European Exhibition: Interview with Laura Houlgatte-Abbott, CEO, UNIC

Could you sum up 2017 for UNIC territories, not only in terms of box office but also legislative issues?

Despite what many were predicting, 2017 has been another year of growth for the European cinema industry, with more than 1.34 billion cinema visits (+2.5% from 2016) and €8.6 billion at the box office (+1.8% from 2016). Most impressively, Russia was the biggest UNIC territory in terms of admissions for the first time, with over 212 million cinemagoers in 2017, just ahead of France and the UK.

The above figures are of course very encouraging, and it’s crucial that the success of the industry is reflected in suitable legislative proposals. The commission continues to push for cross-border access to content, although the industry’s efforts in combating measures that would undermine the exclusivity of the theatrical window have been very successful in terms of the regulation on geo-blocking. Another area of concern for the audiovisual sector is the European Commission’s effort to apply the country of origin principle (CoO) to the licensing of ancillary broadcasters’ rights, and UNIC continues to monitor developments very closely.

On the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), an agreement was reached on April 26, 2018, including positive steps on article 13.2 concerning contributions from all audiovisual media services.

Elsewhere, and in light of the current discussions surrounding the future of the MEDIA program, UNIC and its fellow industry bodies have endeavored to ensure that the MEDIA budget is preserved and that the program becomes more market-oriented heading into the next period.

The parliament and council are also discussing the “value gap” proposal as part of the new Copyright Directive, namely the need for financial contributions from internet intermediaries when it comes to remunerating right holders online. In relation to this, and following up on the communication of September 2017 dedicated to the removal of illegal content, in February 2018 the commission published a recommendation on “measures to effectively tackle illegal content online.”

We were also lucky in getting a new commissioner for digital economy and society—Mariya Gabriel—who has shown great support to our sector.

Looking ahead, in light of the upcoming European Parliament elections and the appointment of a new European Commission, we will do our utmost to ensure that policy makers understand and support our industry.

2018 is off to a good start at the global box office; are there any early highlights from the UNIC territories that you can share?

Preliminary reports for the first quarter of 2018 have already been promising, and upcoming releases such as Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ocean’s 8, and The Incredibles 2 will thrill cinemagoers of all ages. As opposed to 2017 and despite the FIFA World Cup, the summer is shaping up nicely for the industry and should be particularly successful for cinema operators around the world.

What are some of the key issues currently affecting the European market?

The European cinema industry is currently facing a wide range of challenges and opportunities. Most strikingly, the film business is becoming increasingly global, and we continue to witness consolidation across the industry. In 2017 alone, two UNIC members—Cineworld and Kinepolis—have acquired cinemas across the Atlantic. At a more operational level, cinema exhibitors benefit from a growing and more diverse range of content, which enables them to cater to the changing needs and preferences of cinemagoers. As audiences evolve, operators continue to invest in cutting-edge digital technology and creative marketing strategies—including the use of data analytics—to improve the big-screen experience, both inside and outside the screening room. And, of course, it’s always important to raise awareness of European legislation that impacts cinemas, such as the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and the Copyright Directive. Moreover, and connected to the importance of copyright, cinema operators and their partners from the industry are working hard to fight film theft.

What are some of UNIC’s top priorities and initiatives in 2018?

As mentioned above, we have certainly been stepping up our outreach efforts this year to ensure that policy makers don’t lose sight of the value of cinemas in the change-over period at the parliament and commission. Our conference at the European Parliament was a great success, and we’ll be sure to keep our fingers on the pulse on an institutional level as the year progresses. 

We’re also very pleased to announce that the second edition of our Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme will be launched at CineEurope this summer! We at UNIC are committed to promoting more gender-balanced leadership within the industry, something we believe to be imperative in terms of the continued health of the sector and equal representation amongst professionals and audiences alike.

Towards the end of the year, we’ll also hold our annual UNIC Cinema Days in Brussels, welcoming senior executives and key figures from across both the European and international cinema landscape. We very much hope to build on the success of previous years through putting together a dynamic program of debates, workshops, and opportunities for networking.

Continuing in a very much international fashion, in collaboration with the world’s leading cinema operators and our colleagues from the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), we launched the Global Cinema Federation at CineEurope 2017 and will be working throughout the year to extend its reach and raise its profile.

And of course, as always, we’re looking forward to this year’s edition of CineEurope, our annual conference and the largest of its kind in Europe. We very much hope to see some of you in Barcelona—there’s still time to register! 

UNIC recently signed a letter of support for the Creative Europe Media Programme. Could you share with us the impact the program had for European Cinema and its importance in the industry?

As you may have seen from the statement, MEDIA’s impact and support for the European cinema and film sector is greatly appreciated by a variety of industry stakeholders. Its substantial investment—over €2.4 billion over the past 27 years—has been integral to the success of cinemagoing in Europe and the regard in which European cinema is held globally.

More specifically, MEDIA’s support for initiatives such as Europa Cinemas has been instrumental in promoting the circulation of European films and enabling cinemagoers across the EU to experience the rich cultural diversity of their European neighbors through the power of the big screen.

As such, we were very happy to learn of the ambitious budgetary proposal recently put forward by the European Commission for the next Creative Europe MEDIA Programme. This would go a long way to ensuring the prosperity and growth of European cinema in the coming years, and we now have to convince the member states who will have the final say on the matter.

You launched the UNIC mentorship scheme last year; can you give us an update on the program and its direction for the second year?

The UNIC Women’s Cinema Leadership program, which we launched last year at CineEurope as a one-year pilot, has proved to be a great success. The feedback we received so far reinforced our conviction that support mechanisms for women in the industry are very much needed. It was rewarding to see how empowering the mentoring process has been for both mentors and mentees. Many of our participants have underlined the importance of having an opportunity to discuss personal and professional concerns with a leader outside their company. Others pointed out how liberating it was to acknowledge that all women, regardless of their career level, shared and continue to share many of the same struggles.

UNIC will launch the second edition of the program at CineEurope in June, involving new mentors and mentees. While we are still working on the format of the second edition, we can already say that it will be much in line with what we had as part of the pilot, and will include workshops, one-to-one career advice, and networking opportunities for six up-and-coming female professionals from cinema exhibition and their respective mentors.

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