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How Dutch distributors select films within a global market

PhD research student Roderik Smits was shortlisted earlier this year for the inaugural Dr Joachim Ph. Wolff Thesis Prize, an award given by the Dutch Film Research Foundation for research that benefits the Dutch film industry. Here he outlines the methods, findings and conclusions of his Masters thesis on how Dutch distributors select films within a global market.

Each year more than 6,000 films are produced worldwide. Yet in the Netherlands only about 400 films enjoy a theatrical release. How, then, do distributors select the films shown in Dutch cinemas?

That was the question which prompted my Masters dissertation on the selection process of Dutch film distributors, which I completed in 2012 as part of a Masters programme in Cultural Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and for which I was shortlisted for this year’s Dr Joachim Ph. Wolff Thesis Prize.

Methodology

My research, which combined both quantitative and qualitative research methods, was conducted in several stages. First, data was collated on all films released in Dutch cinemas between 2009 and 2010, including details about their distributor and admission numbers. Further information on the genre, production country, language and festival prizes of each release was also added to the dataset using IMDb.

I then used multiple correspondence analysis to gain an understanding of distributors in the Dutch market and their positions in relation to each other. Three groups in particular could be identified. The first consisted of major Hollywood distributors, such as Warner Bros, Walt Disney and Universal Pictures. These operate in the Netherlands as the distribution arm of Hollywood studios. The second comprised of five major independent distributors, who position themselves between the Hollywood majors, on the one hand, and more specialist independent distributors, on the other. The latter group clustered in a niche around films with relatively low admissions and were primarily engaged in the acquisition of art-house or speciality films.

Roderik 2

Observing distributors at work at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.

Having identified these three groups, I then interviewed 19 industry professionals (primarily distributors) about their day-to-day activities. I also visited the 2012 Berlin film festival to observe Dutch distributors at work.

Research findings

The research identified key differences between films distributed through networks established by Hollywood’s studios, on the one hand, and films that access the marketplace through official sales markets at major film festivals, on the other. In the latter case, Dutch independent distributors negotiate film rights with sales agents and/or producers. They are therefore intensely engaged in the selection of films in the global market.

The research also found that major and specialist independents acquire film rights at different stages of a film’s production. Major independents typically select films in a pre-production stage, while specialist independents select films in a completed stage after the film’s initial festival screening.

For the selection process, this means that major independents only form a view on the basis of a script with a producer, director, cast and budget attached. In coping with this uncertainty, major independents predict the quality and marketability of films by relying on factors such as ‘reputation’ and ‘status’, information obtained from acquisition scouts, and their relationships with sales agents and/or producers.

On the other hand, specialist independents predict a film’s potential far more precisely, since they can generally watch a finished film and therefore base their decision on their own judgement and expertise. However, while searching for and acquiring film rights, specialist independents are forced to choose from a much smaller selection of films, typically those which have not already been acquired at an earlier stage of production.

Conclusions

In combining findings from the correspondence analysis with qualitative research data, my research demonstrates that Hollywood majors, major independents and specialist independents are interested in different sorts of films and acquire these films in different ways.

Hollywood majors are part of integrated studio distribution networks and distribute mainstream Hollywood films, whereas major independents primarily search for crossover titles at festival sales markets. The latter takes the risk of acquiring the distribution rights before the production process has been formally started, typically paying relatively high fees for such films because they are big-budget productions compared to the majority of films that circulate at festival sales markets.

Finally, specialist independents select films from the many finished titles at festival sales markets and only in some cases acquire films at an earlier stage of production. Such titles are often speciality or art-house films and are initially thought likely to circulate solely in the art house market.

Roderik Smits is a PhD research student at the University of York. His current research, which is affiliated to the MeCETES project, examines the gatekeeping roles of acquisition scouts, sales agents and distributors, and their transnational gatekeeping and networking arrangements.

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