Screens to Streams: The Evolution of Film Release Windows in Europe (Part One)

Europe’s film sector has long relied on the principles of territoriality and rigid release windows to maximize the economic potential of films. However, the unprecedented lockdowns during 2020 and 2021 have significantly disrupted these traditional models, which were already in flux after the expansion of streaming services throughout Europe.

Part One of Screens to Streams explores the evolution of release windows in European cinema and examines how different countries are adapting to the new normal.

The Principle of Licensing Territoriality

The principle of territoriality in copyright law has allowed rightsholders to license works on a territory-by-territory basis, maximizing the economic potential of films. Territoriality allows rightsholders to license films to different distributors in different countries, tailoring the release strategy to each market. This principle has been fundamental to the European film sector and the independent film market in general, enabling localized marketing and maximizing revenues. However, the rise of digital platforms has complicated this model.

Although the EU Single Market is based on the so-called “four freedoms” included in the EU Treaties: the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, there is a specific exception for audiovisual works. The fact that licensing agreements are completed on a country-by-country basis means they inherently have anti-competitive effects and are at odds with the goal of a Single Market.

Breaking the Traditional Model of Release Windows

Release windows refer to the chronological order in which films are released across various platforms such as cinemas, TVOD (Transactional Video on Demand), SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand), and television. Historically, these windows were established to prevent new forms of exploitation from cannibalizing theatrical attendance.

Traditional and theatrical distributors argue that shorter release windows undermine their business model, while digital platforms advocate for immediate or near-immediate releases to capitalize on marketing momentum.

Release windows were initially the result of industry agreements, later supported by legislation in certain countries. For example, France introduced a law in 1983 establishing a minimum theatrical window of six months before home video release. At the European level, the 1989 “Television Without Frontiers” Directive set a two-year lapse between theatrical release and broadcasting, although this requirement was later removed.

However, globally coordinated lockdown orders forced cinemas to shut down, resulting in significant revenue losses. The audiovisual sector experienced a €7 billion revenue loss in Europe during 2019-2020. Theaters faced prolonged closures, leading to a 70% decrease in box-office revenues. This drastic reduction compelled the industry to reconsider the traditional release windows.

The dramatic impact of the lockdowns led to the exceptional shortening or even elimination of release windows. With theaters closed, many films were released directly on VOD platforms. The retail TVOD window, also known as EST (electronic-sell-through), was notably reduced.

The remainder of this article explores how different European countries manage these release windows, including legislative measures, public funding rules, and industry agreements that shape the distribution landscape in these territories.

Uncover What Streaming Services in Europe Pay for Films and Episodic Content

Combining comprehensive data from multiple regional reports, you can accurately estimate and validate licensing rates for films and shows streaming throughout Europe.

FilmTake is your gateway to SVOD film and episodic licensing rates in dozens of European territories.

Choose flexible options for single territory downloads or all territories. Learn more…

Licensing Terms & Included Programs:

Value past, present, and future revenue for films and shows in multiple availability windows in the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.

  • Motion Pictures: Pay-1, First Run, Second Window Features, Recent Library Features (Tiers AAA,A,B,C), Library Features (Tiers AAA,A,B,C), Current and Premium Made-For-TV Films and Direct-To-Video Films, covering many license periods over the last decade
  • Episodic TV: Current, Premium, Premium Catalog (1HR & 1/2HR), Catalog Series (1HR & 1/2HR), and Catalog Miniseries + Case Studies on Current Mega Hit, Catalog Mega Hit, and Premium Catalog, covering many licensing terms from 2012-2024
  • Because most-favored-nation rates operate in practice, the rates and terms apply to a diverse range of content and distributors worldwide in multiple availability windows.

Fragmented Film Release Window Regulations

Article 8 of the AVMS (Audio Visual & Media Services) Directive provides a general obligation for EU member states to ensure that content providers under their jurisdiction do not transmit cinematographic works outside periods agreed with the rightsholders. This directive allows for flexibility, resulting in varying implementation across countries.

Therefore, many countries leave the organization of release windows to industry agreements and contractual arrangements. This fragmented approach allows flexibility, with parties negotiating release windows on a case-by-case basis. Some countries, however, have established unique frameworks agreed upon by industry stakeholders.

Currently, Bulgaria and France are the only EU countries with specific legislative provisions for release windows. Bulgaria’s framework is relatively concise, with a three-month window for video, DVD, internet, and PayTV following the theatrical premiere and a six-month window for free television. Violations of these rules incur significant fines, with higher penalties for repeated offenses. Discover what SVOD platforms in France pay for film and episodic content.

In contrast, France’s system is intricate, spanning 36 months with detailed stipulations for different platforms. France’s complex system, rooted in the French Cinema Code, underwent significant reforms in 2018 and 2022. Notably, France significantly reduced its SVOD window from 36 to 15-17 months, reflecting a trend towards shorter windows in Europe.

Belgium mandates a minimum of 26 months before a film is available via SVOD, which can extend up to 30 months. Get instant access to SVOD rates for films and series content in Belgium.

The final window, often for free television, also shows considerable variation. In many countries, this window ranges between 18 and 24 months, with France having the longest at 36 months. Some countries, like Denmark, have overlapping windows for SVOD and free television, further complicating the distribution landscape. Uncover SVOD rates and terms for films and episodic television in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland.

The Importance of Theatrical Exclusivity in European Film Distribution

There is no consensus on release windows across the European audiovisual landscape. The International Union of Cinemas (UNIC) stresses that territorial copyright and theatrical exclusivity are crucial for the industry’s health. Their 2022 manifesto emphasizes that exclusive theatrical windows benefit the entire film value chain, from financing to distribution, by driving box-office revenues, enhancing audience awareness, and supporting European works.

The UNIC also highlights the transparency of box-office figures compared to streaming data, warning that reducing window lengths could endanger jobs and decrease film diversity.

The International Confederation of Arthouse Cinemas and the International Federation of Film Distributors’ and Publishers’ Associations (FIAD) echoes these concerns, noting that shortened windows mainly harm arthouse films and that market dynamics should determine the most effective business models. Meanwhile, SVOD services often resist long release windows and theatrical exclusivity, challenging traditional distribution methods.

FilmTake Away: The Battle Between Unification or Fragmentation

The streaming revolution and hitherto unthinkable global lockdowns have accelerated changes in the often slow-reacting European film sector, and the future of territoriality and release windows in Europe remains uncertain.

The ongoing tension between traditional distributors and digital platforms highlights the need for an innovative approach that considers the interests of all stakeholders. As the industry continues to evolve, the European film sector must adapt to ensure the sustainable circulation of films across diverse markets.