Venice 2023 - Interview
Europa Cinemas Label Jury
On September 6th, two members of the 27 Times Cinema project conducted an interview with this year's jury for the Europa Cinemas Label Award in Venice. The jury is composed of four cinema exhibitors: Lukas Berberich (Director, Kino Úsmev, Košice, Slovak Republic), Gerardo de Vivo (Chief Manager, Modernissimo, Naples, Italy), Priscilla Gessati (Director, L'Entrepôt, Paris, France), and Mira Staleva (Managing Director, Sofia Film Fest on the Road, Sofia, Bulgaria).
Could you share when you joined the Europa Cinemas network and what drove your decision?
Priscilla: When I started managing the Entrepôt cinema in Paris two years ago, it was already a member of the Europa Cinemas network since 2004 so the decision was not mine. However, I worked with Europa Cinemas for about ten years, so it felt natural for me to have the cinema I manage be part of the network. It is not about the financial benefits we get from it; it is more about our deep love for cinema and the desire to share that passion with the audience.
Gerardo: We joined in 1997. What makes Europa Cinemas exceptional is its focus on building a community through workshops, meetings, and conferences. We truly share our experiences with each other. Initiatives like the Innovation Labs and Next/Change strengthen this European cinema community, which is a way to explore the potential of cinema. The recent pandemic has shown how important this community is, as we stayed connected even when cinemas were closed. We support each other and face challenges together, whether it is deciding on films for our audiences or solving other issues related to cinema.
Lukas: Our cinema reopened in 2016, and we became a member of Europa Cinemas in 2017. Even though it is relatively recent for us, being part of this network has provided us with networking opportunities, a sense of community, and valuable shared knowledge. Connecting with others in the industry has been very inspiring.
Mira: We joined the network in 2015. The main motivation for us is the inspiration we gain from being part of this community. While the network support and the ability to screen challenging films are significant benefits, the chance to meet colleagues who share the same passion and face similar challenges truly drives our participation. We learn from one another and grow together.
What would you say you are looking for in a potential Label award winner? What should the Label award mean to the audience?
Gerardo: As exhibitors, our focus when judging a film for the Label award is not that of cinema critics. Instead, we consider our audience, our community, and what they would appreciate in a film. Nowadays, it is challenging because some films are not very marketable. Therefore, we need something more than just art; we need something that has commercial potential while still offering a valuable cinematic experience. Especially in the post-pandemic era, where people can easily stream content, the cinema experience must provide something exceptional, something that evokes emotions.
Priscilla: As exhibitors, we do not set strict criteria. We approach a festival with an open mind, embracing the diversity of films it presents. However, we might lean towards films with subject matter that resonates with our viewers, particularly if it is a documentary or a topic close to our audience's hearts. We want to program films in our theaters that we are proud of, not just for ourselves but also for all exhibitors in the network. We understand that cinema-goers pay for a show and a special moment in the theater, so we prioritize quality over personal preferences.
Mira: It is not about specific topics; it is about the quality of the art. What really matters is that the film moves and touches you. It is hard to predict what will achieve that; the priority is always the quality of the film as a cinematic work. Cinema is an art form, and we aim to showcase exclusive and challenging material, keeping the cinematic community alive.
What challenges have you recently faced when programming European films?
Mira: One significant challenge is the interference with film screenings, as exemplified by the case of Lukas Dhont's film "CLOSE." There have been instances of sabotage during screenings in Bulgaria, which is completely unacceptable. In some cases, screenings have been disrupted, and investigations have focused on the films themselves rather than the acts of vandalism surrounding them. This poses a significant challenge. Additionally, we face challenges related to the popularity of European films. Films from countries like Macedonia and Romania, for example, may not be well known or popular in Bulgaria. However, our mission is to promote and make these films more visible and intriguing to our audience. In this endeavor, incentives for screening Europa Cinemas Label films play a vital role. It is a form of cultural education that gradually introduces these films to our viewers.
Lukas: In Slovakia, we confront various challenges, especially when it comes to financing cinemas. It can be quite challenging to secure the necessary funding for our operations. After the COVID-19 pandemic, another challenge is rebuilding our audience and engaging new, younger viewers in watching European films. This process takes time and effort.
What approaches have you employed for audience development in general, and in particular for underrepresented groups like people with accessibility issues?
Priscilla: In my cinema, we created a cineclub of Heritage film with subtitles for deaf people. It is once a month and we just started. However, when you run a cinema in France it takes up to 2 to 3 years to really build a community and a programme. Now we have between 15 and 25 tickets sold for one screening. This is not a lot, but it's also not zero. That is okay for me and it is something I want to keep going. Sometimes it's funny because people don't know that it will be with subtitles for deaf people. It is also very important to get non-disabled people to get used to this kind of screening, even if it is not the way they are used to watching.
In Paris, two years ago, with participation of all independent cinemas, we launched the Open Screen Club initiative for young people. They can send their film, we take the ten first films that arrived and just show them. That is very cool because they go to the cinema and are in their own community. Their friends, they come to watch the film and it brings young people to the cinema. We are all concerned about making the cinema a living place.
Mira: Here I am representing a travelling cinema [Sofia Film Fest on the Road]. We go to towns that do not have cinema theatres and the people there cannot watch films on the big screen. Then that is the challenge - it is much more difficult to create a community because we are going only once a year in a particular place, but still, it is a missionary thing.
We also do screenings for visually impaired people. The experience with this audience is so emotional and so touching. They are so happy because they have never been to cinema and they are discovering a new cultural experience. They are discovering cinema. They are becoming part of this bigger group, which is enjoying cinema, and they can talk about it. They are not an isolated group anymore.
Gerardo: To build a community is very important for us because it is our resistance against streaming [platforms]. Therefore, if you build a good community, the people will trust you. There are people in my cinema that do not choose the film, because they trust us. They watch the film and thank us because maybe this film would otherwise have no publicity. We do not earn a lot of money in this way but you we have to save this community, to keep it alive.
You can earn money in another way - with the bar and the other events. For example, we hold a party with a Neapolitan film with very strong music. The people that came to this party talked about it for months because it was a different experience, not just watching a film.
What strategies do you have in mind for enhancing collaboration and synergy between your cinema and other European cinemas within the Europa Cinemas network?
Mira: We have done a project that was supported by Creative Europe, cinema theatres as creative hubs, and we did it with small cinemas in Hungary, in Slovenia and in Croatia. One of the editorial lines was to show films from these countries. I think that we have to work together because we share our tears, we share our joys, and we can absolutely find common problems.
Lukas: We are working a lot on the international scale. Just finished a project with partners from Budapest and Prague. And now we are also partners in Collaborate to Innovate project with cinemas in Hungary and Croatia. We are still in a project in which we collaborate with another partner in Iceland, which is also a Europa Cinemas member - Bio Paradis. We also work a lot on the inclusive programmes, for example, blind-friendly screenings, but also filmmakers’ exchange. We are hosting masterclasses of Icelandic filmmakers in our cinema and sending our filmmakers there. It makes a lot of sense for us because we are learning a lot from our partners but it is also great for the audience.
Interview by Axelle Jean, representative of France and the cinema Méliès in Montreuil
and Svetla Sarieva, representative for Bulgaria and the cinema Cultural Centre G8 in Sofia
Picture, from left: Mira, Lukas, Svetla, Axelle, Gerardo et Priscilla