So, you want to stay in movies?
David Puttnam (left) has written an eloquent plea for unity in the European film industry. Anthony Smith reports: The Undeclared War: the struggle for control of the world's film industry by David Puttnam with Neil Watson, HarperCollins, pounds 18
Saturday 17 May 1997
The contrast with America is stark. Cinema was the glue which bound together America's masses and thus became, in the hands of a group of immigrant entrepreneurs, America's first indigenous medium of mass culture. These pioneers discovered distribution as the key to the new industry and put the old "film exchange offices" out of business. They discovered the importance of stars, and of stories which gripped audiences and laid the foundations of the volatile and rapacious world of Hollywood today, with its political tentacles, and its willingness to exploit any means to subdue foreign competition. When President Clinton picked up the telephone to threaten European negotiators during the GATT talks that a refusal to abolish support of national cinemas would be a "deal-breaker" (by implication promising a general trade war) he had Hollywood breathing down his neck: at that moment only the determination of the French to preserve their cherished film industry called American bluff (temporarily).
From the days of Carl Laemmle to these of Jack Valenti, American dominance has continually intensified: today China, India and the Middle East are confronting the same issues which Europe failed to resolve satisfactorily in the early days. The result is the steady build-up of a cultural domination which could one day, according to Puttnam, lead to frightening forms of anti-modernising resistance (Islamic fundamentalism being perhaps a foretaste). The neutral-seeming terminology of "free trade" and "globalisation" cosmeticise an historical trend which can, in the realm of the cultural, cause nations to lose their confidence together with their identity.
For the French, in the words of their first Minister of Culture, the late Andre Malraux, cinema is an art which happens contingently to be an industry. But none of the many forms of subsidy with which the French have experimented have proved a match for the relentless attraction of Hollywood. Hollywood has never had any doubt about its being an industry. When, as in the 1970s, it found itself losing money and audiences, it demanded tax breaks, took on new technologies, researched new audiences and gave them everything they wanted. Talk of social values, cultural preservation, national identity, dissolves in the ears of Hollywood "leaders" into sardonic sanctimony. The European film industry exists, in the mind of Hollywood, to provide talent for Hollywood.
This book is a timely and important expression of an emerging Europeanist position; it carries a clear message of cultural hope amid the historical exasperation. Puttnam has gone through the business of cinema as almost no-one else; he has been a teenage "avid" (a useful Hollywood marketing term), a UK marketing executive, a British producer, the Chairman and Chief Executive of an American "major", and the man behind the new Lottery- driven British film subsidy programme. He has been loaded with Oscars and rubbished in Variety. He has been adviser to Jacques Delors, helpmate to Tony Blair and mentor to a generation of young UK directors and producers.
His entertaining and illuminating book (the product of a series of lectures on cinema history) contains a powerful narrative drive and ends with an eloquent "Euro-policy" message. It can be read as a well-documented, objective history of the film business and also as a guide to the way ahead for a 21st-century information industry. The American companies have already set aside their own differences and now address with one voice the new world market in education, information and entertainment films. A purely national information/culture industry is now an impossible dream: the American majors are already seeking to dominate it and have established the free trade agreements necessary to broaden their attack on the new hybrid multi-media sector. This is the moment, Puttnam argues, to engage the immense intellectual and technical resources of Europe and galvanise disparate European interests into a unified industry which can serve the European (and other) markets while cutting a swathe through the American. This is a very good read - and a book to be heeded.
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