In 1990, the EU launched the MEDIA program to provide support for European films, in danger of being driven to extinction by Hollywood. Fifteen years later, movie houses in Europe are still fighting for survival.
Film attendance is down all over -- for smaller films, that's serious
At the Rex art-house cinema in Bonn, a handful of film enthusiasts have gathered for the opening of the French film "L'Équipier." It's a film about the relation between three people in a small coastal town in Brittany. It's light on special effects star power, and it's a film that won't run in most big cinemas outside of France, since it's not designed for today's mass market.
But the European Union wants to ensure that such smaller, more nuanced films continue to be made. For that reason, it started a program 15 years ago to support European films, which were losing the fight against big Hollywood movies.
A scene from "Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith"
With their multi-million-dollar marketing budgets and crowd-pleasing stunts and stories, the Americans were driving European films out of movie houses from Lisbon to Moscow.
In 1995, the EU's film support program, MEDIA, extended its subsidy reach to movie theaters as well. For the 2001 - 2005 budget period, MEDIA's budget was 400 million euros ($484 million).
The prerequisite for getting the money from Brussels was simple: One-third of a theater's film program had to consist of European films. Still, for many cinema operators in Europe, like Rex manager Dieter Hertel, the decision to carry a good percentage of European movies isn't entirely because of the EU money they guarantee.
"The quality of a film is the most important aspect for me," he said. "The bottom line is that the quality of films in Europe is higher, for example, than that of films produced in America."
Drawing people in
Since 2002, the Rex cinema has been a member of the European Cinemas group, an association of European art house theaters. The group has almost 500 members in more than 260 European cities. More and more are joining, although European films are not exactly big money makers.
"Cinemas which show European and smaller films, which perhaps aren't as well known, have to really work hard to get people into the theaters," said Cornelia Hammelmann, who works with the EU's film support project in Germany. "That is exactly what we are trying to do with the MEDIA program."
She decides which movie theater or which film in Germany gets money from the MEDIA funds. According to her, the support gives theater operators the confidence, and means, to put films into their program which don't often attract big crowds. Still, she insisted there is an interest among the general public for European film.
"There is always going to be a public, for every nationality, for every subject matter," she said. "But it's also important to attract younger audiences."
Making it on its own?
Movie theaters can receive up to 50,000 euros ($60,500) per year from the EU film support coffers. About a third of MEDIA's money goes toward financing special projects aimed at younger people, such as special showings for school groups. Young people have to be helped toward European films so that they can learn to recognize their value, according to Hammelmann.
Her goal is that, one day, movie theaters showing European movies won't be dependent on EU subsidies, as many today are, for their very existence. But she admits, that day could be far away, if it ever arrives.
"It would be fantastic if we could someday say that the films are successful on their own, that they are able to bring people into the theaters without our help," she said. "But that is not the case."
For cinema operator Hertel, right now that goal looks unreachable. Last year his ticket sales declined by 12 percent. All over Europe, theaters are reporting falling box office returns, and not just for smaller European movies. German ticket sales are down 20 percent compared to the first six months of last year, with Italy and Spain registering double figure declines. Hertel used to be able to use the EU money for advertising. Now he needs it just to survive.
"This year will be the first time that we'll be absolutely dependent on these subsidies," he said.
At least the subsidies aren't threatened. The EU commission has proposed that the MEDIA budget be doubled to one billion euros for the 2007 - 2013 period.