The youth film festival Cinekid opens this week with Binti, a catchy, highly topical youth film brimming with optimism. That sounds good, because optimism is what the Dutch youth film can use right now. Too bad, then, that Binti, about a girl from Congo who makes every effort to be allowed to stay in Belgium with her father, is a largely Belgian production. That the leading festival does not open with a Dutch title, as has often happened in the past, may be a coincidence, but perhaps it is a small sign of things to come.
Audience drops out
This summer, the Film Fund published the survey Seeing and being seen, compiled by Peter Bosma and Esther Schmidt. An additional personal exploration by Peter Bosma was published recently: Made and watched growing up. These reports show that the golden years of Dutch youth film are over. Attendance, both total and per title, has declined significantly over the past five years and the number of titles produced is also cautiously declining.
Will Cinekid pay attention to this research too? According to Erik Tijman, head of programming, not very directly. But he lets us know that Cinekid has seized the opportunity to put Dutch youth films in the spotlight. Wednesday 23 October is Dutch Youth Film Day. That is also when the Top 25 will be launched - the 25 Dutch youth films you absolutely must have seen.
In addition, Tijman says it will certainly factor into conversations and meetings during the days for professionals.
Should we be surprised that Dutch youth film is in dire straits? Yes and no. No, because various cries for help in the past season have shown that Dutch film as a whole is also struggling. Yes, because in addition to all the gloomy noises, there was usually the observation that youth film (and documentary) is the strongest segment of Dutch film. And so are awards at foreign festivals. But still.
How did it come to this? The golden years of Dutch children's film began in the 1990s, with filmmakers taking inspiration from (I'll summarise very roughly) Scandinavian examples, the work of Annie M.G. Schmidt and other children's book authors. After films like The pocket knife (1991) and Long live the queen (1995) provided Abeltje in 1998 for a breakthrough. This adventure of the flying lift boy left Disney's Mulan well behind.
Even greater successes would follow. Minoes (for young and old) attracted 1.2 million visitors, Pete Bell about 1 million. Even a film for very young viewers like the heart-wrenching The horse of St Nicholas came to 331,000 - less spectacular, but still enviable for a Dutch feature film. It is also striking that the difference between artistic youth film and public film is blurred here in many cases.
The above report looks at Dutch youth film in the years 2011- 2018, and during this period, the magic 1 million mark was no longer reached. Toppers here are Mees Kees (600,000) and its sequels, and, for example, a Carry Slee film like Regret (418.000). Illustrative of the audience decline is that Mees Kees along the line (2016) stuck at 359,000. The best-attended youth film in 2018 was Superjuffie with 287,000 visitors.
What is going on? Is the public tired of Master Kees? Are there not enough bestsellers left to film? Are there too many titles crowding each other, now that digitalisation means more films are being released than ever? Or just too few youth films, or not enough quality?
The research report Seeing and being seen, and Peter Bosma's supplement stick to relatively general observations. The first report stresses the importance of better marketing and more spreading of releases throughout the year. These two reports mainly contain a lot of figures, alongside descriptions of what is going on in the industry and a number of case studies. For example, of the critically acclaimed but flopped at the box office Chewboy. Plus reactions from some producers, distributors and exhibitors. In short, compulsory material for anyone who wants to delve deeply into the matter.
Peter Bosma, independent researcher, teacher and, from 1992, twenty years youth film programmer at LantarenVenster in Rotterdam, already suspected that things were not going well with Dutch youth film. Today, he sent an e-mail to Doreen Boonekamp, director of the Filmfonds, suggesting that she investigate. Until then, there had never been a separate investigation into the youth film sector. Coincidentally, Boonekamp was already toying with the same idea. After which the Film Fund commissioned Bosma to get to work.
Asked about his motivation, Bosma states that youth film is close to his heart. "Diversity is one of my hobbyhorses. There should also be a choice of all kinds of films for children. I now see that Dutch film is finding it increasingly difficult alongside the offer of Disney-Pixar, for example. There is nothing wrong with the latter in itself, very nice films, but you see that film theatres are also increasingly programming them. There has to be a counterbalance."
To illustrate the difficult situation, he cites My particularly weird week with Tess. "The most enjoyable film of this year. The marketing was good, but releasing in the summer is difficult and the film was mainly screened in movie houses, I think." Indeed distributor September Film confirms that Tess besides the movie houses, was only seen in a few major cinemas, and then only very briefly. Since its release on 3 July, Tess scarcely 18,000 visitors so far (it may be a little more, because still to be seen). That is very little. Especially considering that Tess has been showered with awards at foreign festivals, including a Special Mention in Berlin and an audience award in New York.
"It is sometimes puzzling," Bosma notes.
"The study begins in 2011, the year when the digitisation of Dutch cinemas was largely completed. This created a different film landscape. More titles in cinemas, with more copies per title. On the one hand, this offers more opportunities for youth films, but on the other hand, the pressure and competition are greater. Some movie houses have started showing more children's films, but movie houses also show Disney."
According to Bosma, it is important that there is good interplay between the film house sector and the major cinema chains, without pointing fingers at each other. Fat Dap (2017, 260,000 visitors) he cites as an example of a successful collaboration.
In his own report, Bosma mentions a number of factors that are a handicap for youth films. Such as the small target group for preschool films, being tied to school holidays and matinee screenings and the structurally lesser attention in news coverage (reviews, interviews). But to a large extent, this has always been the case with youth film. Hence my question: what has really changed in the past decade?
"I don't want to be too adamant about that, but digitalisation has created greater competitive pressure, which means titles are disappearing from cinemas again faster. We also see a shift in recent years towards the American family film, which is becoming more and more present."
"In addition, children are active on many more media and are also often busier with all kinds of other activities. As a result, cinema perhaps gets a bit out of sight."
It is notable, however, that the report involved extensive discussions with producers, distributors and exhibitors, but no audience research. While precisely the apparently shifting choice of audiences (children, but certainly also their parents) presumably plays a major role. Bosma agrees, and gives the reason that such an audience survey is an art in itself, which is difficult to do and has to be done very carefully.
It does feature as number one on his list of recommendations, which is actually a list of topics to be explored further.
But what would he recommend right now, just off the cuff? Points of improvement that could give Dutch youth film another push up the ladder?
"Broadly speaking, I agree with the Film Fund's recommendations. More marketing, more continuity and distribution, which means youth films should also be shown outside school holidays."
But he would like to see it more broadly.
"For example, it would also be good if older, well-known titles were re-released again. Bundling activities around one or two specialised distributors is also important. The relatively new distributor In the Air is doing well in this respect. Good cooperation between film houses and cinema chains is also important."
"In addition, the connection with the audience could improve. Standard marketing is good in itself, but it reaches a small audience. Involve schools and teachers more, organise events, work with children's bookshops."
Erik Tijman also sees an interplay of factors at work.
"Marketing budgets are low. In the past, a new Dutch youth film was easily an event, but maybe audiences have become spoilt now. And children can choose from many more media than just the cinema. What also plays a role is that attention for youth films is limited. Reviews usually go no further than asking, "Is it fun? You don't see that the youth film is the most successful part of Dutch cinema."
"A factor in production is that budgets for youth films are lower than for adult films, especially television. On top of that, legislation regarding working conditions for children, in itself a good thing, makes shooting a youth film laborious."
"It is a joint responsibility. For example, the Film Academy could also pay attention to youth film."
To put all the identified problems into perspective, Bosma adds that an average Dutch youth film in the cinema still attracts more visitors than the average Dutch adult film. And: "When it comes to children's films, the Netherlands is still the leading country within Europe."