US rules Europe'sscreens

Film-makers who face extinction makers face
BERNARDO Bertolucci was disgruntled - not to say disgusted - when he appeared in the foyer of his Brussels hotel. He is, after all, a member of an endangered species: a European film director without a role.

There are two problems facing the European film industry, according to the Bertolucci analaysis. The first is the failure by European governments to protect their own culture - as reflected in their failure to protect their film industries.

The second problem, he says, gritting his teeth in a pained grin, is the addiction to American "sheet".

"I can't tell you why people eat cheeseburgers instead of spaghetti. But it's not because they choose to. They are just addicted. They don't really chose this sheet," he says.

"We have been invaded by the illusion of the American dream. It is commercialism. You know Italians know more about American wallpaper than Italian wallpaper? They know more about American clothes than Italian clothes.

"It all started with Dynasty and Dallas. That is how the addiction began. Now it has become a kind of cultural genocide. It is smothering the world."

That Mr Bertolucci should be lashing out over his morning coffee seemed a little over the top - but was not altogether surprising. He had come to Brussels, along with other disgusted director dinosaurs to lobby on behalf of the European film and TV industry, which believes it is facing extinction.

And with the death of European film and TV, comes the death - so they say - of European culture as we know it. The argument goes that TV and film sell a way of life. So when they watch American films Europeans are buying into the USA.

To Hollywood the complaints of the European directors are just "envy" - because Hollywood does it better.

The British product sells in the US today as long as it is about those comical British people (Benny Hill - Four Weddings and a Funeral) or as long as it is "kind of historic" - as one American put it. But all the French can do nowadays is make those intense little French films which only appeal to the French.

"We don't force people to watch our films. People like them. The fact is that European films don't travel well," says Michael Bartholomew, lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America.

As Bartholomew points out, not only do European films not travel well across the Atlantic (with notable exceptions), they don't even travel much within Europe. The only universal film culture that circulates freely in free-market Europe is American.

It is no exaggeration to say that a sense of panic is gripping European film makers. That panic has been evident in Brussels this week where US multi-media giants have been gathering at a conference on the so-called "information super-highway" to promote a new wave of American media wares to pour down the throats of ravenous European customers.

For over a decade the Europeans have sat by as Hollywood domination has grown. The figures speak for themselves. In the past 15 years the number of US-made films in European cinemas has grown from 35 per cent to 80 per cent while today European films account for only one per cent of the US market.

The US controls European film distribution networks. It controls most satellite and cable TV companies broadcasting to Europe. And it is now ready to dominate the rapidly expanding media market in new tele-visual products.

The profits from one sector feed into the next, killing off competition. Hollywood has targetted a market, won over an audience and penetration has been achieved with Europeans tied hand and foot.

For any new TV channel, it is 10 times cheaper to buy an American product than a European one, because the US dealer has already covered his costs by distributing the programme on the American market before being re-distributed in Europe.

This commercial advantage is almost unique to media products which can be re-sold over and over again.

At the same time Hollywood has been fiercely promoted by successive US governments - film is the second biggest US export after aeronautics - while European governments have treated culture as an optional extra in policy terms.

For these reasons - and many others - most European film directors support the French idea of tough European TV quotas as well as financial support to protect their industry.

European governments, however, largely distrust quotas, saying the "free- market" must prevail.

"When they talk of the free market, they mean putting a free fox in a free chicken hutch," said Denys Granier Deferre, the French film director in Brussels this week.

European directors know, however, that they too are to blame. And they know that if they are to win back their audiences they must make films which compete.

"Easy to watch - easy to forget. That is the American film," is how Mr Granier Deferre, summed up the competition. "As life has become more and more difficult people don't want anything serious, anything intense. Hollywood gives distraction, escapism."

Other directors spoke of the difficulty of competing with Hollywood's "factory packaging". Nowadays American movies are ready-made for the TV viewer as their "cuts" are short to prevent the habitual channel-flicker getting bored in front of the larger screen.

The Americans build scripts like building blocks, said Pennant Roberts, the British producer. "They always have a climax at a certain point. They spot a mood and they exploit it. Now it is all about feel-good, so all American movies are feel-good movies."

Bertolucci says that the Europeans must develop a European voice and then they must fight back by "re-invading" America.

"We have to show them there are other cultures apart from theirs."

The dynosaurs of Pinewood, Billancourt and Cinecitta know that their fight-back is probably too little too late.

Their only other hope is that Europeans will eventually get bored - and, then, perhaps, they may simply switch off the "sheet".