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Beyond the Box Office: What European films are most popular on TV, DVD and VOD?

While cinema admissions data is publicly available, viewing figures for European films on TV, DVD and VOD is harder to come by. Huw D Jones examines how to overcome this problem.

One of the main challenges researching the market for European film is determining what Europeans actually watch. While the European Audiovisual Observatory’s LUMIERE database provides pretty accurate data on cinema admissions across Europe, viewing figures for TV, DVD and VoD are harder to come by.

The French market research company Mediametrie does collect TV viewing figures for films across most European territories via its Eurodata TV Worldwide service, but the cost of accessing this data can be prohibitively expensive for most researchers. Strict licensing agreements also means the results cannot always be publicly shared.

Data for VoD services like Netflix is even more inaccessible; because these platforms are paid for by subscriptions rather than commercials, they don’t need to publish viewing figures in order to attract advertisers.

Since most films are watched on TV – and increasingly VoD – rather than in cinemas, there is a danger, then, that box office figures alone give a distorted picture of what European films people have seen.

Top-line figures

Top 10 European films on UKTV

Top 10 foreign-language European films broadcast on UK terrestrial television, 2006-14. Source: BFI

Within the MeCETES project, we have tried to get round this problem in a number of ways. Firstly, bodies like the BFI and BARB do publish some top-line TV viewing figures for film. The BFI’s annual Statistical Report, for example, publishes the year’s top 10 films, UK films, and foreign-language films available on terrestrial TV, as well as physical video formats and rentals (though not VoD).

This reveals that the UK’s most watched foreign-language European film of the past decade was the German wartime drama Downfall (2 million viewers on Channel 4 in 2006), followed by Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (1.4 million viewer on Channel 4 in 2008), and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (1.2 million viewers on Channel 4 in 2012). However, data is only available for the UK market; I’ve yet to encounter similar figures for other European territories.

Consumer surveys

Most seen European films (EU survey)

Most seen recent European films from assisted list (EU10 Countries). Source: European Commission 2014.

Secondly, a number of consumer surveys provide data on film viewing habits. Perhaps the most relevant in this context is the European Commission’s Profile of Current and Future Audiovisual Audiences (2014), which polled almost 5,000 people across Europe about which European films from a list of recent titles they had seen on any platform. The report shows the French comedy-drama The Intouchables is the most watched European film (seen by 38% of Europeans), followed by Francophone family-adventure Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia (34%) and the French-made thriller Taken 2 (25%), starring Liam Neeson. Of a list of older European films, British slapstick comedy Mr Bean’s Holiday (seen by 41% of Europeans) is the most viewed, followed by the children’s animation Flushed Away (40%) and the Franco-German period drama Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (32%).

We have conducted our own poll of almost 200 people via the List Challenge website. While certainly not as representative as the European Commission survey, it does confirm that The Intouchables is one of the most watched European films of recent years. However, the results are partly determined by which films are included in the list: our survey places Pan’s Labyrinth as the most watched European film, a title excluded from European Commission study. Moreover, neither survey tell us on what platform these films were seen or whether they were viewed more than once.

Top 10 European films IMDb Votes

Top 10 European films by IMDb User votes, 2004-14. Source: IMDb

Social movie websites

Thirdly, we can get a sense of which European films people have seen from social movie websites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, which allow users to post their own reviews and ratings. Our analysis of audience ratings for 21,117 films on IMDb shows that the most watched European title of the last decade is V for Vendetta (709,179 votes), followed by Slumdog Millionaire (584,856 votes) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (470,311 votes). On the Rotten Tomatoes website (for which we have audience ratings for 23,265 films), the most watched European title is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (an astonishing 34 million votes), followed by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2.3 million votes) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (1.6 million votes).

Top 10 European films by Rotten Tomatoes User votes, 2004-14. Source: Rotten Tomatoes

Top 10 European films by Rotten Tomatoes User votes, 2004-14. Source: Rotten Tomatoes

These figures suggest certain European films – including some non-English language titles like The Intouchables and Pan’s Labyrinth – do have a relatively high level of public recognition. In general, though, audiences are still much more familiar with US movies (with an average of 282,944 votes on IMDb) than European films (an average of 10,436 votes), suggesting that Hollywood dominates not only at the cinema box office, but TV, DVD and VOD consumption as well.

There are obvious problems with this approach. The people who vote on social movie websites are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole (80% of IMDb voters are men and 54% are aged 18-29, according to film data analyst Stephen Follows). And because both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are American-owned English-language websites (IMDb is part of Amazon, while Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fixster, itself part of Warner Bros.), there is a bias towards English-speaking film fans.

Nevertheless, social movie websites are not a totally inaccurate measure of audience awareness. For example, there is a relatively strong positive correlation between the number of votes European films receive and their theatrical admissions (40% correlation for IMDb and 72% for Rotten Tomatoes). Both websites also tell us whether a film has been released on DVD or VoD (within the US market at least) – revealing that 19% of European films are available on DVD, compared with 86% of US movies and 29% of films from the rest of the world.

Of course, none of these approaches solves the problem of determining which European films audiences have actually seen outside the cinema. But taken together – along with cinema admissions data – they provide a fairly accurate picture of the films which people are most likely to be aware of.

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