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Minority Language Cinema in Europe

As campaigners call for the production of more minority language films in Europe, Huw D Jones explores the language of European cinema.

Last week saw the launch of the manifesto Glocal Cinemas, Big Stories, Small Countries  at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Backed by 24 film professionals from 15 European countries and regions, the manifesto calls for more cinema production and co-production in “non-hegemonic languages” – which are defined as “all languages spoken in Europe, apart from English, French, Italian, Spanish and German”.

This is necessary, the campaign group says, because “diversity is one of the great values we have in Europe” and “every community [needs] to tell its own stories in its own languages”.

Europe is certainly linguistically diverse: the continent boasts 24 official languages plus another 60 languages which are spoken within specific regions or by specific groups. But to what extent does European cinema reflect this diversity?

To find out, I decided to look in more detail at the language of films produced in Europe* over the last decade using data from the European Audovisual Observatory’s LUMIERE database and IMDb. (*defined as EU28 / EFTA member states)

How many European films are produced in minority languages?

There were 11,028 films produced in Europe during the period 2004-14, of which 771 were missing language information on IMDb, leaving a total dataset of 10,257 films.

European film production

Fig. 1: European films by language of production, 2004-14. Sources: LUMIERE / European Audiovisual Observatory / IMDb. (NB: percentages have been “weighted” for films with more than one language – e.g. a film produced in English / Welsh is weighted 50% English and 50% Welsh).

On average, 62% of these European films were produced in one of Europe’s five “hegemonic” languages (figure 1). English-language films were the most common (18%), followed by films in French (17%), German (10%), Italian (9%) and Spanish (8%).

“Non-hegemonic” or (as I prefer to call them) “minority language” films accounted for the remaining 38%. In total, Europe had produced films in 164 difference languages – from Aboriginal to Zulu.

A recent study by Kulyk Laëtitia in The Europeanness of European Cinema (I. B. Tauris, 2015) suggests that the number of English-language films produced in Europe has increased significantly since the early-1990s. She argues this is partly because producers are keen to reach a global audience, particularly the lucrative US market.

Certainly the period covered by my own dataset (2004-14) saw a 67% increase in the actual number of English-language films. However, as a proportion of total European film production, English-language films have remained fairly stable over the last decade. The same is also true of French-language films.

European films by language of production

Fig. 2: Proportion of purely minority language films produced by European territory, 2004-14. Sources: IMDb / European Audiovisual Observatory / IMDb.

The proportion of Italian-language films increased slightly from 6% in 2004 to 8% in 2014, while the proportion of German-language films fell from 13% to 9%. Spanish-language films experienced an even sharper drop, from 12% in 2004 to 6% in 2014 (though this is partly because LUMIERE hasn’t updated Spain’s 2014 production figures).

Most remarkable, though, has been the growth in minority language films from 35% in 2004 to 42% in 2014 – a healthy 20% increase (though again, that could be because the 2014 figures are not fully up-to-date). The proportion of minority language films in Europe has certainly not declined over the past decade.

Lithuanian-language films experienced the highest growth rate (increasing by 34% per year on average), followed by films produced in Croatian (28% per year), Slovak (26% per year) and Latvian (21% per year) – a trend perhaps triggered by the new availability of European film subsidies following the accession of Central and Eastern European countries to the EU after 2004.

But while 38% of European films are produced in minority languages, about a quarter of these feature some spoken English, French, German, Spanish or Italian as well. Only 29% of European films are  produced purely in minority languages (figure 2).

Even so, this still represents a fairly high proportion of films made outside the linguistic mainstream. Indeed, the proportion European films produced purely in minority language  has grown significantly over the past decade, from 26% in 2004 to 34% in 2014 – largely fueled by a dramatic rise in the number of domestic features (as opposed to international co-productions), which have expanded at twice the rate of European film production as a whole (128% compared with 63%).

How do European films produced in minority languages perform?

But if minority language films represent a fairly high proportion of European film output, this is not reflected at the box office.

European box office by language 2004-14

Fig. 3: European box office by language of production, 2004-14. Sources: LUMIERE / European Audiovisual Observatory / IMDb. (NB: “weighted” percentages)

Films produced in English, French, German, Italian or Spanish together account for 84% of cinema admissions  in Europe (as a “weighted” proportion) – with English-language films taking the lion’s share (60%) of admissions, largely due to the popularity of Hollywood movies (figure 3). Indeed, films made with at least some spoken English account for 80% of ticket sales in Europe.

By contrast, films produced in minority languages account for only 16% of European cinema admissions – a figure which also includes films produced outside Europe (such as Turkish- or Russian-language films). If we only consider European films, the box office share for minority language films drops to only 6% of admissions. And if we ignore domestic ticket sales and only consider admissions outside the film’s country of origin, the share falls to 2% of total European admissions – or 15.9m out of the 886.7m tickets sold in Europe on average per year.

In fact, the number of European cinema-goers who actually see minority language films from other European countries in their original version is lower still, since many European territories (particularly larger markets like France, Germany, Italy and Spain) dub foreign-language films into the local tongue. Even in subtitling territories, animations and children’s films – which account for a large proportion of European film admissions – are generally dubbed as well.

Boost demand not supply

Thus the market for minority language European films is very small indeed. Which is why the Glocal Cinemas, Big Stories, Small Countries manifesto must be welcomed. However, by calling for more European films to be produced in minority languages, the group behind this initiative are perhaps missing the problem.

The actual numbers of European films produced in minority languages are fairly high. True, there could be more minority language co-productions, since co-productions generally circulate more widely in Europe than entirely domestic features. But the real problem is that few Europeans are watching films produced in minority languages – particularly outside their domestic market.

So rather than increase the supply of minority language, I would urge the ‘glocal cinemas’ group to think more about boosting the demand for such films. That not only means creating “new distribution and exhibition opportunities” – as the manifesto puts it – but also thinking about ways of encouraging audiences to embrace a more diverse European cinema.

For more analysis on the language of European cinema, download our statistical report.

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