Digitisation of Cinemas Leads to Content Diversity – and More Audience Work

Terje Gaustad presenting his research

Øyvind Torp and Terje Gaustad presenting their research to a rapt audience

On Sunday, August 20th, the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund hosted a seminar on the topic “Narrow Diversity” – exploring whether content in cinemas has diversified in the wake of digitisation. The event was presented in collaboration with the Centre for the Creative Industries at the BI Norwegian Business School.

Norway was the first country in the world to digitise its cinemas fully. At this seminar, researchers Øyvind Torp and Terje Gaustad presented results from a study comparing audience patterns in Norwegian cinemas in 2008 and 2013 – before and after digitisation. Had the simpler and cheaper access to digital films created a long tail effect, adding to content diversity? Or would the contemporary trend of blockbusterisation prevail?

The answer, in brief, is a bit of both. The number of film premieres is an astounding 78% greater, but a higher percentage of the audience is viewing the most popular titles. The blockbuster effect is stronger, as expected, for foreign – read US – films, as well as in smaller towns, probably because of access to fewer screens. On the national level, the addition of local cinemas outside urban areas to a blockbuster premiere represents a massive increase in the number of screens.

The dropoff is correspondingly faster. When the most popular 25% films in 2008 may have taken the bulk of their viewership in the first 4-6 weeks of their run, in 2013 they had a significant drop already in the second week. This also reflects how screens are programmed in a crowded market. While digital cinemas in theory allow for keeping a title in rotation for a long time, to give it time to establish good word of mouth, in practice there are often not slots available because of the enormous number of films in release. For most films, then, the “dark period” at the end of the first window, when the content is not legally available anywhere, has actually grown.

The significant growth in the total number of titles is predominantly in films “outside ordinary distribution”. This includes for instance event screenings of older or local film, but also minor or very niche film. (As discussed in the Nostradamus report this year, the abundance of these types of titles is a side effect both of the relative affordability of digital productions, and of new programmes in many countries supporting microbudget cinema).

The increased number of films in the long tail will of course also statistically boost the blockbusterisation trend, as more titles fit into the top ten percentile and their total viewership grows, but even so the tendency for a few titles to dominate is clear. In addition to the reasons touched upon above, marketing a greater number of titles to a smaller and more specific target groups is resource intensive, and distributors and cinemas are often not able to support the smaller titles.

Terje Gaustad’s full study is available in Norwegian in the latest issue of Praktisk økonomi och finans, which is available to purchase here. A shorter article summarizing the results, also in Norwegian, is here.

A fascinating case study later in the seminar did demonstrate that once the exhibitors figure out how to optimise for the new digital capabilites, it can really work. Øystein Simonsen, the manager of the 5-screen Tysvær Kino, in the culture house of a tiny Norwegian municipality (population 10.857), said that this is an exciting time to be in exhibition. His establishment has hit audience records every year for the past 8 years, growing from 8-10.000 annual visits pre-digitisation to 25.000 two years ago and over 30.000 last year.

While access to the newest titles and the possibility to screen niche fare at a lower cost is of course at the heart of this development, the biggest change, he says, is in the marketing mindset. At Tysvær Kino they have started to think about all film screenings as events – a step that came naturally in the context of a culture house – and to focus very strongly on specific target audiences. This work has enabled them to be able to sell a lot of tickets even to films that a screened only a few times.

While the dominant blockbusters do take a somewhat bigger percentage of the audience than in 2008, the audience for foreign film in general is now distributed slightly more evenly across the next 40% of titles. Simonsen estimates this to be a direct result of their active and targeted audience work. Today he programmes for an enormous range of special groups, with series of screenings showing Christian cinema, films for cat owners (no cats allowed), music film… Polish and Lithuanian cinema bring in 1000 visits a year, which is a lot for a venue of this size, as does the tiny local horror film festival.
“And we have special screenings for knitters. We can sell 200 tickets on a Monday night for a film that’s been on the programme for five weeks.”
Sometimes it actually even makes sense not to premiere a film on its national release date, to allow more time for audience work, although this strategy can backfire if the title has bombed in the meanwhile.

When asked for advice for distributors, Simonsen talked about the importance of being able to see the film early to be able to make good programming decisions – ideally already at work in progress – and wished for more honesty and precision in judging which audience the final film would actually work for. In general, anything the distributor can do to support events or audience work will be welcomed. As Morten Christoffersen, the head of Nordisk Film Distribution, observed later in the seminar one lesson of digitisation is that every crown saved on the cost of film copies now needs be invested in marketing the titles instead.

And when it works, it really works. Tysvær Kino has historically been in the shadow of the cinemas of nearby Haugesund, where young people will also go to shop and often make a night of it. But the tendency seems to have turned.
“We now see people come to our screenings from Haugesund, even though the distance from Haugesund to Tysvær is so much bigger than the other way around,” Simonsen laughed.

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Nostradamus editor, johanna.koljonen@rundfunkmedia.se

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