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Are EU policies impeding the UK market for European film?

The BFI says there are too many UK cinema releases, making it harder for European films to make a mark. Huw Jones asks if EU policies designed to help such films are to blame.

May bank holiday is a popular time to catch a movie. But British cinema-goers were spoilt for choice this year, with 23 new releases coming out the same week, including an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, documentary I am Big Bird, about the man behind the Sesame Street character, and a Punjabi film The Blood Street.

The BFI, the lead organisation for film in the UK, thinks it is time to ‘stop the madness’ – arguing that with more cinema releases, the films will be seen by fewer people, have less chance to build a following, and miss out on the “visibility” of being reviewed. It worries that specialised films, which includes the vast majority of imported European titles, are finding it particularly difficult to make their mark.

While cinema admissions have fallen by 10% since the turn of the millennium, the number of films released in the UK each year has almost doubled, from 369 in 2002 to 712 in 2014, according to the BFI’s own figures.

The impact of new digital technology has been a key factor. According to Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association, the conversion of all of the UK’s cinemas to digital projectors has made it easier for venues to change their programming. Films that fail to make an impact in their opening weekend can be quickly rescheduled or dumped in favour of the latest offerings, leading to a high turnover of content.

Digital technology has also lowered production costs, prompting a wave of low- and micro-budget movies. The supply of documentaries – one of the cheapest types of film to make – has increased at a rate of 30% per year, from four in 2001 to 89 in 2013.

Number of films released in UK

Figure 1: Number of films released in UK by country of origin, 2002-2014. Source: BFI, RSU

Increasing European releases

However, closer analysis of the data reveals that some categories of film have become abundant than others (figure 1). In terms of geographical origin, for example, European films have increased at almost twice the rate (11% per year) of all other cinema releases (6% per year). European films now account for almost a quarter of UK releases – up from 13% in 2002.

One reason is that European filmmakers are increasingly moving into English-language productions, which are more likely to appeal to British audiences than foreign-language films.

English-language European imports grew by 24% per year, from five in 2003 to 43 in 2013. Some of these films – notably those of Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, which is responsible for the Taken and Transporter franchises – are clearly trying to emulate the success of Hollywood blockbusters. But others, such as Roman Polanski’s Carnage or Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, remain firmly within the European art house tradition – the only difference being they don’t require subtitles.

Policies designed to support the European film industry have also contributed to a rise in European film imports. National film funds and competitive tax breaks have helped keep production levels high in Europe, despite the economic downturn. While US output remained flat for the period 2008 to 2012, the number of films produced in the EU27 grew by 7% per year, from 1,159 to 1,546 films, according to data from the European Audiovisual Observatory. Europe now produces three times as many movies as the US.

At the other end of the film value chain, the EU’s MEDIA programme subsidises the acquisition and promotion of European film. Over €8.6 million was paid out to UK distributors between 2007 and 2013 to support the theatrical release of 219 films – equivalent to about €40,000 per title. MEDIA also funds the Europa Cinema Network, a chain of 53 theatres across the UK which specialise in European film. Single screen cinemas can receive up to €15,000 for screening 25% European films, while cinemas with 13 screens or more can received up to €45,000 for screenings 15% European films.

UK box office for European films

UK box office share (%) for European and European language films. Source: BFI, RSU

But while these subsidies have certainly helped boost the number of European titles released in the UK, the audience for this type of film remains small (figure 2). European films increased their box office share from 0.7% in 2002 to 3% in 2013 – but much of this growth can be attributed to just one or two mainstream English language titles per year. For example, the French-made action-thriller Taken staring Liam Neeson accounted for 33% of the UK’s European film admissions in 2008, while the sequel Taken 2 accounted for 45% in 2012.

Meanwhile, films in European languages (other than English) saw their box office share fall from 1.1% in 2002 to 0.6% in 2013 – a 46% drop. While the number of European language films has more than doubled from 50 to 108, average admissions have declined from 36,075 to 9,165 per film.

Schemes like the EU’s MEDIA programme and the Europa Cinema Network have certainly made European titles more accessible in the UK. But by fuelling the rise in UK cinema releases, they may have also made it more difficult for these films to make an impact on British audiences.

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