Digital distribution initiative gives European arthouse a boost through VOD
Peter Bebjak’s “The Line,” Slovakia’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar last year, has been acquired by Walk This Way, an initiative by digital distributor Under the Milky Way funded by the European Union’s Creative Europe – Media program, which will release the movie across digital platforms in Benelux, Italy and Spain.
“The Line” tells the story of a Slovakian cigarette smuggler whose business is jeopardized by the E.U.’s plan to redraw the borders of the Schengen zone, which allows for visa-free travel between member states. The first official co-production between Ukraine and Slovakia, the pic world premiered in competition in Karlovy Vary last year and became Slovakia’s second-highest grossing film of all time, behind only “Avatar.” Bebjak’s fourth feature, which screened this week at the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival, will also get a digital release through E-Cinema in France.
Walk This Way’s project coordinator Nolwenn Lucas says the movie “reveals a universal human story set in an environment in which cultures, traditions and lives intertwine.” Calling it a topical film that addresses “the refugee crisis and local people’s perspectives about refugees,” she says “The Line” “is a successful central European thriller… [that] has a lightweight approach about the political situation in Europe.”
The movie, she notes, is a natural fit for the program’s catalog, since “one of the objectives is to highlight European issues on the international stage.”
Established in 2015 by Under the Milky Way, an international digital film distributor holding preferred aggregator status with iTunes, Walk This Way was launched to coordinate the release of European films on VOD platforms around the world. Active in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Japan and Latin America, the project targets international platforms, such as iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon, as well as local ones, like Sky U.K., Universciné and Filmin.
“While 1,740 films are produced each year in Europe, only 37% of these films are distributed outside of their country of origin,” Lucas says, a fact that “demonstrates that the current system of international sales…is not adapted to current conditions anymore, as it leaves more and more films at the roadside.”
In an age of streaming services and other VOD platforms, European films – even by lesser-known directors from obscure countries – have a greater potential to travel than ever before. “Compared with traditional distribution, and for films difficult to distribute through a strictly territorialized model, digital distribution presents real opportunities,” says Lucas. However, she adds, “a large majority of European films do not benefit from this opportunity.”
One problem, she notes, “is that exploitation rights to most European films are not widely licensed outside of their country of origin, and are therefore either kept at a sales agent or producer level.”
She adds, “Both these actors of the value chain are not naturally structured and inclined to venture into digital distribution, and would rather find a distributor.”
Direct digital distribution “presents low entry costs” for European rights holders, she says, while pan-European platforms covering numerous territories with only a single point of entry “allows for a considerable smoothness in term of process, and a real cost efficiency.”
By the end of this year, she notes, Walk This Way will have helped to distribute 157 European films “both in- and outside of Europe, in territories where the films would not have been exploited otherwise.”
The initiative gives a boost to European auteurs like Bebjak, who is currently in development with his fifth feature, “The Report,” about two prisoners who escape the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, surviving a harrowing journey to Slovakia in order to share the story of the atrocities they witnessed. The report they compiled about the Holocaust eventually reached Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, influencing the course of World War II.
A Slovakia-Czech Republic-Poland-Luxembourg co-production, “The Report” is being produced at a time when right-wing extremism in Slovakia and across Europe is on the rise.