Commentary: Europe's Film Industry Could Use A Dose Of Realism

Europeans ought to applaud. British actors are high among the year's Academy Award nominees. Films are opening to huge audiences in Germany and France. Europe's film industry is springing back to life. They made 700 features last year, vs. 514 in 1994. Yet the momentum may be lost in a new fight against U.S. "cultural imperialism." France wants to keep film out of a global investment pact. Eurocrats are raising subsidies and attacking U.S. distribution practices. Around Europe, barriers block multiscreen cinemas--a key to the industry's future.

European cinema does not need this. It needs more multiplexes and transatlantic production deals--deals that would be blocked if film is made a "cultural exception," as France demands. "Protectionism won't defend us against American culture," says Dominique Moisi, associate director of the Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris. "The only answer is openness."

Indeed, European cinema has revived partly because it is doing business with Hollywood. France's Gaumont backed The Fifth Element, a French director's action flick starring Bruce Willis. A U.S. studio funded The Full Monty, which has earned $180 million worldwide. More such bridges are on the way. On Feb. 12, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced a $60 million deal to make German-language films at Berlin's Babelsberg Studios. Warner Bros. Studios Inc. just inked a $120 million deal with France's Canal Plus. "We have reached a level where we can work with a Hollywood studio as equals," says Canal Plus spokesman Jean-Louis Erneux.

Listen to the French government, though, and film production is in mortal danger. Thus does Paris want to exempt it from guarantees extended to other investments in a pact now being negotiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. "The French want a deal discriminating against outside investors," complains Michael Bartholomew, director of European affairs for the Motion Picture Assn., the U.S. trade group. Partly because of French demands, negotiators doubt they'll meet an April deadline.

Europeans also want to disband United International Pictures, which distributes Paramount, Universal, and MGM/UA films in Europe. The ec is investigating whether uip keeps European films out of theaters. The solution here is more theaters. Italy made 25% more films last year--when more than 400 new cinemas opened. In only one area--film copyrights--does Europe need more regulation. Digital broadcasting and the Internet make almost unlimited black-market copying possible. But the ec, which takes a different view of this danger, recently watered down proposals to prevent such theft.

Europe needs to solve these problems--and forget lost causes. As the market grows, there will be more room for U.S. and European films. In a truly global industry, Europeans will be up for ever more Oscars. But if they close the door on Hollywood, Europe's film industry could be the biggest loser.

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