CineEurope 2020: Laura Houlgatte Abbott on This Year’s Digital Convention and the Challenges Ahead

Laura Houlgatte Abbott ©DR

CineEurope is going digital. The annual convention of UNIC, the trade association representing European cinemas, was forced to shift its event online after Covid-19 made it infeasible to hold its usual yearly event in Barcelona.

“Two afternoons online can’t replace the four days of in-person meetings for CineEurope,” concedes UNIC CEO Laura Houlgatte Abbott. “But there is a real need for the industry to stay connected.” 

The onset of Covid-19 forced the event to move from its original dates in late June to early August. The event was later moved entirely online once it became evident an in-person edition wouldn’t be possible. Houlgatte is nevertheless optimistic about the impact of an industry convention as cinemas begin to prepare for reopening. “We have kept the spirit of what makes CineEurope,” she says. “[We have] an opening ceremony, round tables and seminars, the traditional Coca-Cola session, the presentation of the event cinema line-up specializing in non-film broadcasting, a virtual [tour of Barcelona]… and lots of content from the studios.” 

While major studios will be providing welcome messages and participating in industry roundtables, the online nature of the event will prevent major studios from sharing early looks at their upcoming slates––a popular fixture at CineEurope. For Houlgatte, studio support remains vital: “Their strong presence [at this year’s CineEurope] is telling. Europe is a key region for them.” Houlgatte believes the digital event is, above all, “an opportunity to say that we are all together, and maybe even an opportunity to welcome people who wouldn’t have otherwise joined us at CineEurope so they can get a taste of the event and join us again next year in Barcelona.”

The industry attends CineEurope (albeit digitally) following a period of extended closures across the region due to the Covid-19 health crisis, a situation that UNIC has been addressing by sharing resources and lobbying on behalf of the sector with the European commission and the European parliament. “Cinemas have suffered from the closures, but they’ll also struggle during the restart effort––especially when it comes to prioritizing the safety of staff and audiences alike,” says Houlgatte. “Exhibitors have shown incredible mobilization in their preparations to reopen since the start of these closures.” 

Through its lobbying efforts, Houlgatte believes UNIC was able “to remind [government representatives] that cinemas are essential and that they need help. In their meetings, cinema is always mentioned by European authorities among the cultural implications of the health crisis. Moreover, in the emergency support plan presented by the commission, the cultural and creative sector is identified as one of the fourteen sectors most affected.”

UNIC has compiled a list of all the aid implemented in each country, as well as information on closing and reopening procedures. While programs like Creative Europe / MEDIA and Europa Cinemas will be able to contribute to those funds, member states themselves will be in charge of overseeing their distribution. The bulk of the aid coming into the theatrical sector, however, is expected to come from European member states themselves. Reopening will bring a new set of challenges for European cinemas––such as reduction of fixed costs, staff retention, tax payment, and the disbursement of financial aid. “We ask our members for the most precise information possible and [to] share all types of useful documents to allow them to lobby their governments,” says Houlgatte. “The sector is in distress everywhere––and information can be confusing and even difficult to obtain. In some cases, [exhibitors] don’t know when the announced aid will be released. All these support measures are not only necessary but also urgent.” 

Houlgatte observes that despite the green light to reopen in various countries, many cinemas have not yet been able to do so due to sanitary guidelines that can be difficult to implement and enforce. “The biggest challenge facing theaters is to re-welcome the public in the best possible conditions as part of this ‘new normal’”, she says. “We don’t need to reinvent this business; we need to recalibrate it. Even having a seat separating us, the feeling of sharing a film and our feelings in an auditorium will still be there. The success of [European] cinemas in 2019, which was an exceptional year, is proof that the public believes in the moviegoing experience.”

Click here for the CineEurope schedule. This article originally appeared on Boxoffice PRO France.

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