European cinema sinking fast

National film industries on the rise

BERLIN — European cinema is falling apart. In its place, national European film industries are gaining in strength.

Despite the rise of European co-productions, and despite European film subsidy programs such as Eurimage or Media, there’s no such place as Eurowood.

Over the last 10 years, European filmmakers have mastered the art of putting together complicated co-productions, sourcing money from various member states of the European Union, making use of local subsidies and investment arrangements.

But while economically the European Union is providing a sound infrastructure for film finance, culturally its member states are drifting apart. Probably as a reaction against globalizing economic patterns, European consumers as much as European filmmakers are tribalizing. Whereas in the great days of European cinema there were pan-European stars such as Alain Delon, Liv Ullmann, Romy Schneider, Marcello Mastroianni or Louis de Funes, there are now few European names that mean anything to mainstream auds outside their country of origin. It’s either global or local celebs who draw in the crowds.

As far as filmmakers are concerned, this is not just a zeitgeist trend; it also makes economic and creative sense.

“Authenticity sells,” Hungarian producer Andras Hamori says. “Whether it’s the voice of a strong local auteur or an original storyline that’s unique to a region, it is the only element that has a chance to win some audience against the star power. If 70% of your market is taken up by American films with big Hollywood names, there’s no point in trying to make lowest-common-denominator films, because Hollywood does that so much better than us.

“Nobody wants bland Europuddings spiced with Hollywood B-names. Authenticity is what makes you stand out.”

In addition, local subsidy programs such as the newly introduced German production fund have meant that national film industries are being given a huge push. As the now-abandoned sale-and-leaseback scheme in the U.K. had illustrated, the arrival of U.S. runaway productions can give local filmmakers a significant boost. Not only do they bring American know-how, they also get people working and give them routine and self-confidence.

“If there’s one single element that accounts for the current creative boom in Germany, it’s self-confidence,” says Thorsten Schumacher, director of sales & distribution at London-based Hanway Films. “They’re no longer so concerned with political correctness; they dare to step on people’s toes and be bold in their storytelling.”

With four foreign-language Oscar nominations in five years and of those two wins, Germany is certainly the European buzz nation of the moment, taking the torch from Denmark and the U.K.

And whereas German films had a tough time at film markets, they’re now starting to sell internationally.

“German film has become more presentable internationally, especially historical or political stories. However, for our German-language productions, the local market is key, and that’s how we make our calculations,” explains Constantin Films production topper Martin Moszkowicz.

In comparison, British films have traditionally tended to be an easier sell. However, as Pathe U.K.’s topper Cameron McCracken points out: “The pre-sale market remains extremely tough; with rare exceptions, you need a star — whether that’s the property, the actor or the director — before international buyers will pay attention.”

Whereas the U.S. used to be crucial in the presale market, and having a U.S. distribution deal could make or break a movie, the U.S. is waning in importance for European filmmakers.

There are a handful of European players, such as Pathe, Constantin, Medusa, Antennas Tres and StudioCanal, that are able to stem budgets north of $50 million without having a U.S. studio onboard. For example, Pathe raised approximately $100 million for the upcoming “Asterix at the Olympic Games” through European co-production partners, subsidies and TV deals.

But while a U.S. deal might no longer be vital for the financing of a film, the U.S. market is far too big to be ignored. European filmmakers don’t need the U.S., but there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t want it. To do well in the U.S. immediately translates into industry recognition.

“Why do you think Pedro Almodovar is the biggest — if not the only — internationally known Spanish director? Because he’s recognized in the U.S.,” says one exec.

There are also signs, such as the American success of German Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” that U.S. auds are building up an appetite for foreign-language pics.

However, the economic and cultural realities of Europe mean that for filmmakers, it’s all about being a local hero rather than an international champion. And for the time being, European filmmakers have a number of reasons to be cheerful.

“We are a lot more optimistic than we were 10 years ago. The only worry is that the bureaucracy of the European Union is getting out of control — that is the case with Eurimage and Media and other voices in Brussels that want to curb national subsidy programs, which strengthen national film industries, because they see it as being against the European spirit,” Moszkowicz says.

“This is counterproductive, because a strong European cinema can only be the sum of strong national film industries.”