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What makes European films travel?

The question of what makes European film travel is currently high of the agenda for industry professionals and policymakers. Huw D Jones argues the most successful European film exports tend to have elements audiences are already culturally familiar with.

At the Cannes Film Festival next month, industry figures are meeting to discuss what makes European films travel. The debate, organised by the European Audiovisual Observatory, addresses one of the key questions explored by the MeCETES project. So it seems an appropriate time to share some of our own insights into the circulation and reception of European films.

Number of successful European film exports 2004-14

Figure 1: Successful European film exports as a proportion of total film output in Europe, 2004-14. Source: MeCETES / LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

The first point to make is that very few European films successfully travel outside their own national market. Over the last decade, Europe produced more than 11,000 films. Yet less than half (46%) were theatrically released in another European country, while only 211 (2%) sold more than 1 million cinema tickets in Europe outside their country of origin – our benchmark for a ‘successful European film export’ (figure 1).

Altogether, non-national European films accounted for only 12% of European cinema admissions in the period 2004-14 (figure 2). By comparison, 65% of admissions were for American films, while 21% were for national productions (leaving films from the rest of the world with the remaining 2% of admissions).

Across all media platforms (including TV, DVD and VOD), only 14% of Europeans say they regularly watch films from other European countries, according to a survey for the European Commission. This compares with 58% of Europeans who say they regularly watch American films and 20% who frequently watch films from their own country.

Transatlantic European films

European box office by market share

Figure 2: European box office by country of origin, 2004-14. Source: LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

Given the mainstream popularity of American movies, it is hardly surprising that many successful European film exports have come about through Hollywood collaboration. Indeed, of the top 30 European films by non-national European admissions released in the period 2004-14, all but four titles – The Intouchables, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Volver and Welcome to the Sticks – involved some US financial or creative input.

While many of these successful European film exports feature European characters, stories and settings, a large part of their money and creative talent is American (figure 3). Most are also produced in the English language, even if their characters come from non-English speaking countries (figure 4), and they tend to imitate Hollywood aesthetic styles (a high proportion of successful European film exports are action and adventure films, for example – figure 5). To borrow the phrase my colleague Nathan Townsend has used to describe Working Title Films, the UK subsidy of Universal Pictures, they may be described as ‘transatlantic’ European films.

Britain has the strongest ties with the US, partly because it shares a common language, but also because it has fervently encouraged lucrative US inward investment through offering film tax relief. Two-thirds of its successful European film exports have involved American production partners, while half have employed American directors, scriptwriters or leading actors.

Successful European exports - transatlantic & contintental

Figure 3: Successful European film exports by country of origin. Source: MeCETES / LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

These are epitomised by British-made but US studio-financed action-adventure blockbusters, such as the hugely popular James Bond and Harry Potter franchises, which together account for nine of the top ten most successful European film exports of the past decade. We might also include within the ‘transatlantic’ category some of the more modestly budgeted British comedies and period dramas that also involve US studios, such as Universal, which has produced and distributed many Working Title films (e.g. Bridget Jones, Mr Bean’s Holiday, Pride and Prejudice), or smaller independent American producers, such as the Weinstein Company, which part financed The King’s Speech, The Iron Lady and Philomena, or British films which are primarily UK financed but involve high profile American creative talent, such as Match Point, directed by Woody Allan and staring Scarlett Johansson.

Britain is not the only European county to work closely with the US. Almost half of Germany’s most successful films exports, a third of those produced in France and Spain, and a quarter of Italy’s involve some American financial or creative input. These include a number of European-made action blockbusters, such as the Taken and Transporter franchises, produced by France’s EuropaCorp, or the Resident Evil spin-offs, made by Germany’s Constantin Films – movies which are generally seen as ‘American’ in terms of their language, casting and cinematic style, even if they often involve European characters and settings.

Successful European film exports by language

Figure 4: Successful European film exports by primary language of production. Source: MeCETES / LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

We might also include a handful of large-budget CGI animations, such as Belgium’s Sammy’s Adventures or Spain’s Planet 51, which essentially copy DreamWorks or Pixar productions in terms of their aesthetic style and characters, as well as several mid-budget English-language auteur dramas staring A-list Hollywood leading actors, such as Roman Polanski’s Carnage (Jodi Foster), Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (Scarlett Johansson) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (Ryan Gosling).

What therefore enables many European films to travel is the fact they offer a European version of the Hollywood cinema which European audiences are most familiar with.

Continental European films

Not all successful European film exports involve US participation: 94 out of the 211 European titles (45%) to have sold one million cinema tickets or more in Europe outside their country of origin involved no significant American financial or creative input (figure 3).

Successful European exports by genre

Figure 5: Successful European film exports by genre. Source: MeCETES / LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

These ‘continental’ European films (a term which could also be extended to some independent British and Irish films) can be sub-divided into three further categories. Firstly, about half may be described as auteur-driven dramas and documentaries – relatively low budget, artistically produced films, often addressing serious or controversial subject matter, which are primarily made for the festival or arthouse circuit, but which have nevertheless managed to crossover to reach a more mainstream audience. They include some of Europe’s most critically-acclaimed films: a third, for example, were selected for competition at Cannes, while almost half received an Oscar award or nomination.

Many successful auteur-driven dramas are made by well-established European directors, such as Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke or Ken Loach, though some of the most popular exports travel because they focus on well-known European historical figures (e.g. The Queen, Coco Before Channel, La Vie En Rose, Downfall) or are based on best-selling European novels (e.g. Gomorrah, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, and the Millennium trilogy). Certain European actors, such as Mads Mikkelson or Marion Cotillard, can also be a draw (though this is partly because they have become better known through Hollywood films and television dramas).

Successful European exports by production method

Figure 6: Successful European film exports by production method. Source: MeCETES / LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

Secondly, there are a small number of mid-budget comedy-dramas, such as France’s Intouchables, Welcome to the Sticks, Serial (Bad) Weddings and Nothing to Declare, which defy the assumption that comedies don’t travel well outside their domestic market. These films are far less critically acclaimed than auteur dramas. However, they have wider audience appeal through their use of uplifting stories and likeable (if somewhat stereotypical) characters, even if they also sometimes touch on more serious social issues, such as racism or disability.

Finally, there are family films and animations, such as the French-made Asterix franchise or the German-made Lilli the Witch or Vicky the Viking films, which offer big-screen adaptations of well-known European children’s books, cartoons or comics. In terms of their budgets and production values, these films have more in common with transatlantic European films, yet they rarely do well in either the British or US markets, partly because they require dubbing (which is less common in English-speaking markets than mainland Europe).

Cultural familiarity

Successful European exports by source of funding

Figure 7: Successful European film exports by source by funding. Source: MeCETES / LUMIERE Pro / IMDb

There is no easy answer to the question of what makes a European film travel. Yet a couple of things are common to most successful European film exports – whether they might be described as ‘transatlantic’ or ‘continental’ in terms of their financial and creative input.

Firstly, these films have significantly larger budgets than most European films (about $42 million on average compared with $2-3 million), enabling them to secure higher quality creative talent and production values. Even the most successful auteur dramas have budgets which are three or four times higher than the average European film. This is partly because most successful European exports involve international partners, allowing them to pool financial resources and access public funding from their partner’s territory (figure 6). Less than a third of successful European exports are purely national productions, compared with three-quarters of other European films. They are also more likely to involve the financial support of major European production houses, broadcasters and public funding bodies (figure 7).

Secondly, most successful European exports have strong marketing and distribution, whether it is from US studios like Universal, 20th Century Fox or Warner Bros. in the case of ‘transatlantic’ European films, or from some of the larger independent distributors, such as Pathé, StudioCanal or eOne, in the case of many ‘continental’ European films. Few are released by the smaller independent distributors which typically specialise in foreign-language and arthouse cinema. It is also worth noting that half of all successful European exports (compared with 10% of other European films) have received distribution support from the EU’s MEDIA programme, though the actual impact of this funding is difficult to quantify.

Finally, in terms of their cultural content, successful European exports often display elements which European audiences are already culturally familiar with. This might be because they appropriate Hollywood norms, in the case with many ‘transatlantic’ European films, or because they are made by well-established directors or focus on well-known historical or fictional characters, in the case with the most successful ‘continental’ European films. Indeed, it is precisely these familiar cultural elements which make such films attractive to the most powerful film production companies and distributors, and therefore more likely to benefit from lager budgets and stronger marketing and distribution.

In other words, while production budgets and distribution are obviously important, what matters most in terms of enabling European films to travel is the extent to which audiences are already familiar with some aspect of the film’s cultural content – which is why the current policy drive to improve the circulation and viewership of European films simply by making European films more available in cinemas or online is unlikely to succeed.

Films from other European countries may offer the chance to encounter other languages, cultures and identities. But most Europeans preferring watching those European films which have an element of culturally familiarity.

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