The Cinema of Tomorrow: Thinktank Shifts Up A Gear

Multiple initiatives have been launched over the last 20 years to strengthen the European film industry. One of the new kids on the block in terms of addressing the sector’s key policy issues is the Copenhagen-based European Film ThinkTank. The fledgling body has already established enviable momentum, and its conclusions and recommendations are now pondered carefully by industry players.

So how has the ThinkTank been able to make a difference?

First, unlike most European structures – that easily slide into cumbersome and bureaucratic modus operandi due to their 20+ members – the ThinkTank has a small core group of members that includes Europe’s leading film agencies (from France, the UK, Spain, Germany, Denmark and Poland). The ThinkTank has thereby forged a privileged information bridge between key bodies responsible for overseeing the sector’s fortunes.

Second, the ThinkTank is not responsible for disbursing financial assistance or acting as a lobbying group. Instead it aims to forge a new public policy process based on informal meetings where participants can speak openly, thereby creating a new standard for dialogue and common action.

Third, the ThinkTank has forged links with some of the sector’s leading experts and stakeholders who have participated in events organised to date. By drawing on the best minds in the sector, the ThinkTank can tap into latest thinking and draw up concepts of value.

Finally, the management team can boast a strong track record in terms of conjuring up policy measures that can turn around a film industry.

A FRESH START

ThinkTank Director Henning Camre is widely hailed as the godfather of new Danish cinema after his pathbreaking tenure at the National Film School of Denmark (1975-92), where he groomed new talent, and his record as CEO of the relaunched Danish Film Institute (1998-2007), overseeing a fourfold jump in public funding and a doubling of admissions for national films.

Camre also has extensive international experience, including a six-year tenure as director of the UK’s National Film and Television School (1992-98). One of Camre’s key principles in terms of devising public policy recommendations is that people make a difference. Responsible for a masterplan that led to a complete overhaul of the Danish film industry, he never lost sight of the need to allow talent to flourish and to minimise bureaucratic red tape.

He also has no fear in speaking his mind on thorny issues and recently provocatively declared that “instead of treating European cinema like a crippled child we have to make a fresh start”.

A TARGETED APPROACH

The ThinkTank doesn’t aim to deliver a uniform blueprint that will apply to all countries and regions, but instead aims to learn from best practices and encourage their discussion and dissemination throughout Europe.

Key issues include scale, policy harmonisation, coherent strategies, simpler co-production rules and a far bigger emphasis on marketing and distribution. One of the key weaknesses identified in Europe is fragmentation – with 921 films a year and over 1100 distributors. The recent Zentropa-Nordisk merger has been cited as an example of how it’s possible to build scale, even in small countries.

COPENHAGEN THINKTANK

Events organised by the ThinkTank to date have attempted to identify the key issues facing the sector and chart core trajectories for the future.

The kick-off event in Copenhagen in June 2006, attended by 170 people, attempted to profile Europe’s unique film ecology and identify organic solutions.The main topic analysed in Copenhagen was how to connect with audiences.

The keynote speaker at Copenhagen was Lord Puttnam who declared the need for a “big-bang” of European film and film policy and reminded participants that European cinema must rekindle its vision and “moral purpose”. In the wake of the 2006 Copenhagen ThinkTank, the organisation was formally incorporated, and foundations were laid for an ambitious series of events in 2008.

VIENNA THINKTANK

In April 2008, a meeting was held in Vienna, co-organised by the Austrian Film Institute (OFI), focusing on how to improve the performance of the Austrian film industry, which has one of the lowest shares of the national boxoffice in Europe.

The meeting commenced with a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, ed.) of the local sector. Key strengths identified included stable public support, strong local talent and significant international prestige, and weaknesses included low audience engagement, little broadcaster involvement and lack of overall film policy.

Lines of suggested future development included more comprehensive film education, new talent mechanisms, higher investment in development and promotion, building critical mass, new links with broadcasters and creation of a consultant system at the OFI to ensure Austrian films reach an audience. One of the ThinkTank’s key concerns is to analyse how to increase the market share for local films and ensure that films from one country can build an audience in other countries. At present, even in regions with a strong local film tradition such as Scandinavia, there is very little interchange of films between countries. Overall, only ten percent of European film producers’ revenues derive from sales outside their own country.

THE KRAKOW FILM POLICY FORUM

The question of how to foster cross-border distribution and thereby guarantee cultural diversity was a key theme underlying the three-day Forum organised by the ThinkTank in September 2008 in Krakow, attended by 150 participants from 35 countries, entitled “Shaping Policies for the Cinema of Tomorrow”. Co-organised by the Council of Europe and the Polish Film Institute, the Forum aimed to delineate strategies for the European film industry that will enable diversity to flourish amidst the challenges of the new digital universe.

The Krakow Forum delivered many thoughtprovoking conclusions, including the primordial need for public film agencies to adapt their strategies to cater to the digital value chain.

COMMON PLATFORMS

Brainstorming, analysis of best practices and definition of new policies are all essential at this critical moment, and the need for a common platform was mentioned in the Forum, e.g. a European Motion Pictures Association, comparable to the MPAA, responsible for promoting European films in local and global markets.

Greater collaboration should be fostered between national support systems, including a radical overhaul on Co-production and bilateral co-production treaties, whose points systems often lose sight of in the essential question of making films for an audience. A common European system of tax breaks for investment in film was also defended. The vital role of international directives was noted, including the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity and the EU’s recently adopted Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS) that can be used to guarantee greater airtime for European films.

Uniform standards of transparency and accountability amongst Europe’s film agencies was advocated, and a recommendation was issued to the European Film Agencies Research Network (EFARN) to prepare a proposal setting out policy indicators to be implemented at national, regional and European levels.

ALTERNATIVE DISTRIBUTION CHANNELS

Distribution was a key area of focus at the Krakow Forum, given that many sales agents and distributors are being forced to revolutionise their activities or go out of business. Many participants stated that US blockbusters are crowding out European films in traditional cinemas, in particular non-national films.

Theatrical cinemas dedicated to showing European films are facing increasing difficulties, and film festivals now play a growing role in compensating this gap, including year-round activities that establish a vital link between filmmakers and communities.

Participants emphasised the need to develop new exhibition windows, including Internet, video-on-demand and digital exhibition. Brazil’s Rain Network constituted by 240 digital screens was cited as an example of how new technologies can be used to provide alternative channels.

Cross-border distribution of national films was identified as a key issue, requiring new mechanisms within national public support systems alongside existing incentives from the MEDIA programme.

NEW FUNDING PRIORITIES

The classic funding model for European films is changing, and the Forum’s participants cited the need for more emphasis on development, promotion and slate funding. Above all, stronger production and distribution companies are required in Europe in order to be able to compete in the global market.

Several growth areas were identified – such as the resurgence of national films in countries such as Brazil and Turkey, and the growing penetration of Latin films in the US market.

Participants from America, Latin America and the Middle East urged European filmmakers to “wake up” and start producing films that have stronger things to say about European culture and can reach out to a wider audience.

Finally, a key area of importance cited in the Forum was to promote the production and circulation of programming targeted at children and young people. The US Majors are masters in grooming audiences from toddler age up, whereas in Europe the creative community is increasingly losing touch with the audience, and this divide begins in childhood. In this regard, plans were made to establish a European film education network, to be presented to the media literacy conference in March 2009.

THE SEVILLE CORE GROUP MEETING

In November 2008, the ThinkTank launched a new type of initiative – a core group meeting attended by 15 stakeholders, dedicated to a key topic.

The Seville core group meeting, “Film Distribution – Strategies for the New Value Chain”, focused on how the industry-audience relationship has changed in the digital world, thereby requiring new community-building strategies that will enable European films to build a stronger market.

Key drivers of change identified include fragmentation of audiences, segmentation of content and concentration of rights distribution. Europe’s distinctive communities, untapped stories, creative talent and agile production structures were seen as significant advantages in adapting to the new environment.

Participants emphasised the need for a new mindset amongst funding agencies and producers. Whereas film agencies have traditionally focused on guaranteeing production and producers on earning their production fee, the new value chain makes it even more important to connect with audiences and draw maximum benefit from intellectual property rights.

Education will play a vital role in enabling the European sector to adapt to the digital universe, and the meeting emphasised the need for an overhaul of Europe’s film schools and organisation of extensive digital media training initiatives.

Finally, participants at Seville suggested that the ThinkTank can act as a bridge between film agencies and industry stakeholders, identifying best practices and launching eye-opening initiatives in this field.

Several areas of further research were identified, such as digital rights management, branding and a SWOT analysis of the European film industry in the new media world.


Building on the momentum of the 2008 events, the ThinkTank plans to organise a mixture of informal core group meetings and large-scale events that seek to continue focusing on bridging the analogue/digital gap and concentrate on establishing greater interoperability between national film policies in Europe.

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