Notes from Karlovy Vary

Hollywood's business model affecting Europe

LONDON — Hollywood has figured out a New World Order — one that works for the big studios. Filmmakers from the rest of the world, however, are dubious whether it works for them.

Over the past two weeks, I found myself wedged into the center of Europe, where this love-hate relationship has been bruisingly apparent. Presiding over a jury at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, I had abundant opportunity to talk with diverse filmmakers from around Europe and learn about their hopes and apprehensions.

Karlovy Vary is a quaintly picturesque spa town in Western Bohemia. Its festival attracts young film fans from around Europe while its robust economy lures big bucks from Russia — money being lavished on new hotels and spas.

Talk to filmmakers who come to the fest to show their wares, and you find yourself grappling with three persistent questions:

  • Hollywood’s new business model of mega-sequels, partially financed by hedge funds, has clearly reinforced U.S. dominance at the world box office, but where does this leave the Euros? There’s no way Europe’s auteur-driven cinema, with its modest government subsidies, can compete on a marketing level with Hollywood’s mighty film fusillades. Should local filmmakers even try to compete, or further turn inward?

  • While American blockbusters own the world, Europe’s subtitled films occupy an ever smaller share of the U.S. market. Filmmakers abroad wonder why U.S. audiences don’t react against the tyranny of the tentpoles by rallying around auteur offerings.

  • European filmmakers (particularly Brits) once were welcomed into the Hollywood directing fraternity (indeed, actively recruited), but today these opportunities seem to be shutting down. While Euro filmmakers are increasingly intimidated by studio budgets and bureaucracies, some would love to try their hand in shaping Hollywood product, but feel the invitations have disappeared.

The upshot: European filmmakers understand more than ever that Hollywood is on to something, but they are wary about its impact on them.

Spend a couple of weeks viewing new films from around Europe and these contrasts become readily apparent. Studio movies are about story, European films about sensibility. Hollywood movies assault audiences, while Euro films assuage them. Euro directors reject the notion of script development because there’s often no script.

The results can be dreary or enriching. In one film at Karlovy Vary, oddly titled “The Art of Negative Thinking,” a Norwegian filmmaker, Bard Breien, confronts his audience with a group of angry, thoroughly hostile cripples and, incredibly, comes away with a hilarious and courageous comedy. A comedy about cripples? That would float well at a studio.

Breien had 20 days to shoot his film and 12 weeks to edit. He was grateful for his modest subsidy. I asked him if he would relish Hollywood’s more generous budgets, and he said, “Sure — but would they let me make my films?”

Probably not. But, to be sure, the studios have each set up divisions to finance and distribute specialty films that would take on more daring subjects. Some, it might be hoped, would even reach out to Euro talent.

But the story of this summer is all about tentpoles and their remarkable track record. The bankers and distributors writing the checks for European cinema stand in awe of “the terrible threes” — “Shrek 3,” “Pirates 3” and “Spider-Man 3” — and the dominance they have established across Europe. Clearly Hollywood has built an effective assembly line for its big-budget films, which, despite their dizzying costs, turn out a dependable 12% to 15% return on investment for studios and their financing partners. The risks would seem to have moderated, the returns seem vastly more reliable.

Europe may relish its opportunities to create a “Negative Thinking,” but Hollywood likes to think positive. The cultural gap, meanwhile, continues to widen.

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