Passport to prosperity

European films are still trying to expand their arthouse reputation

LONDON — Will worldwide audiences ever look to European cinema for anything beyond an occasional “art film” experience?

In recent years, Euro filmmakers have rediscovered the knack of pulling crowds in their own back yards. But for most, selling tickets or even getting released in other countries remains a distant dream. For every “Amelie” that travels around the globe, there are dozens of local hits that get stuck in the departure lounge without a visa. When it comes to the export market, Hollywood still has a virtual monopoly.

No one agrees on how to fix the problem of underperforming Eurofilm exports. Europeans find themselves constantly disagreeing on everything from war policies to trade tariffs to smoking regulations, so no one should be surprised there’s no consensus on how to best support an industry that is ablaze with creativity and aspiration but still struggling to break out of a very limiting industrial model.

In the past calendar year, only one Euro film, Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye, Lenin!” could be described as an unqualified pan-European hit; pic’s cume has reached $60 million — and it hasn’t bowed in the U.S. yet.

Its closest box office rival looks to be Danny Boyle’s sci-fi actioner “28 Days Later,” which grossed $26.8 million Europe-wide and ($45 million) in North America.

However, the DNA-produced pic is only half-European, given it was partly funded by Fox Searchlight. There’s a growing belief in some quarters that hitching a ride on Hollywood’s global superhighway offers the best hope for local filmmakers to escape their national ghettos.

The studios are certainly seeking to step up their engagement with European talent, but many Euros remain wary of the compromises that such a relationship demands.

But it’s clear that audiences are much harder to reach via the indie route. Trailing somewhere behind comes Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool,” with just $4.6 million, while Peter Mullan’s U.K.-produced “The Magdalene Sisters” has racked up more than $4 million across the EU.

According to the European Audiovisual Observatory, the market share of Euro-produced product repped an estimated 27% of total admissions in 2002, down from 2001’s 31% (the year of “Amelie”), but still better than 2000’s pallid 23%. The current year looks set for another dip in Euro fortunes.

“It’s been the same thing with the European film industry over the last 100 years,” observes Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick. “Sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down.”

Kosslick observes that Euro hits are almost impossible to predict. When “Goodbye, Lenin!” screened to amiable reviews at this year’s Berlin fest, no-one was suggesting that it had the makings of a cross-border blockbuster.

Ask the mandarins of the Euro film scene about their views on these ups and downs, and the reaction ranges from sagacious shrugging to cautious optimism.

“In general, the cross-border problem is now a subject all European countries are very aware of,” notes Kosslick. “But if I think back to 1986, when we started this pan-European audiovisual initiative like EFDO — European Film Distribution Office, the first (EU) Media program – you cannot imagine how isolated these countries had been from each other. This is now all gone after 20 years and now I think we have a pan-European network, a kind pan-European film industry because people are working very close to each other.”

This view finds favor with Swedish writer-director Anders Nilsson, who has hit paydirt in his home territory with police thrillers “Zero Tolerance,” “Executive Protection” and his latest, “The Third Wave.”

“The biggest change is that writers and directors and producers all collaborate more and work as teams,” says Nilsson, who describes himself as “basically very hopeful” about the future of European cinema.

“It’s an exciting time,” says Nilsson. “They (Eurofilm creative teams) aren’t just making films for themselves and their mothers to see, but they’re interested in what has worked for audiences, while also making films that they still really want to make.”Nilsson is unfazed by the current lack of export successes, noting that ” ‘The Third Wave’ just experienced great European sales.” In his view, the films that have the best chance for breaking out of their domestic boxes fall neatly into two categories: “thrillers and comedies.” But that doesn’t mean European filmmakers should strive for the generic at the expense of the specific. “Films with a very specific topic can break out. If the Russians made a film that told what really happened in Russia during WWII or the Cold War, for example, there could be an audience simply because of curiosity about things that Europeans really want to know about.”

That, of course, pretty much describes the success of “Goodbye, Lenin!,” a high-concept comedy about the experience of German reunification from the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall.

Indeed, many Eurowatchers note that the more local flavor a film has, the better for its international prospects.

“My impression regarding co-productions is that it’s fine if the money comes from different countries, but the more the subject is local and rooted in regional culture, the more it becomes international,” says Venice topper Moritz de Hadeln.

“The problem we are facing in Europe is that American cinema has got people very geared on stars, and we somehow lack stars. It’s not a question of a lack of talent, it’s a lack of marketing. Essentially the problem is all one of marketing.”

Many mavens anticipate that the next big thing will be co-distribution, already showing signs of growth with new companies such as Indie Circle, a pan-European acquisition and distribution venture comprising five partner companies — Cineart (Belgium), Haut et Court (France), Lucky Red (Italy), A Film (the Netherlands) and Frenetic Films (Switzerland) – which launched earlier this year.

Circle’s first acquisitions are Cannes-hit “Osama” and the Spanish domestic violence-themed “Take My Eyes,” which premiered at San Sebastian and has been chosen for the World Cinema sidebar at Sundance 2004.

Indie Circle topper Christophe Mercier says, “The scripts are starting to come in now because people are beginning to understand that there is a value in co-marketing and co-distributing a movie among a Pan-European group. It’s a question of deciding what we are doing and how to achieve it a different way and now the marketing teams are starting to work together already for ‘Osama.’ We have a European tour scheduled for the director, Siddiq Barmak, which cuts costs for the P&A for all five, so there’s your first recoupment.”

The U.K. Film Council’s New Cinema Fund head Paul Tribjits sees co-distribution as vital if European cinema is going to lift itself from stasis. “Where Europe has failed collectively is that we’ve done an awfully lot of stuff purely on co-productions and that’s not enough any more,” he says. “If you co-produce you need to co-distribute. Funding organizations and the Media Program need to embrace that much more, because it’s not enough to give someone money to co-produce a film, they need support and all sorts of other tools, possibly even tax incentives that stimulate co-distribution.”

One reason “Good Bye, Lenin!” has done so well so far in the UK ($1.7 million) is that its distributor, UGC Films U.K., could tap funding for P&A from the U.K. Film Council. UGC exec Louisa Dent explains that even though they had to pay the money back after they went into profit, the cash “provided an insurance.

The problem with U.K. distribution is that P&A is very expensive and risky, so money from the U.K. Film Council and the Media Program is worth taking the time to apply for as it means if a film doesn’t work you don’t lose. We were able to put substantial P&A behind ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’ without going mad, including running a big poster campaign. And in the end, we were able to do a longer campaign to build word of mouth.”

The recurrent refrain heard from nearly every industry watcher, ironically from the quintessentially American pic “Field of Dreams,” is that if you build it, they will come. But such a construction project requires the kind of co-operation and common purpose that Europe, a continent whose creative vibrancy derives from a thousand years of conflict, is only starting to learn.

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