not to?
That’s another learning of the last year and refers to our concept of the festival in two steps. With the presentation of films that are selected for the festival program, the films are already in the world with huge attention, even if just industry professionals can watch the films at this time. The press is an important group of professional festival and market participants, which can create buzz for films. It’s an important element of this year’s concept which will help increase the visibility and distribution of the films.
What are the advantages of having screenings start at set times?
We decided against a VOD service for the EFM market screenings. This has to do with the creation of buzz for the films selected by the festival and presented in the market. The set times allow to keep the momentum of a market premiere. And it creates the necessity for the distributors and other acquiring market participants to plan streaming of films during the market weeks in advance. It was reflected to us by the rights holders that the setting of times is a procedure that works well. If the momentum of film presentations is missing, also buyers might miss the right moment to watch the films.
Why did you organize the “EFM Goes Global” screenings?
The idea for the “EFM Goes Global” initiative arose when I travelled to the MIA Market in Rome in October last year. It was great seeing that they organized a market during this time of the year. But participants realized that the distributors were only able to come from inside of Europe. And it was predictable that the situation wouldn’t be different even as we still planned to organize a hybrid market in February at this time. And I talked to sales agents who reported that films receive more visibility when being presented to potential distributors on the big screen. Films sold well during such physical screenings in summer and fall 2020.
So I saw the need to find a formula to bring market premieres to the big screen in key territories for theatrical distribution outside of Europe. With the ongoing pandemic and our shift to organize an online market, I kept the concept for those key territories where theatrical screenings for distributors are possible. So we look forward to present market screenings of festival selected films in Tokyo, Melbourne, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. We can count on strong partners who provide their infrastructure and support the coordination. And the buyers’ registration for the physical screenings are already beyond our expectations – in a positive way.
What services will EFM exhibitors receive?
For the EFM exhibitors, the virtual stands and the online market screenings are the most important services we provide. Both services haven’t been provided as online features in the past. For the online market screenings, we developed an advanced rights management which allows [the exhibitors] to geoblock if films are already sold to specific territories or to allow specific groups to watch or to let market participants access only on invitation. That’s of importance for most of the right holders.
The virtual stands can be equipped individually but follow an easy-to-handle format mask. There, they can edit their slate presentation and upcoming lineup.
The Participants Guide gives all the contacts of the market participants and helps when preparing the market and scheduling meetings.
Under the umbrella of the EFM Industry Session we offer all participants an extensive and up-to-date conference program with keynotes, roundtables, talks and panels about current developments and trends in the industry.
Furthermore, the EFM provides networking events to support people getting in touch with known and new contacts.
Why did you decide not to organize an online meeting facility?
We do have some online meeting facilities as we organize networking sessions. But there’s no integrated video meeting tool and this refers to the feedback I collected from the participants. The exhibitors especially have their own preferred video meeting tools like Zoom, Teams etc. or even more specialized tools like Pitch Room where they can easily share lineup presentations and video promos. They are well equipped and trained with those facilities. So we didn’t see a need for other facilities for their meetings.
What are some of the highlights of the conference program?
The “EFM Industry Sessions” offer a packed five-day program with around 90 talks, seminars, round tables, pitches, podcasts, presentations, keynotes, workshops, think tanks, masterclasses and showcases with internationally renowned speakers. Digitalization of the film and media business, social sustainability, as well as diversity and inclusion in the film industry will be the main subjects.
As part of EFM Startups, we also welcome 10 selected innovative international entrepreneurs who will present their newest ideas, services and tools for film and media production.
We look into virtual production; we discuss different aspects of working with archives on Archive Day; we offer roundtables with experts from the areas of world sales and distribution, financing, funding and co-production; film commissioners will present practical examples of how they can support producers; one session focuses on the growing film business in Portuguese-speaking African countries; the Sino-European Film Forum will take a look at Asia; and much more.
All of this rounded off by various digital networking and well-being formats for the purpose of taking a breather.
Do TV series play an increasing part in the EFM’s activity?
The Berlinale Series Market & Conference is now in its seventh year and we observe a still growing interest in the screenings, showcases and conference program we offer with this platform. As high-quality drama series have become a vital part of the audience’s viewing habits, it has become an important part of the EFM. And many producers diversified their production portfolio. The production of commissioned series and originals gives them the scope to develop independent arthouse films. So the series genre is in focus for many market participants, and the EFM offers them a platform.
What effect has the rise of the streaming platforms had on how traditional distributors engage with sellers at the EFM?
Representatives of the streaming platforms have been part of the market for many years now. In the beginning there was a big fear whether they would be able to dominate the market with their sheer economic power. But many of them are looking for different content – like series and originals. Speaking for the EFM, with much to offer in terms of arthouse films, there is probably less collision with the major streaming platforms than at other markets.
With the Berlinale Series Market & Conference we actively met the need of content that is more and more sought after by broadcasters and streamers. And the big players of the streaming business are part of the market presenting showcases of their own productions. It’s a dynamic environment which provides spheres for different distribution models.
Will there be some EFM activities that will be year-round?
Yes, we have short daily episodes during the EFM Industry Sessions that are part of the newly introduced EFM podcast “Industry Insights.” In cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, the podcast offers interesting and up-to-date conversations on forward-looking industry topics. In addition to the four episodes that will be presented during the EFM, eight more episodes will be published throughout the rest of the year. And I have some innovations in mind, which I will share with you once those are definite.