Crossing Boundaries

The ThinkTank on Film and Film Policy was formally set up in June 2007 with the support of the Danish Film Institute. One focus of the initial work that it has kicked off with a three-day workshop in Vienna in April and which continues with a similar workshop in Amsterdam in June, is on the factors that affect the ability of films to access international markets.

If, as is the case for several European countries, a country's films have a percentage market share in their home market in single digits, and citizens in those countries go to the cinema on average twice a year, it means that each individual will see in the cinema an average of one national film less than once every 10 years. This raises the question — being addressed by filmmakers, distributors and film funders, as well as by the ThinkTank — about how to build an identity for and an awareness of a country’s cinema. And if this is the situation for a country's cinema at home, what are its prospects abroad?

"If, as is the case for several European countries, a country's films have a percentage market share in their home market in single digits, and citizens in those countries go to the cinema on average twice a year, it means that each individual will see in the cinema an average of one national film less than once every 10 years.

"If, as is the case for several European countries, a country's films have a percentage market share in their home market in single digits, and citizens in those countries go to the cinema on average twice a year, it means that each individual will see in the cinema an average of one national film less than once every 10 years.


If, as is the case for most European countries, you are a small country with a big neighbour (with which you may well share a common language), what can you expect? The usual answer to this question is: "Not very much." The big neighbor makes it even more difficult for you to reach your national audience as you compete not only with Hollywood but with the better-funded, betterpromoted and better-distributed blockbusters from across the border.

Analysis carried out by the ThinkTank to prepare for the Vienna and Amsterdam events, undertaken with the help the European Audiovisual Observatory and of filmmakers and funding bodies in Austria and in the Benelux countries, suggests a more complex relationship between the cinemas in those countries and, in the case of Austria and Belgium, their big next-door neighbours. For example, Flemish children's films do much better in the Netherlands than Dutch children's films do in Flanders. And while Dutch and Flemish TV programmes do well in each other’s markets, the films for adults – like the children’s films and the TV programmes, in the same language – do not. And the performance of French films in Belgium and of German films in Austria is less than half as good as what one might expect based on their performance in their big home markets.

While audiences do identify with national films, this identification is not primarily about language. It would seem that some filmmakers and some film funding bodies are being more successful in capitalising on the audience's identification with its national films than others.


The main conclusion of this work is really a proposition for further discussion: The reason why European films don't travel has little or nothing to do with language. It has to do with the attitude of the people who make, distribute and pay for the films to be made, in particular their confidence in the ability of the films they are handling to appeal to foreign audiences.

The industry's lack of confidence is based on the self-fulfilling prophecy that the opportunities for films outside of their national market are so limited that they are not worth bothering about. There are not the slots in the release schedules or space in the public’s and the media’s attention for these films. So even if a film were wonderful, there is no way of getting it to the audience. Better to concentrate on the main business which, in the case of the filmmakers is satisfying their pay-masters, the public funds, and in the case of the public funds, satisfying their pay-masters, the politicians.

In Belgium, France and the Netherlands, it will often be left up to fragile, independent distributors to handle the next-door neighbour's (and other countries') films, releasing them long after the big campaign for the national release has taken place. This is hardly a recipe for realising the films’ full potential or the creation of wonderful cinema.


When the ThinkTank was being launched, we prepared a dataset of European films in official selection at Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto: These were the films that were likely to be distributed outside of their country of origin.

We used this dataset to produce an analysis of how European films get to be seen around the world. This analysis was made available for the first ThinkTank meeting in Copenhagen in June 2006 and published in February 2007 in The Copenhagen Report (

The results of this work were summarised by Giorgio Gosetti, the man who for many years was in charge of promoting Italian cinema, more recently the director of the Rome Film Festival and a member of the ThinkTank advisory: "Your definition of a successful European film is a film either produced or sold by a French company." Giorgio was reacting to the preponderance of titles in the dataset that originated with and/or were handled by French producers/sales agents. He was also reacting to the apparently poor performance of Italian producers and sales agents.

To build on this analysis, as part of the ThinkTank's current programme, and with the help of the Austrian Film Institute and the European Audiovisual Observatory, we have produced analyses of films produced in Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. In keeping with the ThinkTank approach, and in contrast with much of the data that are published both at a national and a European level, we do not only look at the successful films; indeed, we think we can learn more by looking at the unsuccessful films.

Our idea was to see what we could learn from the films produced in these three countries. In particular:
• How did French-Belgian films fare in France, and Flemish films fare in the Netherlands relative to the national films in France and the Netherlands?
• Did Dutch films perform better in Belgium than they did in other European countries?
• Where did Austrian films perform best?
In short, we wanted to go beyond the common-sense view that language is both the unique selling point for national films, especially in those countries that tend not to dub, and the obstacle to the circulation of films around Europe.


In Scandinavia, it is well-understood that films from one Scandinavian country do not tend to perform well in other Scandinavian countries even when their languages are very similar. By looking at the Austrian, Belgian and Dutch films, we hoped to shed some light on this issue. Does the audience's identification with national films extend beyond language to include particularities of which filmmakers wanting their films to be seen in different countries need to be more aware? Or is the poor performance of films outside of the country of origin less to do with language and culture and much more to do with industrial structures, in particular the difficulty films from other countries find getting the distributors' and audiences' attention. To put it very cruelly, is it a case of films from other countries being nobody’s business and nobody caring whether they are seen or not? Not the distributors in the country and probably not the people who made the film either. And the people who financed the film, do they care? And if they care, what if anything can they do about it?

It is clear from the data that French-produced films enjoy better access to the Belgian market than they do to any other foreign territory. Likewise, Belgian films are more likely to be distributed in France and/or the Netherlands than in any other countries outside Belgium. The same number of Belgian films — 23 out of 55 in our sample — is released in the two neighbouring countries but they are often different films: nearly all the Belgian films released in France are Francophone films and nearly all are Franco-Belgian coproductions. On the other hand, only a handful of the Belgian films released in the Netherlands were Dutch-Belgian coproductions and half were French-language.


Straightaway we can see in relation to Belgian films in the Netherlands that language is not the main factor. Nevertheless the access that Belgian films enjoy to the Dutch market is striking: The number of Belgian films released in the Netherlands is between three and six times greater than the number released in the much bigger markets of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

Let us now look at the traffic of Dutch films. 40 Dutch films produced between 2002 and 2005 were released outside of the Netherlands. Of these 40, 31 were released in Belgium. 14 were released only in Belgium.

The sense that Belgium (or rather Flanders) is a fairly easy market for Dutch films turns out to be rather deceptive. Whereas Flemish films perform quite well in the Netherlands (their Dutch admissions are nearly 50% of what they achieve in Belgium), Dutch films do considerably less well in Belgium: their Belgian admissions are 3% of their Dutch admissions. All things being equal, if language were the key factor, these Dutch films would have got around 5 million admissions in Flanders. They got 236,000.

There is a complicated dynamic in operation: There seems to be a barrier in Belgium — even in French-speaking Belgium — to French films, just as there seems to be a barrier in Flanders to Dutch films. The barrier would also seem to operate in the opposite direction: French-speaking Belgian films on average achieve about twice the admissions in France that they do in Belgium even though the French market is 20 times the size of the Frenchspeaking Belgian market.

Is this same barrier evident in the case of Austrian films in Germany and German films in Austria?

The German cinema market is eight times larger than the Austrian one. On average, the German audience for a German-language film is 15 times larger than the Austrian audience, that is, twice what one would predict. The exception is for Austrianproduced films: Of a sample of 92 Austrian films produced in the period 2002 to 2006, 25 were released theatrically in Germany. On average, their Austrian audience was two-thirds the size of their German audience.


In its first activities, working with the film sectors in Austria and in the Benelux countries, the ThinkTank is seeking to confront these issues. In discussion with filmmakers and the other stakeholders in those countries, along with inputs from experts around the world, the ThinkTank is busy developing ideas for how to improve the destiny of our cinemas.

In September 2008, we will begin to bring together these ideas at the Forum on the Future of Film Policy which the ThinkTank is working with Institute to put together. We will be publishing results and — we hope — hosting your contributions to our work on our website:

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