How can we see more European films in Europe?

Article  by  Axel SCOFFIER  •  Published 09.04.2014  •  Updated 08.04.2014
Image Scoffier - How can we see more European films in Europe?
European films only account for a small share of films watched in Europe: they do not have the clout of their Hollywood competitors, having a smaller capital investment and being mainly geared towards their home market.


Despite the abundance of films made, European cinema circulates badly around Europe. The linguistic and cultural diversity and imposing presence of American cinema constitute an obstacle to greater cinematographic integration in Europe.

Europeans go less often to the cinema than Americans

In 2012, the European Audiovisual Observatory recorded 933 million tickets sold in Europe (of which 313 million were for European films), compared with 1.3 billion in the United States). Although there are more Europeans than Americans[+] NoteThe population of the European Union is estimated to be 505 million inhabitants, compared with 314 million in the United States.X [1], they go less often to the cinema. This can be explained in particular by the lower number of screens: in Europe there are 30,000, far fewer than the figure of 40,000 for America.There are, however, large disparities between countries within Europe in terms of the number of cinema-goers and dynamism.For example, once more according to the Observatory, between 2011 and 2012, Romania and Finland saw an increase in visits to the cinema (growth of between 15 and 20 %), while elsewhere the figures vary (-6 % in France, +4 % in Germany…).
France stands out from the crowd somewhat when it comes to how often people go to see a film with 3 visits per year per person, a figure only equalled by Ireland, while the other main European markets, like Germany and Italy, have figures of between 1 and 2 visit per year per person (like the Benelux countries, the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, Poland, Austria and Portugal). The United Kingdom, Spain and Denmark score more highly: between 2 and 3 tickets per person. Finally, in the countries of central and eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria), and in Greece and Cyprus, the figures come to fewer than one film per year per person.
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European cinema accounts for less than half the films seen in Europe

In 2012, twenty-two of the twenty-five most watched films were American, with a total market share of 62.8 %. The main box office hits were American films: Skyfall, Ice Age: Continental Drift, The Dark Knight Rises, Twilight: Breaking Dawn part 2 were the most watched films in 2012. For some films, the European public were even more enthusiastic than the American public: Skyfall, a British-American coproduction (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Columbia Pictures and EON Productions) notched up 44 million sales in Europe compared with “only” 33 million in the United States.
European cinema achieved a market share of 33.6 % in 2012, which puts it above 30 % for the first time; but only 10 % of the total of cinema tickets sold was for foreign European films! Once more according to the Observatory, the three main successes of European cinema in 2012 were Skyfall, The Intouchables (for which 46 % of ticket sales in Europe were outside of France) and Taken 2 (17th in the European box-office, 20th in the United States), followed by The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius), The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd), and The Angel’s Share (Ken Loach).
French films achieved the highest viewing figures in Europe (13.6 % of the total number of films seen), followed by British films (8 %). Both are way ahead of the rest of Europe: 2.9 % for Italian cinema, 2.8 % for German cinema, and 6.2 % for the rest of the European Union ... European cinema accounts for a small share of films viewed in Europe. According to the producer Paulo Branco, this is to a large extent because of output deals that distributors and local channels agree to with American studios: “In France, European cinema accounts for a significant number of the films shown on the screens, even if the space given to them is getting smaller. Not as many films are shown on television now for example. In the rest of Europe, the results are abysmal: all that is shown are domestic films – if there are any – and American films.  In Portugal, for example, apart from film clubs and festivals, such as the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival, almost no independent films are seen. In Italy and Spain, the situation is increasingly like that. American studios are extremely powerful and manage to impose their catalogue on cinema operators and television channels, leaving very little room for others. (…) This is connected historically with the support from the United States for the reconstruction of Europe after the war. The Marshall Plan enabled Hollywood studios to impose their catalogue of films on Europeans, and many countries are now still bound by this restriction.”

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Could we distribute European films more effectively?

National fragmentation is an obstacle to the circulation of films throughout Europe. Films have to be bought by the distributors in charge in their country and adapted linguistically to the local market. Distributors also have to work hard at marketing their products, and this varies depending on the kind of film. According to Rodolphe Buet, CEO of StudioCanal Germany: “Films that are culturally international don’t require much work to be done to adapt them; the marketing tools have already been prepared and the public is used to American film styles. However, distributors have to work harder to market independent films with actors and a director that the public don’t necessarily know. For example, when StudioCanal Germany distributed Casse-tête Chinois by Cédric Klapisch, he couldn't use the same marketing formulas as for the French market. Only Audrey Tautou is well-known, and the Germans aren’t necessarily aware of the series’ range of characters; more emphasis has to be put on the film’s Frenchness, because in Germany there is a small market of francophile cinema-fans (…). The Germans don’t have the same attitude to the film-maker/author as the French. Very often, the name of the director doesn’t even appear on the poster, which is unthinkable in France where the name of the director alone can get the public to come to see the film. In Europe, the Scandinavian countries, just like in France, have this respect for the film-maker/author”.
If European cinema circulates badly, this is also because the Hollywood studios have taken the European markets for granted since the end of the Second World War: they sign output deals with the main operators and television channels of many countries. In the United Kingdom, multiplexes and television channels (including the channels offered by Sky and Virgin) are flooded with American films.

European distributors have introduced initiatives to increase their critical mass and fight the fragmentation of markets and companies. For around ten years, the company Indie Circle has grouped together five European distributors (the French Haut et Court, the Swiss Frenetic Films, the Italian Lucky Red, the Belgian Cinéart, and the Dutch A-Film Distributie), which have pooled their resources to buy and promote films they choose together. According to Laure Caillol, a distributor at Haut et Court and former manager of this organisation, “we buy films and share some distribution costs (a pooling of tracking, marketing creations etc.). (…) We have had a higher negotiating margin with sellers, but this could act against us if the film was sought after by other European distributors ready to pay a higher price individually. (…) We also wanted to cross-collateralise rights between countries, ie share the risks and benefits of the showing of these films”. European films weren’t the only ones selected by this company, but they were often given priority: “By our very nature, we are more geared towards arthouse cinema, of intellectual, social or political relevance, but not necessarily European. For example, we bought films as different as Paradise Now (…), Thank you for smoking (...) and Osama (…). Of course, financial incentives to distribute European films come on top of our own taste and guide us towards those films. European films are usually a little smaller and therefore cheaper, receive aid and attract public channels, and therefore tie in with what we want and are able to buy. You have to realise that at the same time, each distributor carried on buying films at different rates: around 8 to 10 films per year by Haut et Court, compared with 40 films by Cinéart, for example”. It has been difficult to keep the original organisation going in the long term: “Distributor partners have developed and have not found films to buy together. (…) What’s more, despite the success of some films, the failure of others has prevented the organisation from really taking off.” Ultimately, “the benefit of this kind of operation is that we gain from working together and the films enjoy greater visibility. (…) The pool is still exploiting the rights for 11 films, and we communicate informally during festivals and events where we meet regularly.”
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The key role of operators

Operators, whether directly or indirectly in contact with the markets, are in actual fact those that are most concerned with the distribution of European cinema in Europe. Cinemas continue to play an important role in media chronology, and are pivotal in terms of the marketing resources brought into play and of the media and critical feedback, which determines to a great extent the success of the film via other kinds of media (DVD, VOD, SVOD, TV…).
The organisation of the operators of course plays a role in their ability to distribute European films. As the table below shows, there are great disparities from one country to another.
Population in 2012
Number of cinemas in 2012
Number of screens in 2012
Number of box-office sales in 2012
 United Kingdom

Cinema screens are highly concentrated in the United Kingdom (few cinemas, lots of screens), which means that cinemas mainly show commercial films – and therefore American – while elsewhere (such as in France), the large number of cinemas with few screens (the network of arthouse cinemas) encourages cinema operators to opt for differentiation and diversity.
To encourage all cinemas to offer greater diversity, the MEDIA scheme by the European Commission is funding a network of cinemas called Europa Cinema for cinemas that commit to showing predominantly European films. Aid for the network accounts for 10 % of the budget of the MEDIA scheme and 20 % of the MEDIA Mundus scheme. This scheme launched in 1992 in 45 cinemas in 24 towns in 12 countries of the European Union is now involved with 1,170 cinemas in 675 towns in 68 countries. In these cinemas, European films account for on average 60 % of showings, of which 36 % are foreign films. The network’s greatest successes in 2012 include 4 French films (The Intouchables, The Artist, Amour, and Et si on vivait tous ensemble?), 5 British films and a German film (Barbara). The much-awaited diversity has been reduced in fact to greater circulation of the main European producers, namely France and the United Kingdom. If we take a look at the top 50, there are 20 French films, 12 British films, 3 Italian, 3 Danish, 2 German, 2 European, 2 Norwegian, 2 Belgian, 1 Polish, 1 Swiss, 1 Irish, and 1 Austrian, which amount to only 11 different nationalities of which two take up 2/3 of the total …
Clearly, without tax incentives, or legal restrictions, cinema operators and television channels will continue to give priority to distributing predominantly American films, with clearly-define genres, with the most well-known actors, and with larger marketing campaigns. European films, generally less capital-intensive and mostly geared towards the domestic market, don’t enjoy the clout of their American competitors and only circulate when they have already been successful in their own country (like The Intouchables) or they have won an award (La Grande Bellezza). It is also paradoxical to notice that the most well-known actors and actresses outside their own country are usually those who have come to the fore through American films: Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin, then Inglorious Bastards), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, then Inception), Mads Mikkelsen (Pusher, then Casino Royal)… The odds are that online offerings, whether legal or illegal, will continue to make these films more accessible to those who are curious, but for films to become a popular success they still need to be a hit at the box-office of cinemas.
Translated from French by Peter Moss
Photo credits :
Truus, Bob & Jan too! / Flickr
Julien brmkmr / Flickr

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  • 1. The population of the European Union is estimated to be 505 million inhabitants, compared with 314 million in the United States.
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