Italian Cinema in Switzerland. An Interview with Luca Morandini (MFD)

Luca Morandini comes from a long line of “movie people”: in the early twentieth century, his ancestors opened one of Switzerland’s first movie theatre in Lucerne. In addition to pursuing this important family tradition, twenty years ago Luca Morandini decided to found the distribution company MFD – Morandini Film Distribution, with the aim of bringing back the Italian productions that were ignored by distribution companies to Swiss theatres. Today, the MFD has over 220 titles in its catalogue, from the films of Paolo Virzì and Marco Tullio Giordana to the comedies of Checco Zalone, Christian De Sica and Antonio Albanese, and it has become the main point of reference for the distribution of Italian films in Switzerland. In view of his dual role as exhibitor and distributor, Luca Morandini answered some questions about the current situation of Italian cinema in Switzerland.

How did you come up with the idea of MFD, and why did you choose to focus on Italian cinema?

My family has always worked in cinema: I belong to the fourth generation of cinema exhibitors in Switzerland. However, when I started working in this area, I noticed that in Swiss theatres there was a complete lack of Italian films, they were excluded by other distributors. I then decided to be pro-active, to bring Italian cinema – Italian culture – back to Switzerland with a certain regularity, both managing my movie houses in Mendrisio and collaborating with other exhibitors. Thus Morandini Film Distribution was born, at the end of the ’90s. The first film I released was Tre uomini e un gamba/Three Men and a Leg by Italian comedy trio Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo: this is where my adventure began, leading MFD to become a reference point for Italian producers not only in Ticino, but also in the rest of the Cantons, where the penetration of Italian cinema is more difficult. My intuition was that I could bring Italian films beyond Italian-speaking territories, although no one believed in me at the beginning: I think that Switzerland, being trilingual, is a good platform to test the potential of an Italian film abroad, because with a single distributor it is possible to understand the impact of the film in three different linguistic areas.

What were the main difficulties you faced promoting Italian films in Switzerland, at a time when they were missing from cinemas? Did you experience particular linguistic or even cultural hindrances?

Actually, working in this field for generations and knowing the Swiss market by heart, I didn’t find any particular difficulties. When you are lucky enough to be successful with the first films, you immediately establish a virtuous circle in which everyone is happy to participate: the audience, the exhibitors, the media, the producers… In this way, MFD has created an Italian province outside of Italy.

What is the relationship between MFD and the national or European institutions that promote policies in support of distribution?

I have no relationship with these institutions, I am 100% independent: I spend what I think is right to spend and I arrange everything myself. In my opinion, a good entrepreneur must stand on her/his own feet. This is my policy.

And with Italian producers?

With the producers there is a relationship of great trust and collaboration. I am often contacted directly by them to establish a real conversation, not just a mere economic negotiation: for example, they might ask me honestly if I think it is too risky to bring a film to Ticino, if it is even worth trying foreign sales… After more than twenty years, I think I have pretty clear ideas about it. Especially because, as an exhibitor, I always maintain direct contact with the audience, which is the most important thermometer. In my job, it is important always to keep in mind what interests the audience, to know how to intercept and predict their tastes.

How does the process of choosing films to be distributed take place?

There is no standard rule, it depends on various elements: there are several parameters that I consider when judging whether a film can work in the theatre. As well as assessing the potential of the film, it is necessary to choose the precise release date, to calculate the budget reserved for the distribution, to consider the current market situation and see what other films are in competition – because even a great film will perform badly at the box-office if it is “placed” at the wrong time. The skill of a good distributor is to identify the type of product and to understand if there are the conditions to find success. For example, it wasn’t obvious that Checco Zalone’s first film would have reached such remarkable profits, even in Ticino.

So Swiss releases dates do not necessarily coincide with the Italian ones. Do you autonomously decide which window of exploitation works best for each film in Switzerland?

Exactly, it depends from case to case. I usually wait to see box-office results in Ticino before making any decisions about distribution in German and French-speaking Switzerland, but I can also act differently. For example, we recently released Scappo a casa/Run home both in Ticino and in Zurich at the same time as Italy, because we were sure we could count on the recognition of the protagonist, Aldo Baglio.

Scappo a casa (2019, Enrico Lando)

Aldo Baglio’s comedy joins a catalogue that is already very rich in comedies.

The reasons that lead me to select a film for distribution are always based on the tastes of the audience. It’s not up to me to judge a film, I’m not a film critic. I always put myself on the spectator’s side and watch a movie as if I were going to the cinema for the first time. Then I consider if it left me with something, if I got bored, if I got excited… I don’t care about analysing it. Either it works or it doesn’t work, for me it’s very simple: I understand it right away.

Have you had any unexpected or surprising cases?

Our little miracle was La meglio gioventù/The Best of Youth, by Marco Tullio Giordana, a six-hour film divided into two parts, made for TV. When it was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, nobody wanted it, but I believed in it and took it on. It remained in programming for a full year, continuously, in Geneva in the same theatre. But at the same time, in the German-speaking Switzerland and in Ticino the film performed poorly.

More recently, Perfetti sconosciuti/Perfect Strangers has become an international sensation, with remakes from around the world and significant grossing even in China. Was this the case in also Switzerland?

No. Aside from some lucky cases, like Checco Zalone, today Italian comedies are no longer able to achieve extraordinary results at the box-office in Ticino, like they used to in the times of the “cinepanettoni”: we are witnessing a partial disaffection of the Ticino audience towards Italian cinema. Perfetti sconosciuti/Perfect strangers is the striking example of this dynamic: I decided to distribute it, but it did not get the results that everyone expected.

In these twenty years of activity, how has interest in Italian films in Switzerland changed?

Demand has certainly changed. Beyond St Gotthard and in French-speaking Switzerland there are very strong Italian-speaking communities, within which the nostalgic and patriotic factor plays a fundamental role: there is an increasingly important component of “national pride” in going to see an Italian film in a foreign country. Perhaps for this reason the viewers’ response in Switzerland is usually more benevolent and less critical than in Italy, where Italian films are obviously much more widespread and easier to find. The real challenge for Italian films in Switzerland is to be able to face the competition of other foreign productions: if I think that a film is not solid enough or that it cannot withstand the weight of competition, I prefer to give up on distribution and exhibition. For me, the important thing is to choose films that are valid and credible, each in their own genre, from the trashy comedy to the art film: I am not willing to put my face on project in which I do not believe.

Today, who is the audience for Italian films in Ticino? And what is the current market for Italian films in the rest of Switzerland?

In Switzerland, 70% of the audience of an Italian film is made up entirely of Italian speakers, both first and second generation. For this reason, too, we usually choose to release films exclusively in Italian and without subtitles in all three linguistic regions. A component of the inhabitants of Ticino can also be added to the Italian-speaking community, but it is usually minor. The question is different for art films: in this case, the range of possibilities for exploitation is wider, because these films can intercept the tastes of the French-speaking Swiss and German-speaking Swiss audiences who like good, quality cinema. However, this is a residual phenomenon, which reaches a ciné-club dimension, not a multiplex dimension. For example, I think of a film like La paranza dei bambini/Piranhas by Claudio Giovannesi, which has just been released in Italy after being presented at the Berlin Festival. The producer contacted me to get an opinion about a potential Swiss distribution: though it is a beautiful film, I am convinced that commercially the film would have no chance of success in Ticino. However, it is the type of film that could meet the favour of the German Swiss native audience, which expresses a greater interest for art films.

La paranza dei bambini (2019, Claudio Giovannesi)

La paranza dei bambini (2019, Claudio Giovannesi)

Which kind of Italian films works best in Switzerland, beyond Ticino?

For sure the “cinepanettoni” and Christmas comedies. I am proud to say that Christmas comedies are a custom that I imported into Switzerland. It has really become an important tradition: not surprisingly, during the Christmas week, MFD always reaches the highest gross in Zurich, regardless of the film distributed. This is a phenomenon that affects the entire Italian-speaking community, recording incredible numbers: at the beginning, not even the exhibitors could believe the extent of the phenomenon, when entire Italian families called to reserve even 20 places at a time for each screening. All of those people who cannot return to Italy for the Christmas holidays come to the cinema here. Buses were organized even from Germany, specifically to bring spectators to the movie theatre.

Judging by the number of films released, German-speaking Switzerland seems more open and receptive than French-speaking Switzerland. Is that so? Why?

That’s exactly how it is. And the reason is that there are more Italian speakers there. In French-speaking Switzerland, on the other hand, it is more difficult to penetrate Italian cinema also because the French-speaking public is used to a different kind of comedy than the one I offer. The same is true for French films in Ticino: even when they perform well at the box-office, as in the case of La famiglia Bélier/The Bélier Family, they fail to achieve the success of Italian films. Furthermore, some dynamics within the distribution market also weigh in Lausanne, for example, the distributor Pathé almost has a monopoly, which clearly benefits French films.

In 2018, the box-office in Ticino showed signs of good performance or even growth, in contrast with the data of the rest of Switzerland. Has Italian cinema had a weight in affirming this success?

Not particularly. The real positive result of the last film season was Frontaliers Disaster/Borders Disaster, a comedy produced in Switzerland that had an incredible result in Ticino. As for Italian films, on the contrary, the Swiss market suffers greatly from the lack of “cinepanettoni” or phenomena like Checco Zalone. Attempting to avert a haemorrhage of spectators, together with the director and producer Alberto Meroni, I started to think of films to be made specifically for the Ticino audience. This is how La Palmira/Palmira and La Palmira 2: Complotto nel Mendrisotto/Palmira 2: Conspiracy in the Mendrisotto were born and, later, Frontaliers Disaster, which managed to save the entire box-office in Ticino alone.

As for 2019 what are the titles on which the MFD aims?

The only Italian film that I’m really waiting for is Tolo Tolo by Checco Zalone, which is currently still in production. Apart from this, it will be particularly interesting to take stock of the gross at the end of the season: 2019, in fact, is what in the industry is called “year zero”, because, for the first time, blockbuster films will be released even during the summer, in an attempt to extend the current film season and increase profits. We shall see if this experiment succeeds.