Italian Independents Call for End of "Unfair Practices" as Cinemas Reopen

CANCION SIN NOMBRE Still 1 -Directors’ Fortnight selection- Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

As the country comes out of Europe's longest lockdown, theaters and distributors warn of the threat of a further concentration of the market.

The Italian film industry is filled with equal parts hope and trepidation following an announcement by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on May 16 that the country's cinemas will finally be allowed to reopen on June 15 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Cinema owners are eager to get back to business after a months-long shutdown — the longest lockdown in Europe — but fear it may be harder than ever to make money. Italy's independent industry, in particular, has warned that current and preexisting conditions in the market could prove a fatal combination.

All Italian art house distributors, and some 150 indie movie theaters, have jointly published an open letter calling for solidarity and support for independent cinemas. In it, they outline a plan to create "a plural, sustainable and fair future" for cinema in the post-COVID-19 world.

The letter has already racked up more than 4,500 signatures, from film directors such as Silvio Soldini (Bread and Tulips) and Mario Martone (L'amore molesto) as well as from thousands of ordinary film fans, including pensioners and teachers, nurses and journalists, farmers and clerks. The letter warns that government regulations may make independent cinema "unsustainable" post-crisis.

While theaters will technically be allowed to open on June 15, it's unclear how many of the country's 4,000-odd screens will be open for business next month. Safety regulations requiring social distancing could restrict theater capacity to 30 percent or less and, as many operators point out, there are few new films available to screen.

There are also several issues particular to Italy.

"We won't be allowed to use air conditioning because of fears of spreading the virus," notes Federico Babini, manager of the Cinema Spazio Alfieri theater in Florence. "But opening a cinema in June without AC makes no sense. So we're staying closed. We don't want to open until we can give people the same theatrical experience they had before the crisis."

Babini points out that summer is traditionally Italy's weakest season in terms of box office, with most theaters half-closed in the sweltering period from May to August. Last year was the first time U.S. and Italian distributors put out major titles during the period, a move that saw summer box office increase by 40 percent, though even blockbusters like Universal’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Italian gross: $7.1 million) and Disney’s Toy Story 4 ($7.03 million), underperformed, suggesting it might take a while to change longstanding audience viewing trends.

Independent theaters and distributors that rely on non-studio fare will have an even harder time bouncing back after the crisis, says Monica Naldi, who will be re-opening Cinema Beltrade, a one-screen, 200-seat art house theater in Milan, next month. Even before the lockdown, Naldi says, the cards were stacked against the Italian indies. She points to local industry practices, including studios giving exclusivity to major theater chains or requiring independents to block book screens for their films all day, every day, however full or empty the cinemas are. Such measures, Naldi says, unfairly punish smaller theaters and make it harder for them to be flexible in response to the current crisis.

"This crisis has revealed the problems that already existed in our industry," she says, "problems we need to change if we want to survive."

In their open letter, the Italian independents list a series of "unfair practices that have limited the market for years," including guaranteed minimum payments for in-demand titles and higher rental fees for smaller cinemas. They also call for older titles to be made available for theatrical re-release. "It is not comprehensible that hundreds of films are simply made unavailable for programming by cinemas: they remain visible on television and online, but not in movie theaters," the letter reads.

For Italy's independent distributors, the situation is just as fraught.

"The cinemas are waiting to see what movies are available before they open and we are waiting to see what cinemas reopen before we can make films available," says Letizia Gatti, CEO of Torino-based indie distributor Reading Bloom. Bloom had planned a May release of Melina León's Cannes Directors' Fortnight title Song Without a Name but has postponed the bow indefinitely.

"For us it is very important to bring over the director to show their film and we don't know when that will be possible [again]," she says. "We didn't buy any movies at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February] for that reason. But we still have our minimum guarantees, our P&A. We still have those expenses."

If the Italian industry doesn't move to improve conditions for the independents, Gatti fears the strength of the studios and major exhibitors will only increase, further threatening local indie cinemas and the communities they serve.

But Alessandro Del Re, head of distribution at Reading Bloom, still sees reason for hope. "The fact that every independent distributor and most independent theaters in Italy have signed this open letter shows we have a common cause," he says. "Our problems are their problems. We are chained together. Maybe this is a sign that, in the future and after this crisis, we can work together, too."

The open letter also ends by emphasizing the positive. "There will always be a thirst for cinema, shared culture and communal experiences that celebrate our humanity," it concludes. "These essential needs must be addressed in the future that we build in the aftermath of corona, and we need to be ready to start selling dreams again, which is what we do best."