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The Two Vital Fundamentals In Our Industry
The Quality Of The Content & Relationships

Timo T. Lahtinen
The Business Of Film In Conversation with Timo T. Lahtinen Founder and Managing Director of Denmark based Smile Entertainment, which in 2013 is celebrating 15 years as a family-owned independent distributor in Scandinavia.

The Business of Film: Smile Entertainment operates in five different countries in Scandinavia. In 1998 the exhibition and distribution landscape was vastly different from today. Was it a bold step to go out on your own? Has the advent of technology, which now governs the pace at which we communicate, fundamentally changed the paradigm of relationships that is the cornerstone of our business? Can we take a step back to the landscape of 1998, and fast forward to how it is now?

Timo T. Lahtinen: In 1998 when Smile started, the distribution of films was indeed totally different. There was only Theatrical on 35mm, the DVD boom had just started and DVD's were collected by the public and marketed as collector's items, which the consumers would show to their guests at home. Digital terrestrial TV didn't exist in Scandinavia. Actually it's quite startling to look back and realize just how much everything has changed in such a short space of time. Was it was a bold move to start my own operations? I guess it was, and looking back it is certainly good not to have known and understand just how much the landscape for the distribution of films would change, nor how quickly it would happen.

Closer To The Edge Released by Smile Entertainment in Scandinavia
TBOF: Smile caters to and covers five different languages, cultures and tastes. How do you decide what product to acquire? Why do you attend the Film and Television markets to source product? Your line-up is diverse: from Iron Sky to Two mothers to Closer to the Edge. What are the deciding factors in such choices?

TTL: It is not always possible to find product that works on equal terms in all five countries of our territory, all with different cultural tastes. However, one of the clear guidelines for us is that we need to know where it could possibly work within our five different countries. Perhaps it can go theatrical in Denmark or home entertainment in Sweden or perhaps TV in Finland. It is impossible to prejudge, and it's diffciult to determine the tastes in all countries in terms of which platform a film will work, but my long experience working in the business in Scandinavia, starting from my time at Nordisk Film, gives me a good reference to work from and this naturally helps enormously when acquiring films. Another factor is that we try to find content that has a shelf life, for example a film which will hopefully interest people five years from its first release. A film such as TT 3D: Closer to the Edge. As an independent we also have the luxury of choosing films for our distribution pipeline that is also partly based on our own individual taste. This doesn't necessarily mean that we only work with films that are to our liking, but we don't have to work with the films we don't like. Regardless of all the changes, technological and other, there are two fundamentals in our industry: the quality of your content and your relations.

TBOF: Around the world the cost of marketing films to the public has spiralled out of control. How does Smile get around these horrendous costs?

TTL: It has always been expensive to distribute films in Scandinavia. All together the total population is about 25 million people, divided into five different countries and language areas, so pretty much everything has to be converted into as many versions. When we make the decision to go theatrical with a film, the advent of Digital cinema has reduced the cost of prints, even though that saving is split between distributors and exhibitors in the form of virtual print fees. When it comes to marketing, we don't have the resouces of a major studio. We work closely with the different media to find and define a savvy way to get to our targeted audience. We succeeded for example with our motorcycle racing documentary TT 3D: Closer to the Edge, where we worked closely with the exhibitors, who arranged event screenings with an enthusiasm which money could not have bought. Iron Sky was another great example, the film had a big fan base in advance, and its production and finance history made it a news piece for the broadcasters, which was an interesting topic for nearly all nightly newscasts at the time of the film's release. The Director and Producer visited all the capital cities and the film was able to secure an unprecedented amount of publicity for an independent film in its league.

TBOF: The technology has forever changed the way films are 'distributed' and how the public is able to 'view' films. With so much content in the marketplace what do you think is the key to the future for independent filmmakers and an independent distributor like yourself?

TTL: The way we consume films and other content has changed enormously and beyond recognition to what it was just 15 years ago, and I believe the pace of change will not be slowed in the future. I guess what will really define the future is when this generation, who have grown up with computers all their life, will be the majority of our consumers. My personal advice to the independent industry is that independents need to stay exactly that, independents. As long as we have new Quentin Tarantinos and Lars von Triers growing up, whose passion is honed to creating content, there is hope for all sectors of the business. Otherwise we will all be watching films created by computers, and I'm not talking about the visuals, but rather the stories and how they are put together.

TBOF: Congratulations on 15 years and maintaining your independence as a distributor! That's no mean feat, considering the ups and downs of the economy, the competition that abounds in your territory, the constantly evolving technology, and the Majors consolidating and controlling the landscape! Aside from the fact that you are widely respected in our industry, if you had to attribute a couple of points to the longevity of Smile Entertainment, what would they be?

TTL: I don't have any formula, but as we said earlier, we need to find the right product for the right price, whether we acquire or produce ourselves. Another key is the relations we have, both to our clients and to our suppliers. I guess part of that comes from my own roots. I come from Finland which historically has been through a lot. I am a son of a refugee (my mom comes from a part of Finland that was lost in WWII). This background teaches you to respect independence, both your own and that of others. My greatest pleasure right now is to watch and see the next generation who are starting in the industry. They give a whole new perspective to everything, and why not, this is a great industy, fun product and great people! ET.

This article is also available in The Business Of Film's new and innovative QR Reader Platform featured in the TBOF Cannes Special Issue & Product Guide Printed Edition.
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