Pity the poor European producer.
If it seems tough these days for your average Hollywood movie producer to get a project past the agents and studio executives and gatekeepers of development hell and into actual production, just consider what it takes to get a film made and distributed in 1990s Europe.
It’s almost impossible to raise enough financing from one source to complete a project. Unlike Hollywood, where a major studio normally covers the full cost of developing, producing and distributing a film – a form of one-stop shopping, you might say – European financing is typically a patchwork of script development grants, government subsidies, territorial presales and some money from a European distributor (or two or three).
A remarkably informative financing seminar last week at the Berlin Film Festival, organized by the Euro Aim branch of the European Union’s Media Program, spelled out what it takes to do business in this semi-dysfunctional system.
The $30 million budget for “Farinelli: II Castrato,” just nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, was mostly raised in $1 million to $2 million chunks from a staggering group of entities.
Variety’s review described the production thusly: “A Bac Films release (France) of a Vera Belmont presentation of a Stephan Films, Alinea Films, UGC Images, Studio Canal Plus, France 2 Cinema, Studio Images (Paris)/K2 Prods., RTL, TVI production, with aid from the Government of French-Speaking Belgium, MG, Italian Intl. Film and Filmstiftung NRW and participation of Canal Plus, CNC and Procirep. (International sales: UGC Intl. Paris.)” Got that?
It’s as if a Hollywood producer had to persuade not one but half a dozen studios to back his project – and the studios were located in half a dozen separate cities, and the executives at these studios spoke half a dozen separate languages.
Even the financing for the modestly budgeted ($2.5 million) “Before the Rain,” Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski’s Oscar-nominated drama set in an imaginary Balkan conflict, was not so simple.
The process began in 1992, when Manchevski, who lives in New York, approached the London-based subsidy organization British Screen Finance with an outline for the film. British Screen chief executive Simon Perry and his colleagues liked the idea and gave the director a bit of money to write a full script, which was completed just a few weeks later. As Perry explains it, they then invited Manchevski to London and introduced him to possible producers. The director eventually settled on Aim Prods, of London, with co-producers Vardar Film of Paris, and they began to raise the financing.
British Screen provided about 65% of the budget, and the Macedonian Ministry of Culture, of all unlikely sources, chipped in about 10%. The balance came from Noe Prods., a unit of Polygram France.
Setting aside the obvious difficulties of shooting much of the film in present-day Macedonia, “Before the Rain” faced more challenges in distribution. Separate companies – each with its own notions about advertising and promotion strategies – handled distribution in separate countries. The Italian ad campaign, for example, emphasized the film’s romantic elements, while the French campaign was more hard-edged.
The film opened strongly in Italy, boosted by good reviews and winning the Golden Lion and nine other awards at the Venice Film Festival, while it failed in France, on mixed reviews. Supporting the theatrical release of the film in several European countries was Efdo, another branch of the EU’s Media Program, to the tune of nearly $300,000 last year in five countries.
With such Byzantine financial arrangements, it’s a wonder that European films get made and shown at all. And given the sometimes political or bureaucratic agendas of so many of the decision-makers, it’s even more of a wonder that the European industry each year manages to produce a number of good films with strongly developed esthetic points of view.
The subsidy organizations, after all, are spending taxpayer money, and their goals have as much to do with creating jobs in their home territory as with creating great films. British Screen’s Perry admits that state co-financing sometimes “can corrupt the creative process,” but he also believes that the Europeans “are swiftly growing out of that.”
The role of British Screen, he argues, is not so much to provide “purely economic stimulus” through short-term job creation as to strengthen the infrastructure of t he British film industry. “Our concern is to invest risk money in good, high-profile projects,” he says, so “Britain is seen as a place where interesting ideas originate.”
Looking at this year’s Oscar nominations, one can see that the strategy may be starting to work. The subsidized “Four Weddings and a Funeral” received nominations for best picture and original screenplay; “Farinelli, ” “Before the Rain” and “Burnt by the Sun” are strong European nominees for foreign-language film, against one Asian and one Latin American nominee; and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Red” got nods for direction and original screenplay.
Not bad for a semi-dysfunctional system.