Film Distribution, Film Circulation, and the Role of Italy

Film distribution – an essential part of the industry’s supply chain – represents a crucial (albeit not exhaustive) part of feature film circulation. In order to study this important junction for the international distribution of Italian cinema, it is helpful to begin with a quantitative analysis of theatrical distribution, through a comparison with other countries (particularly in Europe). This will allow us to understand the specific position of Italy, as well as its strengths and various weaknesses. The Lumière database of theatrical admissions, run by the European Audio-visual Observatory, allows us to study a large sample of Italian and European films distributed over a relatively long time period (in our case, the decade 2007-2017).

In terms of its capacity for distribution, visibility and success abroad, Italian cinema suffers a series of evident weaknesses, especially when compared to other national cinemas. Excluding, for obvious reasons, Hollywood blockbusters – i.e. high-budget films that are systematically distributed in markets across the globe – in the past few years we have seen several instances of European films that, like their American equivalents, have been widely distributed and proved popular or extremely successful in theatres. Some instances that are worthy of note are the French films Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis/Welcome to the Sticks (Dany Boon, 2008), which attracted more than 25 million spectators in the European Union, and Intouchables/The Untouchables (Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano, 2011), with an audience of 40 million in the EU; the Spanish El Orfanato/The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007), which reached 6 million viewers in the EU; and the Anglo-American co-production The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010): almost 20 million admissions in the EU. Italy has produced no such examples. The only Italian films that reached comparable levels of success are a series of comedies directed by Gennaro Nunziante and starring Checco Zalone – though around 95% of their audience was domestic: Quo vado? (2016), with 9,864,000 spectators (9,368,000 in Italy); Sole a catinelle (2013), 8,030,000 admissions (8,025,000 in Italy); and Che bella giornata/What a Beautiful Day (2011), 6,844,000 viewers (6,832,000 in Italy). The highest rated Italian co-production with a greater balance between domestic and international success was To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012): 4,501,000 admissions in the EU (almost 10 million globally), of which 1,292,000 in Italy (29% of the EU audience, 13% of its worldwide distribution). The top-rated film produced in Italy alone was Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008), which had an audience of 3,371,000 in the EU (almost 4 million worldwide), and 1,748,000 viewers in Italy.

On the one hand, then, we find a series of comedies (and particularly the huge successes of Nunziante and Zalone) which have a huge impact predominantly on the domestic market, and, to a far lesser extent, in a few countries which have Italian-speaking communities (Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, etc.). On the other hand, a contained number of films that gain international visibility thanks to awards or recognition (or simply thanks to their presence at major film festivals), if not simply for the fame of the director. As well as Gomorrah by Garrone (which won the Grand Jury Prix at Cannes), other instances here include La grande bellezza/The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino 2013), winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014; as well as Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) and Habemus Papam/We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011), both Franco-Italian co-productions that were screened in competition at Cannes.

While comedies have a somewhat limited international distribution, dramas – often the work of internationally acclaimed auteurs (like Paolo Sorrentino, Matteo Garrone or Nanni Moretti) – have greater potential for international theatrical distribution, often with discrete success. For example, Suburra (Stefano Sollima, 2015), another Franco-Italian co-production, was distributed in 15 EU States and gained a total of 912,000 spectators: 90% in Italy, 3% in France and 7% in other markets. This particular example was then much more broadly distributed thanks to its inclusion in the Netflix catalogues of various different countries. The film Pranzo di Ferragosto/Mid-August Lunch (Gianni Di Gregorio, 2008) was also distributed in 15 markets in the EU, and seen by 1.5 million people, including large audiences in France (382,000), Spain (390,000) and Germany (128,000 viewers).

This quantitative data, which relates only the theatrical distribution of Italian cinema, represents an important starting point in a broader study of how Italian audio-visual media circulates abroad. As some of these examples show, winning or attending prestigious film festivals is an important contributing factor (for more on this see Damiano Garofalo’s article), as indeed is an Oscar or a nomination (as Marco Cucco illustrates in his post). It is also worth recalling that in the age of digitalization, “media convergence”, the abundance of choice and the multiplication of viewing modes and possibilities, the consumption of film and audio-visual media generally occurs in an increasingly fragmentary and often “informal” way, over variable time frames. To speak simply of “distribution” or to look only to the movie theatre is no longer enough: though it remains relevant (demonstrably, in relation to the persistent centrality of the box office), the notion of “distribution” ultimately implies a closed, vertical economic process which ends up eclipsing other modes of viewing (official or not). Film distribution remains a “centralized, planned process”, which seeks to create economic value through the “windowing” system (as illustrated in film economics); however, today’s context is also defined by the multiplication of windows and an evolution beyond standardized modes of access that can serve any kind of content (the “one size fits all” mentality).

This new media ecosystem presents an important opportunity that, if negotiated wisely, could serve to reinforce Italian cinema’s (feeble) presence abroad.