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SAYLOR

U.S., European Filmmakers Find Mutual Concerns

May 24, 1996|MARK SAYLOR

CANNES, France — Claire de Trafani is the reason that European and American filmmakers and distributors hold long, heated meetings each year during the international film festival here, hashing out what kind of a role governments should play in the film business.

Trafani, a 21-year-old Cannes resident, prefers American films to French ones.

"Since the first time I saw 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' I've been a big American film fan," she said during the festival, which ended Monday. "Young French people are pulled to American films because we are attracted to and influenced by life in the U.S."

Trafani reflects a fact of life in Europe that is particularly painful to filmmakers in France, which has the largest European film industry: Most box office receipts are snapped up by those major-studio blockbusters that have made movies the No. 2 export from the U.S., after airplanes.

U.S. films take in 80% of the theatrical box office in many European markets. More than half the revenues coming to U.S. independent filmmakers now come from Europe.

"How would you feel if all your children watched were French films?" a French film executive asked a reporter inquiring about French support for quotas on television.

A few years ago, the debate about what some Europeans perceived as cultural imperialism by the U.S. movie industry became particularly nasty. The European Union adopted rules that at least half of what appears on European television channels should be produced in Europe.

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But the discussions during the Cannes International Film Festival had a different tone. There is more talk of cooperation, of joint ventures and common concerns such as piracy, protection of copyrights in a digital environment and the V-chip, which European producers expect to become a fact of life on both sides of the Atlantic.

"There's no longer a sense that quota provisions will be toughened," said Jonas Rosenfield, president of the Los Angeles-based American Film Marketing Assn., after a meeting of more than 30 film producers and distributors from the United States and Europe.

The tensions have eased in part because European-produced television programming in many cases is proving more popular than U.S. television programming, particularly in prime time.

And the proliferation of channels expected with digital technologies is likely to render quotas impractical.

But there also is a consensus developing among European filmmakers that the growing international market for films will provide greater opportunities not only for the major American studios, but also for European producers. The best way to battle the U.S. scourge, they believe, is to compete internationally, including the domestic U.S. market.

"The fight is over because everybody needs more films," said producer Toscan du Plantier, president of Unafrance, the national motion picture trade association.

But can European filmmakers make international blockbusters?

Colette Flesch, director general of the European commission that regulates the film industry, ticks off the many reasons U.S. studios have the advantage:

* The U.S. has a large home market.

* Because the U.S. has regional differences, studio films have to be made in a way that appeals to a variety of consumers. Flesch believes U.S. filmmakers, for example, have a longer tradition of telling stories visually, with language being less important to understanding plot.

* English has become the world language of film.

* And, perhaps most important, Flesch argues, the United States has treated film as an industry more than an art. The studios are financially engineered to market and distribute films internationally and are vertically integrated. The studios often control the movie from the assignment of a writer to the exhibition in a theater.

One result is that U.S. studio films can start with much larger budgets than European films, which often depend solely on smaller national markets.

Flesch attended Cannes as she does every year to meet with film producers and distributors. She even saw one of the films in competition, "Comment Je Me Suis Dispute," a three-hour film panned by critics for being self-indulgent. It's "not the kind of film that will make us competitive internationally," Flesch said.

Increasingly, she said, the European goal is to restructure the film industries so they can become more competitive internationally. There are various European Union initiatives to encourage such a change, including training and development programs and a financial pool for production money.

*

American producers are comfortable with those plans, so long as they don't include more restrictions on what they can sell in Europe.

Rosenfield, whose organization represents American independent filmmakers, believes that the recent discussions are "a big leap forward" because they've passed beyond the debate between "culture versus commercialism."

Rosenfield contends that even as European films have become more commercial, American independent filmmaking has been going through a renaissance and is becoming more artistic.

Jack Valenti, who represents the major studios as chief of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, believes the Europeans are on the right track.

"There's a natural constituency for European films--the European Union," said Valenti, who also came to Cannes last week to join "the greatest watering hole of the cinema world."

Asked whether Europeans can make international blockbusters, Valenti said: "Absolutely. Americans don't have a secret formula buried in a vault in Spago."

But Valenti conceded there are no pan-European distribution companies, except for the U.S. majors.

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