European Film Forum: (re)open(ed) talks on the Film market in the Digital Era

by Claire La Combe


Last week at the Berlinale, was the occasion of the first European Film Forum (EFF) session. The keynote speech was given by Günther H. Oettinger, EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, himself. Bases were settled for a dialogue between the Commission and the Film industry stakeholders on the hot topic of the Single Digital Market. How should European Film Business models innovate ? “Thinking outside the national box” was the given motto by the Commission. By the end of the two-hour session, a bitter taste of past dead-end discussions was already felt by a majority.

Trying to push at an open door: film & digital worlds are bound through a revolution

The European Film Forum was a Commission initiative announced in May 2014 to deal with Film industry issues in the digital era. On hold due to the change of Commission, the Forum had been eagerly anticipated by film professionals who were, notably, expecting to shed a light on the Creative Europe programme under the DG Connect. And, indeed, as the second European film festival market, the Berlinale was a very opportune moment for the EU Commissioner Günther H. Oettinger to face the industry.

Expressing himself in German, M. Oettinger made a quite classical speech. Not too threatening, not very reassuring either. He first confronted generalities about European Culture – which according to him goes beyond frontiers and helps to build and to promote a European Identity; about the digital age – which he stated brings new ideas, innovation and facilitates the circulation of content within Europe; about the closed links between cultural & digital contents, he talked about how the new transfrontier canals and culture accessibility ease relationships between citizens. He then gave a simple demonstration, showing how as a vital part of both the cultural and digital society, films have to keep up with the “revolution” (i.e. digitisation). He concluded: these contents have to be available for everyone, everywhere in Europe and circulate outside of their national markets.

Using cold facts and key words, the Commissioner was able to prove that there is still much potential to develop in the film industry models. Films are financed in majority by national funds, and only a small part by the MEDIA programme. Plus, co-productions made between partners is limited to scale economies. Regarding the international competition, this trend must be lowered using the stimuli of “innovative business models”. When 1500 films are produced in Europe, less than 10% travel outside Europe. This leads to a partial conclusion : the targeted audience is too much national and traditional, as well as the way of fostering the interest of the citizens, especially the young generation, for the cinema.

The European Film Forum is rooted in this subject. With digitisation, “frontiers are not obstacles anymore” but a great opportunity for better choice for the consumers. European markets have to be more efficient, in the way the United States are, they have to become a single market with cross-border accessibility. The film industry must find new techniques of marketing and distribution. The Commission is confident: via dialogue and cooperation with the industry “new ways to bring content to audiences” would be found. The latter is the only  solution to win the revolution.

“My colleagues from the DG Connect in Brussels are here to listen to you. On this topic, we have to work together” concluded Commissioner Oettinger before leaving the audience.

An open door to every kind of window

Following the keynote speech, the forum was enriched by several presentations and a panel discussion which involved six parties: Antonio Medici (BIM Distribuzione), Andreas Spechtler (Dolby International), Ed Guiney (Element Pictures /Volta VoD platform), Madeleine Probst (Europa Cinemas), Martin Moszkowicz (Constantin Films) and Andreas Briese (YouTube). This was the right opportunity for distributors, producers and exhibitors to demonstrate how they could collaborate and how innovation was already underway.

What stood out from Medici, Guiney, Probst and Moszkowicz, in a more or less blatant manner, is that innovation does not mean sweeping away traditional models, but could be simply the use of flexibility with models that work. In short, the European Film industry still has to be improved, but national canals have to remain the backbone of the funding pattern. Among  the  four film panellists, Martin Moszkowicz was the most vigorous: “the analysis of the Commission is wrong”, on many levels. According to Moszkowicz, if films are financed at a national scale only 50% of the funds come from national public bodies (soft money), the rest is a lot of co-productions and less and less pre-sales – strategies based on the territoriality difference. “The diversity of our national markets makes us strong” he claimed. He then stated that the assumption that consumers want everything here and now has no justification. There is no data on online film consumption. The few experiments which have been run are not exploitable yet, and as far as Constantin Films is concerned, its BitTorrent experience was a failure in terms of watching figures.

According to the professionals, the film market in Europe is not dysfunctional. Barriers exist, but they do not prevent cross-border business. The limits of selling abroad mostly rely on knowing national consumers’ choices. The matter is all about content, quality, education of consumers and awareness of professionals. Ed Guiney – who was this year recipient for the European Film Award for Best European Co-Producer –  called for “ambitiousness” in co-productions, as well as quality content to drive audience. When in parallel, Antonio Medici – who is experimenting with multi-territory sales with Wildbunch – recognized that sometimes good movies do not travel. For the latter though, the solution lies in film multi-platform education for people.

In fact, each film is a specific case, with a specific environment when it comes out. “The day and date issue is a faux-problem” said Medici, it is only one model among others. Digitisation has created new windows indeed, and they are opportunities. A unique “all digital” release model will jeopardize diversity because only big commercial movies are strong enough to support the multicanal release and consumption. There again, there is a need for data but first experiments show that “day and date” release is not tailored for every type of film.

Obviously, movie theatres still have a prime role. Because the cinema is first an immersive experience, it drives emotions.  Just as well, Andreas Spechtler confirmed that the technical companies were still investing a lot in theatres. The key challenge is the same for all: quality and modernisation. Being social spaces, cinemas must play their role in driving the audience, locally. On this point, Madeleine Probst representing Europa Cinemas was very demonstrative.

But, in the end, all the film industry needs is flexibility. Each film has to be taken as a unique work: some movies deserves a cinema release, some need shorten windows. All the participants in the panel agreed: this has to be something decided among the rights owners, not by state regulation.

Keep talking to…a wall ?

During this two-hour forum, film professionals seemed on the same page. Odd ? Not so much…The explanation was precisely taken up by Madeleine Probst: the interest of all the parties in the film industry is to make people watch films, no matter how and when. The more viewers, the better. The strategy of raising people’s interest has to be “mixed” by all the parties, among all the canals (festivals, materials, web etc.), in agreement with the rights-holders. “The key to success is discussion within the professionals (distributors, creators etc.)”.

Precisely, discussion on the topic of the film industry in the digital era is not new. Every single argument of the speeches given on that Monday morning by film professionals have already been exposed, for example, in the 2013 contributions to the Commission Green paper “Preparing for a fully converged audiovisual world”.

Then again, in 2014, in one of her last speech as Commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes declared: “we have endlessly assessed, examined, analyzed. Now it’s time to act”. But today, the refrain is the same: standardisation for all markets, no matter the consultations. One can easily understand why the last excitement of Moscowitz triggered general applause of the audience: “It is stupid to think about [the single market]. I don’t believe in Brussels to know what is best for our films”.

And when Roberta Viola, Deputy Director General of DG Connect, had to give the closing remarks, the public was more than suspicious. “Europe is ill (…) President Juncker has come with a solution ( ie. a Single Digital Market, which is priority number 4 out of 23 in Juncker’s programme). But nobody said that we wanted to sell things for free. Nobody said we wanted to scrap diversity. We have to discuss.” The closing speech stayed very vague, not even mentioning films specifically. “We will listen to what is necessary. We will listen more. To make sure we are going in the good direction. We are not interested in the micro market.” A vague conclusion, but this last sentence sent a chill through the audience. “Have they really been listening ?” asked someone in the audience. The answer has already been given by Neelie Kroes in the past years: the single digital market is a pragmatic reform. “It means more possibilities to access content online cross-borders. It means more harmonised exceptions(…) It means flexibility, so we don’t have to have the same discussion every 5 years”.

It’s 12:19 in Berlin, on Monday 9th February 2015. It’s time for lunch. Who wants to keep talking ?

And yet some upcoming talks to come:

– 23rd Feb 2015 from 10:00 to 11:00 – #AskAnsip, Twitter chat on Digital Single Market for Europe (#DigitalSingleMarket).

– 26th Feb 2015 from 15:30 to 16:30 – #AskOettinger, Twitter chat with Commissioner Oettinger on copyright reform

– 9th & 10th March – Conference in Riga (Latvia Presidency of the EU on “Strengthening the European Audiovisual Media Market for the Development of the European Identity”: focus on the AVMS Directive; Implementation of the country-of-origin principle: European values in a converged media environment