Film: And the winner is... who cares?

They're dull and political. No wonder the European Film Awards are a flop.
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The Independent Culture
THE EUROPEAN Film Awards have a serious image problem in the UK. The 1998 ceremony, held at London's Old Vic theatre, was largely ignored by the British media. "The fact is that the vast majority of people just didn't give a shit," acknowledges Dennis Davidson, whose PR Company DDA organises the annual bazaar. The awards didn't even make it to terrestrial TV. Sky Movies carried highlights, but won't be doing so again this year - they considered the event too highbrow for their viewers.

Many British distributors, who stand to benefit most from splashing EUROPEAN FILM AWARD WINNER! across their posters and video sleeves, seem both apathetic about and baffled by the "Euro-Oscars", as they are nicknamed. "As far as distribution of European films is concerned," says Andi Engel of Artificial Eye, "there is only one prize that matters - the Palme d'Or at Cannes." Producer Andrew Eaton can't hide his dismay that his new movie Wonderland (directed by Michael Winterbottom), wasn't even considered for a nomination, despite winning awards elsewhere. "I got a call from Roddy Doyle who has been involved in one of the juries for the last couple of years. He was incredulous that Wonderland wasn't on the long list."

It's easy to understand the misgivings. From the outside, the event has Euro-pudding written all over it. It's not as kitsch as the Eurovision Song Contest but suffers the same logistical headaches. There are 22 countries involved, some with massive film industries, some with micro- industries that barely make half-a-dozen features a year.

The organisers have to make sure each territory gets its moment in the spotlight. This year, for example, there is clearly embarrassment that the French (one of the event's biggest backers) don't have a title in contention for the Best Film award. The event is held in English, but only because "the French don't want it in German and the Germans don't want it in French", says Davidson. "If the broadcasters can't have it in their language, they want it in English."

Between 1988, when they were first established, and 1996, the European Film Awards (then known as the Felixes) were dogged by accusations that they were both "political" and very dull. Davidson and Nik Powell, the chairman of the awards, have made changes, but to what end? The 1999 nominees for Best Euro-Film point to a certain schizophrenia. The list comprises both mainstream, star-driven romantic comedy and European art house at its most hermetic. Rosetta, the Dardenne brothers' bleak, angry drama about an unemployed teenage delinquent, nestles next to Notting Hill on the list. The trick, Powell says, is "not to lose the audience when you're showing Rosetta and not to alienate the film buffs when you're showing Notting Hill - to make the awards as sexy as possible without losing their fundamental integrity".

He's not above a little showmanship. "In terms of going down the Eurovision route," he reflects, " well, since my ex-wife (Sandie Shaw) was a winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, I'm a bit of an expert. You can't just do the awards and expect people to love it. You've got to go out and promote it." He blames "the anti-European bias" of the press for the event's failure to capture the British public's imagination. "European cinema is not medicine," chips in Davidson. "Many of the jewels come out of Europe. Any of your readers who went to see the Best Film nominations would have a really good time." In Europe, at least, broadcasters (many of whom are showing the awards live) share his enthusiasm. So does Eric Fellner of Working Title (the company behind Notting Hill). "Any recognition we get at the European Film Awards is fantastic. We want to promote the fact that Working Title is European... we support the awards wholeheartedly."

In the UK as a whole, though, cynicism still rules. "Giving prizes to films that have already been released can't help," muses Andi Engel. "But even if they got the timing right, the awards would still be of no importance. It has no real power base - it's a one-night event. It's a nothing."

The European Film Awards take place in Berlin on 4 December. The event is being broadcast on FilmFour at 10pm on 5 December as part of a "European Film Weekend"

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