Netflix and Italian Cinema. An Interview With Andrea Occhipinti (Lucky Red)

On March 1st, 2019, within the event Separati in Casa. Cineasti e pubblico italiano organized by the Cineteca di Bologna for the Visioni Italiane festival, we had the chance to talk with Andrea Occhipinti. As the founder and current president of the production and distribution company Lucky Red, Andrea Occhipinti has built up an international network and established himself as one of the most important producers and distributors of art cinema in Italy. To name just a few, Lucky Red distributed in Italy Ang Lee, Lars von Trier, François Ozon, Alejandro Amenabar, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Agnès Jaoui, Hayao Miyazaki, Paolo Sorrentino, Wong Kar-wai, Michael Haneke, Frank Oz, Gus Van Sant, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and Paul Thomas Anderson. Recently, he was at the centre of a controversy regarding the movie Sulla mia pelle (On My Skin, Alessio Cremonini, 2018). Based on the true story of the last seven days in the life of Stefano Cucchi, an Italian citizen who was beaten to death by police in 2009 following his arrest for drug possession. The film, produced by Lucky Red, was distributed on a day-and-date release in Italian selected theatres on the same day of its Netflix premiere. The decision caused an uproar from the national associations of exhibitors who refused to screen it, and as a result Occhipinti stepped down as the head of ANICA – the national association of the film industry. Given his background, we asked Andrea Occhipinti about his work as a producer and distributor, about the current situation of Italian cinema abroad, and the manifold changes that the industry is undergoing.

We present here a video excerpt from the interview – and below you will find the full text.

Cremonini’s On My Skin (Netflix, 2018) sparked some debate, in part for the question of its theatrical window. Could you tell us something about the process of working with Netflix? How did this collaboration come about, and how did it affect the international circulation possibilities of the product?

We had planned this film for cinemas, and when we finished shooting and editing it, more or less in June 2018, Netflix (whom we are in touch with both to discuss possible projects, but having sold them library titles) asked to see it, because they were looking for films for an Italian and global market. They made an offer to buy the film, and of course their way is to make films available immediately, without an exclusive window for theatrical release. And as we know, this created some problems, because it was the first case of a fairly important film (which was then present at the Venice Film Festival) that was released simultaneously in theatres and on a platform like Netflix. From that moment, it was made available in the 190 countries where Netflix is ​​accessible. This kind of non-linear offer is their own: they have no schedule with a specific day for a film or series launch. This prevented all other possibilities for distribution abroad. Normally we would have sold the film through our foreign sales company, True Colors, together with Indigo [another Italian company, that produced, for example, all of Paolo Sorrentino’s feature films], and sold it to local distributors in countries where there might be interest in that movie – like Lucky Red when it imports a foreign film. And it would have had widespread sales, broadly for theatrical release, but in some countries, maybe, directly television sales. When Netflix is involved, all this is excluded because the worldwide distributor of that film becomes Netflix. And as for Italy, as I said, there was a simultaneous release. There will also be a window of exploitation for Rai [the Italian Public Service Broadcaster, that co-produces a large amount of Italian films], because the film had already been bought by public television more or less 24 months after its theatrical release.

Notoriously, Netflix does not disclose its audience numbers. Did they provide any data to you?

No, their policy is to not share the data. Generally, we know that the film went well and that in certain geographical areas it performed better than in others, but essentially we know that On my Skin was a success. It was a film that was talked about a lot, not only in Italy. It did very well in Italy, but in other countries too. For them, it was a success.

This is an exceptional case, as one of the first cases in which you worked in this way. Otherwise how would an Italian product become international, typically?

First of all, the film must naturally be able to travel, and not all films are made for exportation or are successful abroad. Usually, the most problematic ones are comedies, because humor is often more localized. However, generally, the classic path for an auteur film starts with a festival, which is an important showcase – be it Venice, Cannes or Berlin. Then, a sales company takes care of international sales. As I said before, we have one, together with Indigo, called True Colors, but we might also entrust our film to another sales company in the markets / festivals – almost all major festivals have a market: Cannes has the most important in the world, Berlin has a market, Toronto has a sort of “informal” market. And then there are “pure” markets, like the one that takes place in Santa Monica at the beginning of November, called the American Film Market. On those occasions, these companies – we also attend as distributors and as international distributors – get to know our film and, if interested, they buy it for their territory. Then, when a distributor has bought the film, they decide the release date and strategy in agreement with the intermediary, i.e. the sales company (which acts as the intermediary between the producer and the rest of the world). The producer will then provide a trailer for that film and a promotional marketing campaign, which, of course, everyone will adapt to the needs and tastes of their own country. The poster might be different, or the trailer, or the release date, since competition in each country is different, mainly due to the presence of local competition.

On My Skin (2018, Alessio Cremonini)

Could you tell us something more about international sales agencies?

There are many examples and many types of international sales companies. There may be some that are related to broadcasters – this is the case, in Italy, of Rai Com, which generally sells the films and TV series produced or co-produced by Rai. Then there are the independent ones – in Italy we have an international sales company, that has existed for three years now, and that distributes in ‘canonical’ markets like Cannes, Berlin, the American Film Market, the MI in Rome and many others. It distributes the films that we produce, but also others that we didn’t make.

Someone who works for those companies goes to scout for films that could have an international market. They go to the producer and say “I’m interested in your film”, or, vice versa, the producer goes to this company and says “I’m looking for an international distributor, the film will be ready on this date, etc.”. The producer might screen the film, and an evaluation is then made about its potential in various territories. A sales forecast is also made, on what the sales markets of that film may be.

Each film has its own characteristics, since the world is culturally varied. In, for example, Arab or Asian countries sex and bad language meet a lot of difficulties. Others have problems with violence. Each one has its own cultural nuances; there are other countries that do not react to or are not sensitive to comedy. So, each film has potential in one country, but perhaps not in another. Working with this kind of evaluation, the potential seller makes a sales forecast, notifies the producer and makes an agreement from there. And the film is launched from the first market.

Then there are various stages in the film’s trade. That’s exactly what I do when I am a distributor: I go to Cannes, I already know more or less what the films on that market will be, beside the festival itself (because one the one side there is the festival and on the other side there is the market). The films will be in different stages of production. There are films that are launched at Cannes only during the writing stage, so if I buy it, I buy it knowing that there is a cast, a director and a producer – this happens especially for American cinema, while for Italian cinema it is difficult to pre-sell. Only the great directors manage it. Or, I might see the promo of a few minutes, if the film is still in the editing stage, so I’d see some highlights of what may be more significant about that film. Or, in other cases, I see the entire film at a screening.

In competitive markets, it is difficult to see a complete film. It happens, especially with the films that compete in the various sections of a festival. They tend to be lesser-known films, because otherwise, if a film has a well-known director or actors, if that country makes competitive products, it will have been bought before.

I attend these to buy films for Italy, but other distributors do the same thing, so we compete in this market to buy that film. It is a bit like an auction: there is a request price, and then the film goes to the highest bidder. Of course, there is an evaluation of the company, each one has its own characteristics and specificity with respect to a certain type of cinema, and so the one that offers the best price ensures its distribution. The same applies to Italian films sold abroad. Another important aspect, though this may be a bit “technical”, is that when films are sold things do not end there. There is often a “minimum guarantee”, that is the distributor pays as an advance fee, then, if the film gets a theatrical release, the distributor will advertise. Only when all these costs are recouped will the distributor give the due share to the international sales agency, which in turn will retain its commissions and pay the producer.

Based on your experience, when it comes to what is immediately perceived as “Italian”, what works for sales agents, buyers, or with foreign backers – for instance in the case of co-productions or the possibility of circulation on several markets? Is there anything that still works as a “brand of Italianness”?

Let’s say that, aside from the most obvious things that come to mind, what really matters is the quality of the film. Basically, who the director is – if it’s an auteur film – or the concept. So, if it is a Sorrentino film or a Garrone film there is recognizability linked to the fame that the author has in certain festivals, and therefore the movie will have good reviews in that country. There are other cases when a film is not from a director that is known abroad – I’m thinking of a movie like Perfect Strangers, which was sold worldwide. That type of story has been successful in Italy as much as abroad, so much that many remakes have been made. There, the formula worked, as the straightforward communication of “What is that movie about?” created a lot of intrigue. Then all the rest – dialogues, settings, gestures – everything else makes the difference between an Italian film and a Northern European film. There is a difference in all of these respects. Notoriously, there are some themes that sell a lot and that have always sold a lot, alas: the mafia, the camorra. The success of so many films about mafia, or the Gomorra series… The whole Italian organized crime world has always created fascination, it has always been represented in cinema and it has always sold abroad.

Perfect Strangers (2017, Paolo Genovese)

In your experience as a producer, a distributor and an exhibitor, how has this panorama of professions, places, times and procedures changed over the last 10-11 years?

More and more, the operators working in this market do several things at once. It is increasingly common to find a producer who is also a distributor, an exhibitor and who occupies or has skills in international markets – and who also does television, maybe. This happens more and more often. It is as if operators in this field have to act on several fronts. Another aspect is that we all have to adapt very quickly, as the world changes very quickly. Consumption has changed, the use of the audiovisual sector has changed compared to a few years ago. The film theatre is less central than a decade ago. Today there is more consumption of audiovisual products in general, of films and seriality, but it takes place on different platforms. On mobile phones, on iPads, on home computers, on television. Everything is much more fluid. And somehow audiences just get used to deciding when you want to see that movie. You can see it when you want, where you want. I think this is also a consequence of piracy; illegal downloading has created users. People download films that they saw in theatres, they decide to see it at a certain moment, maybe to pause it and then come back later and keep watching. And I believe that companies like Netflix were born in response to the demand of this kind of audience, of users.

The changes you’ve talked about are connected to consumption habits, which surely impact your work. How do they affect the chain up to the level of production?

The audience is more selective, looking for more. When we plan films, they look for some distinctive characteristics, strong elements relating to the film’s marketability. So when we make a film, we must already think about the ways we will sell it, how we will promote it. And this is not a small detail. In short, we must already have in mind not only the specific audience for whom we are making that film, but also what the sales strategies and strengths of that film will be. Because there is a lot of offer and, for a film to be noticed, it takes much more effort than before. Today, if someone goes to the cinema to watch a movie, they really need to feel like it’s worth it. It’s only worth it, against crazy competition on the big and small screens, tablets and mobile phones, if there is something unique that is offered in the theatre.

Our research project is dedicated to four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Switzerland. Based on your experience, what would you say are other markets that were interesting for the circulation of Italian cinema?

Spain, Latin America and China. China is a very interesting country. They buy a lot. They don’t necessarily release movies in the theatre, but they buy a lot and have very important platforms. It is a really lively country. Latin America, as well: culturally, they are very close to Italy and Italian cinema. In Latin American, or South America, there are more and more operators buying for the whole territory. There, there is a lot of interest in Italian cinema. And Spain, too. Greece is also a country that buys enough, Israel is an interesting country, Turkey also buys a fair amount of Italian products.