Following on from the European Screens Conference, MeCETES has invited speakers to write a blog about their conference paper. Here, Holly Aylett examines how the arrival of US on-demand services like Netflix poses challenges for European cultural diversity.
Business models are evolving fast for the audio visual industry. Opportunities are opening up at a speed, which makes it hard to imagine the future. The internet giants facilitating this environment are making huge profits from an infinite raw material – content – which is relatively cheap (much being subsidised by public funds) and sold for prices which do not necessarily reflect the value of films to the platforms which benefit from them.
Technology is never neutral and neither is the market place. Without legislating to protect the cultural values which have historically informed Europe’s screens, the range of stories, ways of telling and language of the cinema available to European audiences will diminish.
The European Union’s agenda for culture is informed by objectives which express values shared by its 28 member states:
These cultural values are enshrined in European treaties and the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression, of which Europe is a regional signatory. They amount to a distinctive “culture politique” which with enforcement can counterbalance the economic values which dominate trade relations in a globalised marketplace.
The recent willingness of the European Commission to facilitate the emergence of a digital single market (DSM) has arguably put cultural values in jeopardy, and led to intense resistance amongst Europe’s creator communities. This is because, as proposed, the DSM raises questions on the future of copyright in Europe; access to works for the public; the remuneration of creators; and the fight against counterfeiting.
In particular, the arrival of non-European corporations on the internet, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, and their mastery of the means of distribution, also raises questions on how best to support cultural diversity through related fields of taxation; fair distribution of internet revenues; sectoral support for creation; future rules for film and television; and how competition law should be applied in the digital world.
Whereas Hollywood, through the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), has historically resisted Europe’s legislative frameworks, it is significant that today it is supporting many of the demands of the creator communities, for example on issues of territoriality and copyright. This unusual alliance is indicative that Hollywood sees its economic interests threatened by the dominance of Internet majors in future business models for distribution.
Quotas for European production
A key instrument in these battles is the Audiovisual Media Services Director (AVMSD) directive, which is currently being updated. One of the provisions allows for quotas for European productions. The Commission has proposed implementing a 20% share for EU works on-demand services, but a study by the European Audiovisual Observatory shows that the European average is already 27% for transactional VoD services and 30% for SVoD services. The inclusion of European works averages 23% for iTunes and 22% for Netflix.
By setting the threshold at 20%, the Directive would effectively allow these services to lower their percentage of EU audio-visual works. This at a time when the corporate turnover of these companies far exceeds that of individual EU broadcasting organizations with whom they are in direct competition.
Ultimately, the issue is one of compliance, and whether the Directive will de facto create more equality between Internet giants like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or Google, companies which have used their multiple geographical locations to take advantage of European tax regulations loopholes. These practices undermine local providers, such as Canal Plus in France, which operate within local tax and regulatory regimes designed to ensure a virtuous circle of investment in a diversity of audiovisual films/programmes online & funding mechanisms for local production.
Making women’s films more visible
Another key area of policy is the toolkit necessary to ensure visibility for European film and TV drama so that this content does not disappear into the back catalogue. In an era of convergence it is essential to insist on a clear presence on the homepage for European film and drama and public service television as well as tools to assist users in search of European works.
Such measures are particularly important to ensure the visibility of women’s films. A recent pan-European study which I authored for the European Women’s Audiovisual Network entitled Where are the Women Directors (2005) reveals a nexus of issues responsible for women’s low profile and performance in the sector.
The report reveals that:
In an industry which has always been male dominated and risk averse the relative invisibility of women’s film on commercial circuits plays into a vicious circle affecting the confidence of investors and commissioning gatekeepers. If less work by women is funded, fewer films reach the screen and consequently the patterns of discrimination are repeated. This in spite of figures showing that female graduates from film school comprise 44%, so the talent potentially exists but is being wasted by an industry structured in ways which make it difficult for women to sustain their careers.
The diversity of the audiovisual sector is critical in nurturing communication and tolerance in our societies so the role played by European policy in keeping our screens inclusive must be sustained. Faced by Brexit, the British Film Institute (BFI) and leading creator organisations will have to work closely with European partners to defend established regulatory regimes. However, this will be especially difficult given UK’s historic dependence on American investment and the Conservative government’s reluctance to regulate the competitive interests of the major corporations dominating Internet markets.
Holly Aylett is a filmmaker, lecturer and cultural sector director. She is Vice President of the European Coalitions for Cultural Diversity, ECCD, Head of Research at the European Women’s Audiovisual Network, EWA, and a Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London.