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Szolnok Conference 04: Trans-Europa Express
No Man's Land
By Hans-Günther Dicks

I'm coming from a country, Germany, which up to 1989 belonged partly to what was then called the East and partly to the West. That of course doesn't make me a kind of magician who has all the answers to the problems on this colloque's agenda. But the now fifteen years of experience in the process of "reunification" and of melting two formerly opposite, even hostile states into one might be considered a small scale model for the way to European unification. So the first part of my lecture will be looking back on these years and evaluating the facts and results of this process. Maybe from there we can arrive at some conclusions for the present and the future. But far from giving answers I'm afraid I can only add a lot of questions to the ones that have come up so far.

I'd like to start with a rhetorical one: We're meeting here to discuss European Community's expansion to the East, especially the consequences this has or might have for filmmaking and the film industries in the new and the future EU member states. But can you imagine a similar international conference dealing with the art of painting, music, literature or even cooking — which, too, certainly is a means of cultural expression? The reason why such conferences are unlikely to happen lies in the different economic conditions both for their production and their marketing. You can start painting or writing a novel individually, with just a brush and colours or a pen and a pencil, i.e. without a considerable amount of technical or financial resources. Even the most delicious meal would hardly cost a fortune, whereas filmmaking and film marketing, as we all know, needs not only the collaboration of large crews of people but also an ever increasing amount of money. On the other hand film as part of today's mass media certainly has a much bigger impact on mankind than any of Picasso's paintings or Bocuse's gourmet delicacies.

This, unfortunately, makes film some kind of a mongrel, a creature trying to survive in a highly disputed no man's land between the shining realm of art and artists and the harsh laws of economy and industrial production. Up to the late 1980s, the socialist countries kept struggling to compete with the western countries on almost all levels of production and trade. But at the same time they seemed to voluntarily disregard the market rules in their cultural policy. Cultural issues were considered not a means of economic trade or profit making but an instrument for enhancing the lives and aesthetic education of their peoples in order to create the "new socialist man". Since Lenin had called film "the most important of all arts", cinema of course had to play a major role in this policy. Consequently socialist governments allotted considerable parts of their state budgets to their film industries.

This, as we all know by now, was not always to the benefit of filmmakers. I remember many talks between filmmakers from both sides of the inner-German border at Leipzig and other festivals in which either side seemed to envy the other: Those from the west had to put all their energy into getting their projects financed, mostly from private sources or even by loans on a future heritage. Once their film was ready for cinema release they often found the bulk of their country's screens occupied by Hollywood blockbusters that pledged more revenue for the cinema owners. Which meant and still means that around 20% of the entire German film production never get a release in cinemas, and another 20% is only distributed with less than ten prints.

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (as probably in other socialist countries) economic problems of this kind were widely unknown to filmmakers. They sometimes got their regular salaries even without actually working, and the official quota system in the state-controlled distribution sector made sure their films could find an audience. But in turn for such privileges they had to face more or less tight censorship. For instance in GDR in 1965 almost the entire annual output of DEFA's feature film studios was banned and shelved for political reasons.

As a rule censors tend to be less sophisticated and less open to innovative ideas than both their 'clients' and their audience. So the filmmakers kept complaining about their superiors' narrow-mindedness, and some left the country. Among large parts of the audience the esteem for DEFA films dwindled towards zero, and the small revenues in hard currency that DEFA films had earned in the west often had to be spent on second class Hollywood films to fill the GDR cinemas. I remember my visits to East-Berlin to keep track of DEFA productions — which was impossible at home in Cologne because hardly any DEFA film ever was shown on western screens. One day I took a taxi from one cinema to the next, and the taxi driver told me what he looked for in films, namely political and history topics, "real life topics that matter" as he put it. Then he asked me about the film I was going to see, and I told him it was about a young jew who tried to survive the Nazi rule by entering the Hitlerjugend but then got caught and tortured. "Sounds interesting", he answered, "what country does that film come from?" - but he immediately lost all interest once he learnt it was a DEFA film.

The young man's premature disappointment at a film he hadn't even seen probably matched my disappointment at his reaction. And yet in hindsight I thought he was a kind of moviegoer I would always prefer to the likes I had often seen in west German cinemas: young couples queuing at the box office of a big old cinema which had been turned into a dozen small so called "matchbox cinemas" screening the latest "variety" of Hollywood blockbusters, and only when they reached the desk they made up their mind which film they wanted to see. This observation told me that for at least part of the younger audience there had been a shift in their motivation: They no longer went to see a certain film, but made their choice from the cinema "menu" the same way they would choose their meals at a restaurant. Movie-going, mostly including soft drinks and a bag of popcorn, had become casual and just another way of spending two hours of their spare time.

It seems obvious that the cinema business was bound to lose this sector of the audience once they got older and preferred the comfortable armchair at home in front of the video set to the shaggy offers in the matchbox cinemas. One generation ago, the cinemas had lost vast parts of their audience in a similar way to the upcoming TV. Now with the ample offer of the video shops popping up like mushrooms everywhere people were even able to compile their own programme. The cinema industry, already weakened by the TV challenge now was in for another heavy blow — and came up with some kind of magic salvation formula named multiplex: huge building complexes of a dozen or more cinemas, all equipped with perfect seating and viewing comfort and state of the art projection technique, but with a rather dull programme of almost exclusively mainstream films.

The result was predictable. In no time at all the shining new palaces that replaced the matchbox houses were packed with the 'popcorn audience'. That forced traditional and often technically rundown cinemas into bankruptcy by the dozens. An example some of you might know is the city of Cottbus where a new multiplex built in the nearby countryside led to the closure of all remaining city cinemas, leaving Cottbus as probably the only city worldwide that hosts a renowned international film festival without having a cinema within its borders.

Which brings us back to 1989 and the German reunification with its unprecedented radical changes. Since this was more a one-sided takeover than a union of two states on equal terms, there were only minor changes in western Germany whereas for the GDR cinema sector it became a literally breathtaking shake-up.

The Treuhand, the authority set up to deal with the transformation and privatisation of formerly state-owned enterprises started by selling or actually selling out all GDR cinemas to west German investors, namely to the two or three big cinema chains that had been the top players in the west. But these chains were no longer interested in the traditional way of running cinemas. So they closed down a lot of small one-screen houses especially in rural areas and started building multiplexes in or near big cities. Today in rural parts of the former east of Germany I could hardly afford to go from one cinema to the next by taxi, and the driver I mentioned above would certainly have a wider choice of Hollywood movies on offer, but it seems highly unlikely he would find a film that really matters to him.

By now the multiplex boom has calmed down considerably, but the trend is still on. The official FFA (German Film Finding Board) statistics of ticket sales comparing traditional and multiplex cinemas show that the multiplexes with a share of only 26,6% of all screens sell around 46% of all tickets and take 48% of all earnings. By 2006 they will probably outstrip the traditional sector. Even more revealing is an east-west comparison: according to the latest FFA figures for Berlin — figures for the entire country would probably be similar — in the west around 36% of all cinema tickets were sold at multiplexes, while in the east this figure was more than twice as high, 73% of all tickets.

As for the production sector there is no cause for optimism either. The flourishing landscapes in the east which chancellor Kohl promised in 1989 are nowhere to be found, least of all in film production. The smaller studios were privatised likewise, some went out of business, others only survived by working for TV. The big one at Potsdam-Babelsberg with all its tradition reaching back to the pioneer years of cinema, with all its well-trained manpower and craftsmanship was taken over by the French water supply (!) trust CGE under a ten year contract. The well-known (west-)German film director Volker Schlöndorff was appointed head of the studio, and he started by stating that "the name DEFA doesn't smell good" — yet he admittedly hadn't seen more than two or three DEFA films. In the following years the studio's workforce and staff were reduced to only a few dozen, and most of the studio's receipts came from TV productions or the service sector. Just recently the studios were again resold to new owners, this time two almost unknown investors who haven't disclosed their plans yet.

For the DEFA film professionals this meant that after a short period of time in which they could relish their new freedom from censorship they soon had to cave in to the jungle laws of market economy. Some tried to learn these laws in a crash course, others simply gave up and quit filmmaking altogether. But those who continued working often got the impression that the new system after all wasn't that different to what they had had in GDR times. The censorship by party bureaucrats was gone, but did it really matter whether they couldn't get their films made for political reasons or because the people with the money didn't expect any profit from their project? The former system of "dramaturgists" or dramatic advisers and state approvals for films was gone, but did the officials from various film funding boards or the bank clerks they now had to deal with really have more artistic insight or sensitivity for an artist's delicate mind? In GDR some of the better film directors who were after a more refined and demanding audience successfully had avoided working for TV which they considered to be more subservient to official propaganda. How could they now expect to cope with the west German system where hardly any film got made without TV collaboration? State or regional film funding committees largely depend on money from TV-stations who always have a keen eye on their audience ratings and exert their influence on these committees accordingly. The various kinds of advice and script doctoring that come mandatory with the subsidies claim to enhance the quality of the project but often leave only a skeleton of what the filmmaker had in mind. Aren't they the free market equivalent to the former party censors?

The disillusionment probably was even greater in the other ex-socialist countries. They unlike the ex-GDR first were asked to go through a probation period before being allowed to benefit from EU membership - if at all there's a benefit in it. Other speakers will certainly supply more details here. For instance in 2000 the Czech-born film maker Robert Buchar made a documentary on Czech cinema from the 1960s up to the results of the "velvet revolution" in the 1990s. The statements he got from 14 prominent Czech filmmakers were strikingly summed up in the film's title: The Velvet Hangover. In Russia, after all subsidies for the film industry had gone with the end of the Soviet Union, for a few years almost no films were made at all — except those allegedly financed by illegal earnings of the new Russian mafia.

Once film is stripped of its cultural identity and made a marketable good just like wheat and industrial products, too many decision makers in the film business only aim at better ratings or higher profits. Artistic values of a project are no longer seen as an asset but as a liability to shareholder values. So it's hardly surprising that according to a report in Screen International German investors put an annual 2,1 billion Euro of venture capital into big Hollywood projects thus financing around 15% of Tinseltown's entire production, while all German federal and regional film subsidies add up to only a small fraction of that sum, and even the EU spends only half that amount. Please pardon my sarcasm, but might it be that the only gain the film industry in your countries could expect from joining the EU is through service deals for Hollywood blockbusters which are financed partly with European venture capital and then force your own films into a cutthroat competition about market shares? I remember reading that the Prague authorities even allowed some beautiful old trees near the famous Charles Bridge to be felled for the shooting of the Tom Cruise movie Mission Impossible . Did they at least use the wood for some park benches so that some of the former staff at Barrandov studios who lost their jobs through privatisation can spend their spare time by the river?

But then there is MEDIA with all its various departments, the big feeding trough in Brussels to nourish the ailing European media industry until it gets strong enough to make Hollywood tremble with fear. There's the MEDIA Business School training young producers, there's the European Council's Eurimages programme for European co-productions, and there is Europa Cinemas connecting some hundred cinemas that dedicate a certain share of their programmes to European films. But as usually happens at feeding troughs the strongest pigs always claim the biggest bites. The French, undoubtedly European cinema's Nr. 1, make sure they have their say in all MEDIA matters, and Dieter Kosslick, former head of the European Film Distribution Office EFDO and now director of the Berlin Film Festival, blamed the French influence for EFDO's closure in 1996 in spite of it's being the one really successful section of MEDIA.

Last year another section of MEDIA also closed down, but this time with unfinished business. I'm speaking of EUREKA, a programme set up for countries that were not yet eligible for EU membership, i.e. in former Yugoslavia etc. I remember a few years ago at the film camera festival Manaki Brothers in Bitola (Macedonia) two EUREKA representatives came to explain the aims and means of their institution. In the end to everyone's surprise they suggested that EUREKA support a workshop in Macedonia, not for cinematographers, as you might expect, but for script-writers. It seems the Brussels bureaucracy — some already call it eurocracy — carries on regardless. Eurocracy seems also to be the reason why France and Holland obviously plan to withdraw from Eurimages. France' film funding powerhouse CNC blames Eurimages for "the lack of clarity in its decision making process" and the huge amount of paperwork causing a "bureaucratic nightmare of applying for funding". Even Ryclef Rienstra, who headed Eurimages in its early years, now says it's "an illusion to think that Eurimages has lead or will lead to a stronger industry" and expects it "to die a peaceful death in due course". And even more recently its president Gianni Massaro resigned for similar reasons, blaming "crippling bureaucracy" and an insufficient budget to cover the larger membership.

So there seems to be little cause for optimism. If there's anything that can make Hollywood moguls tremble with fear, it's the menace of internet piracy, not European rivals. Since the future of European cinema as a whole seems bleak the prospects for its new members aren't any brighter. Maybe — once again pardon my sarcasm — we find some consolation in the fact that for the time being European filmmakers at least don't have to worry about piracy of their films. So film critics like me can at least watch them in press screenings without passing through security checks and bodyguards which the Hollywood companies have made a nasty and arrogant rule for their screenings.

Hans-Günther Dicks

Lecture given at the Szolnok Conference Trans-Europa Express, Septemer 17-19, 2004.



selected items

bullet. Truffaut, Interviews
bullet. 5th Soviet Congress
bullet. Is Criticism Art?
bullet. Readings

bullet. archive

Szolnok 04

Hans-Günther Dicks
Danko Jesic
Angel Comas
Thomas Kurelec
Mariola Wiktor
Dana Duma
Daniela Bisogni
Tibor Hirsch
Balázs Varga