CineEurope 2021 Preview: Interview with UNIC’s Laura Houlgatte-Abbott and Phil Clapp

CineEurope will return to Barcelona from October 4-7 for a week of screenings, distributor presentations, and industry panels. UNIC CEO Laura Houlgatte-Abbott and President Phil Clapp joined Boxoffice Pro’s Daniel Loria for a preview interview to discuss what attendees can expect from the event.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Boxoffice Podcast to hear the full interview

Where does European exhibition find itself right now?

Laura Houlgatte-Abbott: In a good place, I would think, compared to where we were last year around the same time, September 2020, when we all felt that second shut down was coming. We’ve had all our territories open since July, that’s 38 countries where cinemas have been allowed to reopen. New releases are coming out and we are expecting audiences coming back in big numbers. 

Phil Clapp: When we gather in Barcelona, the message we want to give is one of thanks. Thank our governments that have provided funding for cinemas to allow them to retain staff and  get to the other side of this period; to colleagues in the industry for being there; exhibitors for showing strength and  support for each other; and to our colleagues in distribution who showed faith in the industry at a time when others didn’t. More than that, it will be a message of confidence that the recovery is underway. It’s not going to be a straight line, there will be some setbacks along the way, and [the recovery] may differ from territory to territory, but the direction of travel is now clear. We see a clear sign that audiences want to come back to the cinema, that they find cinemas comfortable and safe places to be. 

What does the success of Dune’s release in Europe, ahead of its debut on HBO Max in the United States, tell us about the importance of theatrical exclusivity and the ripple effects of decisions made in the U.S. in relation to the rest of the world?

Laura Houlgatte-Abbott: I don’t like to draw conclusions, but I’m going to draw a conclusion on this one: theatrical exclusivity is there to serve not only cinemas, but the industry as a whole, and to the benefit of audiences. The impact of decisions made in the US affect us in Europe. We saw that last year, when we reopened during the summer, a majority of our members were ready and welcoming audiences but we were missing the content. We knew we were paying the price for the pandemic situation in the US. We all know how interlinked this industry is, it’s a global industry, and it was really obvious last year, when we had to go through three or four months with very little content. 

Looking at CineEurope, what does it mean to European exhibitors to be hosting this event at this juncture of the recovery?

Laura Houlgatte: It means a lot. We are ready to meet in person, it is the first time a lot of us will be able to see each other in flesh and bone. It makes a massive difference in our business, not only to be able to talk and have our panels but also to have those informal conversations that can really help our industry thrive. I saw that at Cannes in July and at the French exhibitors’ convention in Deauville; the dynamic is very different. We have the studios coming to present their slates to the whole exhibition communit. I think there’s no better sign to communicate that this is the full start of the recovery, that we have confidence about our future.

Phil Clapp: We’ve put on a whole range of events and we always attempt to make them as engaging and valuable as possible to the people participating. I don’t think any of us are under any illusions that the real value comes from those human interactions that Laura talked about. I’m not suggesting the cinema industry is unique in that regardm but there’s a particular aspect of the cinema industry that thrives on people sharing experiences, sharing woes, and sharing triumphs. And while Boxoffice Pro and others have done brilliant work in keeping everyone connected, it’s still not the same as it is in person. We recognize, and certainly our colleagues at NATO running CinemaCon recognize, that we will face challenges because of travel and financial restrictions that will affect our numbers this year. We absolutely understand that some people who would love to be there in Barcelona this year won’t be able to be so, but we’d like to remind them there is another CineEurope coming in June. We’ll be planning CineEurope 2022 as soon as our feet hit the ground on our way back from this year’s event. So if we can’t see you in Barcelona this year, we hope to do so at CineEurope 2022.

For those folks that can’t make it to the event. Could you share some interesting case studies and initiatives that you’ve seen from your members?

Laura Houlgatte-Abbott: We compiled various audience initiatives, for example, that you can find our website. CineEurope is an occasion for us to showcase what our members have been doing. We’ll be talking about local content in a roundtable looking at the future of the industry. We’re also going to talk about what the audience expect now, share some new best practices and inititatives ranging from home delivery of popcorn to partnering with online platforms like Mubi, and private cinema screenings.

Phil Clapp: The vast majority of venues that UNIC represents are not multifunction companies, they’re cinemas, and if the tap is turned off for people coming to watch films, they can’t rely on other revenue streams. That’s why we’ve seen this level of innovation across a variety of territories, driven by a recognition of the need to keep your existing audience engaged. Just one example is the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast, a small local venue that launched its own online streaming platform to great success. What we’ve seen over the last 18 months is a huge amount of innovation. Our colleagues at the UNIC office spend most of their time trying to dispel the notion within the European Commission that cinema is somehow aan unimaginative, backward looking sector lacking in innovation. We have demonstrated over the last 18 months that nothing could be further from the truth.

What do you think the role of local content will be as we emerge from the pandemic, considering the current instability of the slate from major studios?

Laura Houlgatte-Abbott: Before the pandemic, countries that had the best box office and admissions were those that had a very strong local slate. I think that will be even truer post-pandemic. It’s really striking when you look at the figures in markets like Denmark and the Netherlands. It’s not only about the film’s from your own country, but also also about diversifying your content overall. We need blockbusters, no one denies that, we absolutely need them to attract certain demographics. But you also need the whole variety of content you can have in a cinema, and that includes European films, Asian films, and films from all other countries in the world. The more diversified you are, the better you can address the needs of your audience. I think that’s going to be essential for cinemas’ recovery.

Phil Clapp: There is a particular UK angle on this because, as you know, we have benefited to a large degree from the fact that we share a language with the Hollywood studios. That has made it much more difficult for audiences to differentiate between what is a British film and what is a US film. There’s a live conversation going on in the UK at the moment, after the experience of last summer when studios decided to move films out of that window made it really challenging to find film content that audiences wanted to see. To a degree, we look jealously at a number of European territories who will be recognized at CineEurope for for their efforts, who were able to rely on a strong stable of domestic films. I think coming out of this, in the UK at least, that will be a discussion—without detracting from the importance of the major US studios and their titles. Those titles get produced because they drive a mass audience, but we still need to arrive at a more diverse film mix and encourage audiences to see a more diverse range of films rather than just the ones that have the loudest voice in the market.