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MEDIA’s impact on European cinema

Since 1992 the MEDIA programme has been the EU’s signature initative in support of European cinema. Now that MEDIA has been merged into the new Creative Europe programme, Mariana Liz looks back on its aspirations and achievements.

After the European Commmission (EC) announced plans to end the MEDIA programme in 2014, over 300 filmmakers from all over Europe, including Wim Wenders, Catherine Breillat and Fatih Akin, signed a letter asking the commission to reconsider. The filmmakers described the programme as a ‘lifesaver for the industry over the last twenty years’. But the ‘real losers’, they continued, would be cinema audiences across the continent, not to mention the EU’s cultural integration project, as ‘without cultural diversity and circulation of European works, the EU will lose one of the foundations of its identity’.

The filmmakers’ letter had a small impact on public discourse – or indeed on the EC, who went ahead with its intentions. However, it raised important questions about the EU’s institutional support for the audio-visual industry. Was MEDIA, until 2014, a ‘lifesaver’ of the European film industry? What role did the programme play in the construction of European identity?

After an experimental phase running from 1989, MEDIA was launched in 1992. Different phases of the programme have ensued; the latest stage began in 2007 and ran until 2013. A key point is that MEDIA did not sponsor film production directly and therefore the EU was not involved in the selection of the actual contents of European films. In addition to supporting promotion, training and pre-production initiatives, MEDIA 2007 was chiefly focused on distribution, with 55% of its budget allocated to this sector.

The emphasis on distribution was justified by the EC’s belief that the more people watched European films, the greater knowledge they would have of other countries in Europe and the more ‘European’ they would feel. MEDIA supported the distribution of European films through two main schemes: automatic and selective support.

MEDIA’s selective scheme offered support for up to 30% of distribution costs of single films, sponsoring a wide variety of titles from different nationalities, from different genres and with different budgets. Between 2005 and 2008, for instance, a total of 212 feature films were financed. These included films from 25 different countries. 20% of these, a significant majority, originated from France.

MEDIA financed the release of a diverse mix of popular and art films, mainstream and auteur productions, from the big budget Hollywood style Blackbook to auteur films such as The Silence of Lorna, Il divo and The Class. The majority of the films supported were dramas, including historical and war films, as well as heritage films, a European genre par excellence, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, Sophie Scholl, Good Morning, Night and Good Bye Lenin!

Many of these films replicate values considered to be European and listed in the Treaty of Lisbon, including human dignity, freedom, democracy and equality. These ‘MEDIA films’ mirror the diversity of contemporary European cinema, yet one that is framed by meaningful boundaries. MEDIA favours a middlebrow cinema – a ‘middlebrow-ness’ that, through its inclusive guise (not too ‘popular’ to be disparaged; not too ‘arty’ to be alienating) echoes the notion of universality, at the core of European identity. But did this resonate with European cinemagoers?

In 2014 the EC launched Creative Europe, which merged previous EU initiatives in support of music, literature, heritage and the audio-visual industry, under a new, more general, umbrella. This crucially signified the end of MEDIA as a single and independent programme. It is now a ‘sub-programme’ of Creative Europe, which will have a significant impact on its strategy and funding.

The EC seems to have realized one of the key problems in Europe’s audio-visual sector has been the difficulty in attracting viewers for European films. As part of Creative Europe, initiatives for the support of film literacy and audience development are already in place. Guaranteeing the success of such initiatives, however, might prove to be a particularly thorny challenge for an institution that has, in recent years, been accused of losing touch with those it represents.

Dr Mariana Liz is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds. She is the co-editor of The Europeanness of European Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2015). For more on MEDIA, the idea of Europe and European film please see her monograph Euro-Visions: Europe in Contemporary Cinema, forthcoming with Bloomsbury.

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