EU’s Pinheiro aims for practical policy

AMSTERDAM — Pity Joao de Deus Pinheiro. As Europe’s current audiovisual archduke, he’s doing his darnedest to rally the Euro forces to square up to the invading U.S. armies — but his troops can’t stop fighting among themselves.

Bickering, delays and behind-the-scenes skullduggery surround the latest European Union effort to restructure its film and TV industries — a 53-page “Green Paper” discussion document. The in-fighting suggests the Euros are nowhere near a consensus on how to regain some of the 80% of their box office receipts and 30% of their TV skeds that the U.S. accounts for.

The paper’s most radical suggestions for generating more coin for Euro producers — levies on cinema tickets, broadcasting revenues and video rentals — were being downplayed last week by an audiovisual chief clearly struggling to shape a workable policy out of discordant and conflicting proposals.

The levy idea is part of a “think-tank” contribution to the Green Paper by a group of top movie execs led by Portugal’s Antonio Pedro Vasconcelos and Britain’s David Puttnam.

The levy system would recycle revenue from across the various film, TV and video sectors to provide capital for future production investment. Such a system , similar to that already operating in France, would work in tandem with the proposed distribution structures.

Ivan Hodac, senior VP, Time Warner Europe, said the proposed levy would be impracticable to raise and distribute, and would be open to “abuse and distortion.” He wondered whether U.S. producers shooting in Europe would be eligible to benefit.

Another of the think-tank proposals has raised eyebrows even among ardent protectionists. The suggested creation of pan-European distribution consortia, to be supported by EU loans and private investment of up to $ 1.1 billion a year , was described as “ridiculously and hopelessly idealistic” by one Commission official. “The sum is far too high — and it extends the concept of subsidy-dependence, which has already dogged the European industry.”

Jean-Bernard Munch, secretary general of the European Broadcasting Union (a pubcaster lobby group), believes the basic premise of the Green Paper, to establish a “European” film industry,” probably won’t work.

“For cultural reasons, you cannot treat the film industry like the aviation industry and build a European Airbus.” He thinks the goal should be “making national films for consumption in national markets.”

The controversial Pinheiro told Variety that while the Vasconcelos/Puttnam report was “rich in analysis and suggestions,” he felt it “reflects the opinions of its authors and as such does not constitute an institutional document approved by the college of Commissioners.” Cut out the Euro-speak and that pretty much translates as, “It don’t mean a thing.”

Several sources within the Commission believe that Pinheiro is still smarting from negative publicity generated by an ill-advised intervention in the debate over the market clout of distrib United Intl. Pictures (Variety, March 6-12). Now in a conciliatory mood toward the U.S., Pinheiro took fright at the hard line adopted by the think-tank and is thus attempting to bury their suggestions.

Aside from the idea of the Europe-wide levy, the draft of the Green Paper offers few surprises and is short on concrete proposals. An EC audiovisual spokesman pointed out, “A final version still has to be approved by the commission — and it must be remembered that this is not a policy document. It is merely intended to provoke discussion.”

The draft version is structured as a series of rhetorical questions aimed at stimulating debate toward the creation of a “strong and competitive” production policy that will “guarantee real choice” and ensure “financial self-sufficiency.”

It says the European Union’s Television Without Frontiers directive, which enshrines the quota restrictions that so gall U.S. distributors, should be revised to promote greater investment in Euro production and better distribution of TV programs among EU nations.

While refusing to divulge details, Pinheiro told Variety the paper suggests a policy built around “three fundamental pillars: financial stimulation, a regulatory framework and the convergence of national systems.”

He hinted at the possibility of levies by saying that the remedy for Europe must involve “a unique form of financial engineering and investment.” The paper would be analyzed and discussed at a conference for “all interested parties,” now set for London in July.

A lot is riding on the Green Paper for Pinheiro, who sees it as his chance to stamp his name in Brussels before a likely return to national politics in Portugal.

But in the wake of his pronouncements on UIP — he erroneously suggested that the distributor accounts for some 80% of the Euro B.O., when the actual figure is closer to 20% — the commissioner has come under increasing criticism.

One leading public TV exec says, “He has no interest in audiovisual per se, as is shown by his tenuous grasp of the issues. Rather, he sees it as a stepping stone toward higher political office back in Portugal. If he does make a huge mess of it — and he will — he certainly won’t be around to clean it up.”

Adam Dawtrey in London and Andy Stern in Brussels contributed to this report.