European Film Industry Saved from EU-US Trade Talks

With talks about to begin on reworking free trade agreements between the European Union and the United States, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has apparently removed cultural industries from the table, an article in The Hollywood Reporter states. Prominent filmmakers such as Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Wim Wenders and Pedro Almodóvar, amongst many others, have fought a hard battle to keep the cultural exception.

The cultural exception declares that cultural products, such as film, literature and music, in which each product is unique (as oppose to say a bar of soap or a bottle of wine) and should be protected. Many countries impose quotas on film, dictating that a certain percentage of films shown in theatres should be from the originating country; France has the strongest policies (and has always been the strongest advocate for the cultural exception), and it certainly has helped it to maintain a strong industry. South Korea has also imposed strong quotas, and we can all see the great results, with an incredible renaissance of films from that country.

Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the US is an opponent of the exception (though at a press conference in France, producer/distributor Harvey Weinstein voiced his support for it). If you look at the top 10 films at the box offices of many European nations, 8 - 9 out of 10 are Hollywood films (France had the most non-Hollywood, with 4 of its own films in the top ten last weekend). So you couldn't argue that the US film industry is still making a lot of money from Europe even with the exception. There are some concerns that US trade negotiators could retaliate with their own protection measures, though a quick glance at Box Office Mojo shows that, with the exception of some UK films, European films rarely even break into the top 100 yearly box office. Still, the losing audience would be in the US, with those who do love European films perhaps finding them more difficult to see, at least on the big screen (outside of festivals).

Of course, it is the audiences in Europe that are choosing to see Hollywood films, rather than ones from their own countries. In Brian Clark's recent article on the film ratings system in France observed that American films often receive preferential treatment, earning ratings that will give them a wider audience, while local films are often treated more harshly. But if higher quotas for local films were imposed across Europe, or ratings systems made more consistent, would that make audiences see more local films? It's hard to fight the juggernaut of Hollywood marketing and the pull power of its stars. Juan Antonio Bayona's film The Impossible broke every box office record in Spain last year; but would it have done as well if it was made in Spanish, with a Spanish cast (as the story on which it is based is that of a Spanish family)? My sources in the Spanish film industry are convinced that it would not have. A movie of that size needs a big budget; a big budget means a world wide release, which necessitates big, English-language stars. This draws in the audience, frequently at the expense of small-to-medium budget local films.

The desire of trade negotiators to keep culture on the trade table was obviously a financial one, but considering that European films cannot match Hollywood for money, they would be the losers. Considering how Hollywood continues to have a majority hold on the European box office, the cultural exception might be the only thing keeping local films from almost completely disappearing. European films rely on government support; that support is protected by the cultural exception, and could have been challenged if cultural industries were included in the trade talks. Even Weinstein understands that, while Hollywood films might appeal to the majority, there is a significant minority who want more diversity in their film selection. At the moment, De Gucht has not completely ruled out bringing culture back to the table, but hopefully continuing pressure will keep it off.
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