Hey Nineteen: Nearly two decades in, EFAs still tweaking the mix of showbiz & glamour

MUNICH — Europe is an intricate patchwork of histories, cultures and languages constantly threatening to burst at the seams. Consequently, the European film biz must cater to a much more fragmented and contentious audience than Hollywood.

When the European Film Academy launched its annual awards show in 1988, the idea was not to create a European Oscar, but to celebrate the plurality of European filmmaking and to provide a platform for the great diversity of European talent and storytelling.

However, Europe’s biggest asset also has proved to be the Euro academy’s biggest hurdle. Whereas the Oscars have become a worldwide brand, the European Film Awards — faced with the virtually impossible task of unifying a community of staunch individualists — have struggled to find their own identity. There’s the antiglamour brigade, the Euro-skeptics and those who think red-carpet awards are a waste of money, dismissing the idea as a sycophantic bow to commercial cinema.

“The challenges we face are the same as the integration of Europe, which has been a rough ride,” observes Nik Powell, deputy chairman of the Berlin-based European Film Academy, which organizes the event. “Economic integration and cultural diversity are two forces that pull in opposite directions.”

Indeed, even though Europe is merging economically, creatively the European cinema cultures are drifting apart. Twenty-five years ago, there was plenty of traffic between the central European territories — especially Germany, France, Italy and Sweden — and movies by European helmers such as Bergman, Fellini, Visconti, Leone, Wenders, Herzog, Truffaut and Melville were watched all over Europe. Nowadays, the number of pics that reach auds outside their country of origin is depressingly small.

The aim of the EFAs is to counter that trend. Until now they’ve failed to do so, partly because, as Powell admits, over the years the European Film Academy took many U-turns in deciding what the awards should be about, what kind of films they should celebrate, even the look and feel of the show. To give only one example, until 1998, the award statue was a somewhat disheveled-looking man called Felix, who then underwent a sex-change and was reborn as a smooth, nameless woman.

Even EFA nominees aren’t quite sure how to interpret the honor.

“They’re really pretty young, so people don’t know what they mean,” says “The Lives of Others” director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose pic is up for six prizes. “In a way we’re still building a European cultural identity. I was happy about the nominations. They are judged by elite professionals across Europe, so if the nominations mean that these people in all of these countries were touched by the film, that’s good.”

“The EFAs have reached a point of maturity,” insists Powell, who’s excited that for the first time the event will be held in Warsaw, in the new EU member state of Poland.

EFA topper Marion Doring, who’s been working on the awards since their inception, adds, “They are well established now and a highlight in the annual calendar of the European film industry. And there’s a real sense of family when the academy members meet each year for the awards show.”

Doring is proud that the ceremony — now being produced by the European Film Academy itself after a stint the London-based praisery-turned-TV-producer Dennis Davidson Associates — will be broadcast in 37 territories this year. (By comparison, only 18 carried the show in 2004.) “In the end we hope to achieve something like the Eurovision Song Contest, but it’s still a long way to go until then.”

That’s a lofty goal: Whereas the Eurovision Song Contest is unashamedly populist, the EFAs’ core audience is not with the broad terrestrial channels. “Basically it’s a more educated audience that has an interest outside the mainstream,” Doring opines. “The EFAs are a filmmaker-led rather than a star- or glamour-led show. That’s what makes them different from other awards.”

Recent nominations clearly reflect artistic achievement over commercial success. For example, Joe Wright’s popular “Pride & Prejudice” adaptation was nominated only in below-the-line categories (score and cinematography), which raises the question of whether the EFAs are intended as the European arthouse awards. Nobody wants the European box office awards, but critics say a successful run shouldn’t render a pic ineligible either.

A filmmaker-led show also should try to keep the filmmakers happy. Last year, Veit Heiduschka, producer of best pic winner “Cache,” was rather miffed that while the pic’s helmer, Michael Haneke, received VIP treatment, Heiduschka was neither allowed on the red carpet nor called onstage to share the award. Also, he and his French co-producer had to pay for an EFA statuette for their production designer when there weren’t enough trophies to go around.

“It was pathetic!” Heiduschka remembers. “Getting a film off the ground in Europe is pretty tough, and I don’t understand why the EFAs don’t recognize that and give the producer at least some visibility.”

Obviously, EFA can’t keep everybody in its large and often dysfunctional European family happy. Yet, as the show approaches its 20th year, many questions surrounding its identity and goal of reaching a wide TV audience remain unanswered.

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