Which film are Colombian film aficionados raving about at the moment? Flores Salvajes [Wild Flowers], by the Czech director F.A. Brabec, is the answer - although that’s probably news to most Europeans. Nonetheless, the film showing at the Colombian festival of Eurocine 2004, which is on right now as is the Cannes film festival (12-23 May), proves that European cinema can also be popular outside Europe. Now in its tenth year, Eurocine hopes to attract an audience of 75,000, making a grand total of 400,000 spectators recorded since it was dreamt up.
That’s quite some success but it’s a rarity as far as the distribution of European films outside Europe goes. The lack of a real European distribution set-up, the Hollywood steamroller and the self-satisfied attitude of continental cinema are the rule. The Third Exhibition of European Cinema in La Paz (Bolivia), for example, attracted a paltry 5,521 spectators in 2002. European cinema does have a potential market in Latin America although it is often left untapped due to the internal squabbling which is a feature of the EU – in the film world too.
Battling for national interests
South America is a battlefield for European national interests. For obvious reasons of language and culture Spanish cinema is the main beneficiary of Latin American viewers. To consolidate this intercultural dialogue, the Iberoamerican summit of Heads of State and Government in Isla Margarita (Venezuela) in 1997 underscored the beginning of the Ibermedia programme. The participants are: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Uruguay and Venezuela. The Ibermedia programme promotes co-productions between these countries, thereby facilitating the distribution of the films.
Other European countries, such as France and Italy, have tried to take part in the Ibermedia programme but Spain has vetoed them in a display of ‘Europeanness’, because including them “would betray the Iberoamerican spirit of Ibermedia”.
Enemies within the Ibermedia programme just as they were in the Napoleonic era, France and Spain are working hand in hand on other initiatives. European Cinema Centre is a company promoted by the Spanish Ministry of Culture’s Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts and UniFrance Film International of France, to have its productions distributed beyond its borders. The Spain and France Preview series in November 2003 in Buenos Aires is a good example of what it does.
Powerless against Hollywood
But the incongruous absence of a real European distributor means that European cinema cannot go toe to toe with the Hollywood film conveyor belt. The figures are spectacular if we look at the US. 70% of films shown in European cinemas are American, as against the derisory 3% of European films in the US. The culture (or ‘anti-culture’) of dubbing has a lot to do with this. US popcorn-poppers are not big on subtitles and this makes it difficult to distribute European films. In addition, US advertising campaigns and the less advanced European media are like chalk and cheese. Woody Allen, one of the few US consumers of European cinema, made that clear at the Principe de Asturias prize ceremony: “In Hollywood more money is spent on advertising for a film than Bunuel spent in his lifetime”. And, if that weren’t enough, the US are cunningly getting round [EU rules on] screen quotas (to show a foreign film, you need to have shown a certain number of European films) by filming movies in Europe and thereby ensuring that they are classified as European films. “The Others” with Nicole Kidman, and filmed in Northern Spain, is a good example of this.
To stand up to the cultural imperialism of the US, Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Education and Culture, and the EU’s 25 culture ministers are taking advantage of Cannes to seek an increase of 40% in the Community budget for the Media programme. If they do gain the extra funding, they should not make the mistake of squandering it by cutting Europe off even more than is currently the case.
The EU must expose, not impose, its culture, and to do so the protectionist attitude within its borders is not enough. The best defence is a good attack. English and Spanish productions can easily penetrate the US market for language reasons, and are ice-breakers for the rest of European cinema. But for that to happen, culture ministers will first of all have to win over their financial counterparts and gain an increase in their budgets. It’s also very important that Europe leads by example. The EU complains about the US blockading European cinema, but the borders of our continent are not exactly open to other cinemas. With the exception of US, Canadian, Australian and Japanese films, European cinemas are more closed to the rest of the world moviemaking industry than US cinema is towards European films.
Educating the public, getting it used to other types of cinema (Egyptian, Indian etc) is beneficial for the success of European cinema, of proven quality. Until the spectator gets used to different types of cinema language from that of Hollywood, we will continue to listen, as in the trailer of the Spanish film The other side of the bed: “No, although European cinema is good, show me a really, really good film…”