A press release issued by the Council of Europe’s European Audiovisual Observatory on the eve of the 58th International Cannes Film Festival, announced that for the second time since 1990, cinema attendance in the European Union passed the billion milestone in 2004. Good news for production companies, but what does it mean for the European film industry?
The European film industry is not an entity in its own right; rather it is the sum of creative activity taking place within the 25 member states of the European Union. The health of the national industries that combine to form the European Film Industry varies greatly from country to country. One useful way of measuring success is to look at the market share achieved by each country in its domestic market, the European market and beyond. Analysis such has has been conducted by the European Audiovisual Observatory, reveals that, in spite of isolated success stories, not much has changed in the fortunes of European cinema in the last ten years.
In spite of the increase in the number of European films made in 2004, or perhaps as a result of it, the market share collectively achieved was provisionally 3% down from 2003 results to just 26.5%. By comparison American films, including 11.7 % joint US/EUR financed productions, achieved 71.4% of the market share. This maintains a trend that has been in place for ten years in spite of concerted efforts throughout this time to rectify the situation by the likes of delegates attending the European Audiovisual Conference.
But European cinema has been in the doldrums for donkey’s years, so why is it so important that it claw back market share from the Hollywood blockbuster producing machine? Aside from the economic drivers, the compelling force behind European cinema is to tell stories that reflect a particular culture. The cinematic traditions of America and Europe are worlds apart, and have been since the medium first evolved at the turn of the last century. In Europe, cinema is traditionally regarded as art, whereas in America it is overwhelmingly seen as entertainment.
The need for a people to express themselves through cinematographic art and for their culture and experiences to gain recognition nationally and internationally, is a cause that has been taken up by politicians as well as those within the industry. Indeed, the European film industry simply would not exist without public funding. For example, every film produced in Germany in 2004 was dependent on government funding, including the international box office hit Downfall. At the moment, the EU’s media program Eurimages has committed €643 million over seven years for distributors across 25 countries. But experts predict this is not enough considering that the money is spread over 750 films and they suggest that national funding bodies and Eurimages should pool resources for a more co-ordinated approach.
Co-ordination and integration could be the key to success. In terms of creativity, Europe has considerable depth, as evidenced by the volume of films produced year on year. What is lacking is infrastructure.
In 2003 the European Film Agency Directors expressed their concerns to a seminar of the Ministers of Culture highlighting that the most significant factor that has resulted in such a poor market share of European films within Europe, “is the fragmentation of European distribution companies which tend to be small and each confined to its national territory, in contrast to the highly-integrated distribution operations of the multinational companies, the US majors, which are active in every EU territory and across the value chain of film exploitation in Europe.”
Distribution remains a major problem but senior officials are working with the industry to implement new technology in order to maximise opportunities for success.
The European Commission is thinking laterally and exploring ways of using the Internet to market and distribute European films. The importance of festivals in opening up new domestic markets to European and independent film has also been recognised by government officials. And some governments, notably the French, have enacted policies to try and prevent the influx of foreign, chiefly American, films onto the domestic market. Although the evidence to date would indicate this has done little to curb the access to market enjoyed by American majors.
It is also worth noting that any industry reliant on government support structures is hardly the most stable, or sustainable. Last year the UK industry suffered a major scare when it was feared changes to tax breaks would result in major productions being withdrawn.
One-off successes aside, the ability of European films to compete on a par with Hollywood in terms of market share is only likely to evolve over a very significant time period. In a paper prepared for the 43rd Annual ISA Convention in 2002, Thomas Paris argues that in reality the aim is not to compete with the American majors at all, rather it is to resist the influx of American films whilst discovering a new modus operandi which gives consumers something else. After all, reproducing Hollywood in Europe would defy the traditions of European cinema and negate any point of difference.
In the meantime, Europe’s national film industries, notably the UK, France, and Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, benefit economically from the provision of services to Hollywood studios shooting big budget movies. This in turn ensures the film-making infrastructure is maintained along with a large pool of skills, which may come in handy for when the cinematographic resurgence does finally happen.