H’wood battles local heroes

Indigenous filmmakers learning to play by commercial rules

LONDON — Was 2001 a freak year, or should Hollywood start freaking out?

Last year, foreign rentals for the majors dropped 7% to $2.2 billion.

In Europe alone, the market share for American movies fell from 73% to 65%. Meanwhile, local hits such as France’s “Amelie” and Germany’s “Manitou’s Shoe” drove the hometown tally up from 15% to 26%.

It was the same story in the Far East. Local movies performed strongly from Thailand to Japan, and best of all in Korea, where such is the upsurge of homegrown movies that the U.S. majors are struggling even to get their pics onto screens.

This is great news for local filmmakers, but not so good for American producers. The “problem” is that indigenous filmmakers are learning to play by Hollywood rules.

“Local producers in Europe are making more commercial films,” says Stewart Till, president of Signpost Films and vice chair of the Film Council. “Everyone gets the worldwide picture now. They’ve caught the knack of making films with the audience in mind, not films they want to impose on the audience.”

Also contributing to the power shift is the fact that indie distribs, burned by backing too many big-budget American flops, are diverting some of their coin into local filmmaking instead. Even the Hollywood studios, with their feral instinct for self-protection, are investing in local projects.

Perception can be as important as reality. If the successes of 2001 persuade distribs and exhibs that local movies are worth supporting, that alone means the trend is more likely to continue.

“If distributors are getting involved in production, that’s got to be a good thing,” opines Simon Franks, chief exec of U.K. indie Helkon SK, which backed “Bend It Like Beckham” and is gearing up its production activities, investing an annual seven-figure sum in development. “When a distributor gets involved, that massively improves the commercial potential of a film.”

There’s certainly a sense in Europe of a profound generational shift toward a more populist sensibility among filmmakers, producers and even subsidy funds.

Standard bearers of this new movement include Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp in France, Peter Possne’s Sonet in Sweden, Peter Aalbeck Jensen’s Zentropa in Denmark, Bernd Eichinger’s Constantin Film in Germany, San Fu Maltha’s A-Film in Holland, Fernando Bovaira’s Sogecine in Spain and public bodies such as the Nordrhein Westfalen Filmstiftung and the U.K.’s Film Council.

Nonetheless, progress continues to be painfully slow. After the breakthroughs of 2001, the current year has been quiet for local pics. And TV troubles (Kirch, Canal Plus, Channel 4, etc.) are undermining the Euro film-financing model. Just now, most Euro film producers don’t feel like they are in the midst of an upswing. But the ups and downs of box office waves can obscure deeper tides.

“The younger players are coming up, and the older generation has dried up. They were making films more as a political thing than an industrial thing, and audiences had more than enough of that,” says Norwegian producer Dag Alveberg. Alveberg made last year’s local record-breaker “Elling,” a heartwarming comedy that he describes as “not art, but a very simply made film. I wanted to make a movie that people would go to see.”

Veteran Brit producer Nik Powell, who chairs the European Film Academy, says, “There have always been very commercially aware film producers in Europe, even if they pretended not to be. But now there’s a much broader-based production community, in terms of money and positioning their films, even if they still rely on producing local hits.”

Thinking local is the key for this new generation of commercial pragmatists. Few are attempting to mount ambitiously budgeted international blockbusters — with the pre-sales market in its current dreadful state, that’s almost impossible anyway.

Most are concentrating on low-budget fare for their home audience. Films such as “Elling,” Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham,” Lukas Moodysson’s “Together” or even Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” could not be more culturally specific. They are not constructed to sell abroad — but they do so if they strike a chord at home. The majority, of course, do neither, but a few break through.

Feel-good is in; doom and gloom are out of fashion. Yet these films also show how that can be achieved without compromising the traditional artistic values of European cinema, with its emphasis on the personal and the authentic.

Take Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room.” The subject might be the death of a child, but there’s poignant naturalistic comedy throughout. The film sold more than 2 million tickets across Europe, putting it in the top 20 local movies of the year.

There’s also a growing willingness to explore genre fare: teen pics, kids movies, thrillers and horror pics, such as Spanish hit “The Others.”

“People go to the cinema to be entertained, not enlightened or educated,” says Robert Jones, head of the Film Council’s Premiere Fund. That’s hardly a radical insight, but it’s one that has only recently started to penetrate into the mainstream of Europe’s filmmaking.

“For a long time, it was either culture or commerce. It’s much more recent that people are saying it can be both,” argues Jones. “But even if everyone today said, ‘Let’s make popular films,’ it would take a number of years to have that effect. The skills required to make that kind of film are not widespread here yet. But at least people are saying yes, let’s learn how to do it.”

Some sales agents complain they can’t sell their big-budget American movies because local distribs, whose fondest wish was previously to pre-buy a Hollywood blockbuster, are diverting their resources into their own films instead.

Other sellers frankly (though off the record) admit it’s really the other way around: It’s their own failure to deliver hit U.S. movies over the past couple of years that is forcing distribs to resort to local films.

Foreign distribs have sucked up a lot of pain from flops such as “We Were Soldiers,” “Ali,” “U-571,” “Family Man,” “Spy Game,” “The Mothman Prophecies” and “K-Pax.” Lucky New Line distribs hit the jackpot with “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Blade 2” and, of course, overseas distribs aren’t turning away from Hollywood entirely. Snapping up the best U.S. fare is still a top priority, because American pics are still the major chunk of the market.

However, “Certain Spanish distribs, such as Lauren and Tripictures, are going into local production when they haven’t before,” says one sales agent. “It’s not because they think Spanish films are so great, but because American films aren’t working, and because local TV quotas are encouraging them.”

“I have definitely, definitely found distributors saying, why should I give you a $5 million advance when I could make my own film for the same money, and own it in perpetuity?” asks a 20-year veteran of the foreign sales scene.

“If I’m going to spend a million dollars, I’d rather spend a million in my backyard where I can see the rushes and influence the casting, rather than wait 15 months for some celluloid over which I have no control,” says a distrib.

Such attitudes aren’t good news for those major studios that rely heavily on split-rights deals (notably Paramount and MGM), or for their mini-major satellites. In the past year, many international distribs resisted fare from Hollywood’s table that they felt was overpriced, such as “Windtalkers,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Hart’s War” and “Bandits.”

On the other hand, several Hollywood majors — notably Sony, Warner, Buena Vista and Universal — are moving into the production and acquisition of local films.

Indeed, a significant number of the local hits that ate away at the market share of U.S.-made movies in 2001 were actually released (and in some cases financed) by the studios.

Biggest example was “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” produced by U’s London-based powerhouse Working Title, long an exemplar of Euro populism (also responsible for “Ali G Indahouse” and “About
a Boy”). There was also “Elling,” handled by UIP in Scandinavia, and “The Little Polar Bear” in Germany, co-produced by Warner.

In fact, most studio chiefs see local pics less as a threat than as a business opportunity. “A healthy market has healthy local films,” says UIP president Andrew Cripps.

The multiplex chains, at last, also seem to be waking up to that view. After spending a decade building neon temples for the worship of Hollywood blockbusters, a couple of rocky years made them realize American films alone cannot be relied upon to deliver the kind of admission growth they need to cover their costs. Exhibs such as UGC and UCI are experimenting with creating new environments for Euro and indie films.

Charles Wesoky pioneered the introduction of the American-style multiplex to Europe in the mid-1980s. But his new company — which is expanding in Greece, Switzerland and Italy — is named, significantly, Europlex. “The focus now has to be on quality indigenous films to mix in with Hollywood films,” he says. “We have seen, in the past couple of years, how films like ‘Amelie’ and ‘The Brotherhood of the Wolf’ have had a big impact on audiences in our cinemas.”

He is consciously designing his theaters as a natural home for European movies. “We’ve scaled down a lot of the flash in the typical U.S. design. It’s a much more European design, so that it blends with the local culture.”

The situation, however, is far from hopeless for Hollywood. Box office behemoths this year such as “Monsters, Inc.,” “Star Wars, Episode II — Attack of the Clones” and “Spider-Man” have emphatically reasserted the majors’ droit de seigneur over the affections of European moviegoers. Only Britain has produced a local hit of any consequence.

Hollywood also finds consolation in the fact that rentals in 2001 were affected by factors such as currency fluctuations. Longer-term stats also offer some reassurance to Hollywood. From 1992 to 2000, admissions to Euro movies in Europe grew by a healthy 33%, but American movies advanced by 44% in the same period, which illustrates that all sides can benefit from a rising market. Over the past five years, the market share of American movies has bounced from 72% to 66% to 74% to 69% to 73% and back down to last year’s 65%. There’s no clear pattern there.

No one in Europe, not even in France, seriously imagines local movies will ever establish dominance over Hollywood fare, as they have — for the moment at least — in Korea. “People want to see $100 million movies, and there’s only one place that makes those,” Helkon’s Franks says. But with Hollywood focusing increasingly on franchise pics, there is hope that Euro producers will at least be able to give them a run for their money in the vacant spaces further down the budget scale.

(John Hopewell in Madrid, Ed Meza in Berlin, Marlene Edmunds in Amsterdam, Jorn Rossing Jensen in Copenhagen, Andrea Vaucher in Paris, Melanie Goodfellow in Brussels and Cathy Meils in Prague contributed to this article.)

More Film

  • 'Private Life' Review: Giamatti and Hahn

    Sundance Film Review: 'Private Life'

    LONDON — Was 2001 a freak year, or should Hollywood start freaking out? Last year, foreign rentals for the majors dropped 7% to $2.2 billion. In Europe alone, the market share for American movies fell from 73% to 65%. Meanwhile, local hits such as France’s “Amelie” and Germany’s “Manitou’s Shoe” drove the hometown tally up […]

  • China Box Office: Aamir Khan’s ‘Secret

    Aamir Khan’s ‘Secret Superstar’ Poised to Top China Box Office

    LONDON — Was 2001 a freak year, or should Hollywood start freaking out? Last year, foreign rentals for the majors dropped 7% to $2.2 billion. In Europe alone, the market share for American movies fell from 73% to 65%. Meanwhile, local hits such as France’s “Amelie” and Germany’s “Manitou’s Shoe” drove the hometown tally up […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content