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Conference Report: A New European Film and Television Culture

Ib Bondebjerg reports on the New European Film and Television Culture: Trends and Challenges conference at the Danish Film Institute, Denmark, September 9, 2015.

Following the successful conference last year in connection with the Ostende Film Festival in Belgium, MeCETES organised a new conference this year in Copenhagen.

The venue was the Danish Film Institute (DFI) and 158 people from 13 different countries had registered for the conference – people from Denmark, England, Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Austria and Netherland. But, as the CEO of the Danish Film Institute Henrik Bo Nielsen stressed in his welcome and introduction, even more important was that the participants represented a cross section of representatives of the European cultural industries (producers, directors, film and television funding agencies, broadcasters film companies, distributors), politicians and EU representatives, and academics and students of film and media.

The conference programme thus very much underlined two of the main objectives of the MeCETES project: studying mediated cultural encounters across Europe by focusing on production, distribution and reception, and making academic research useful for media and cultural policy and for the practitioners in the creative media industries.

Welcome and opening remarks

Ida panel

Producers Ewa Puszczynska and Sofie Wanting Hassing talking with Andrew Higson about Oscar-winning Ida (Poland / Denmark, 2013)

In his welcome, Ib Bondebjerg stressed this dimension and said he anticipated a constructive dialogue between these groups of people. Hinting at the subtitle of the conference, trends and challenges, he said he was sure we would have plenty of debate on the challenges lying ahead for European film and television. But he also wanted to add the word “possibilities”. Even though globalisation and digitalisation is a challenge for an often fragmented European film and TV culture, the new digital world also offers new ways of producing and distributing to a much wider European audience.

CEO of DFI, Henrik Bo Nielsen, picked up on this. He referred to the long crisis for Scandinavian Airlines, where they first talked about “challenges”, and then they started talking about “possibilities”. But at one point one of the leading figures said: “If we get one more possibility, we will go bankrupt!”

In his introduction, Nielsen welcomed the dialogue of the conference, and he used historical examples to show how Europe had many times faced barbarians from the East and West by acting together. But he also sent a warning signal to the EU and their film and media policy, not least the strategy for a digital single market: do not limit the diversity and autonomy of regional and national players; do not force a model upon us that will perhaps do more harm than good.

The conference was divided into film and television cases with focus on production and the creative processes, presentations by specialist or others, and panels on co-production, distribution, digitalisation and media policy.

Making films in Europe

The first case was the Polish-Danish co-production Ida, supported also by UK and Eurimages – a small budget European art film that won an Oscar for best foreign language movies in 2015, and has since experienced a remarkable success for such a film. As the moderator Andrew Higson (MeCETES / University of York), pointed out, it is a surprising success given that it is in black and white, quite a challenging story and in Polish.

But despite this and a very small budget of €1.4 million it has made a splash in Europe and elsewhere and gathered numerous European and international prizes. The dialogue with Higson and the Polish producer Ewa Puszcynska and the Danish co-producer Sofie Wanting Hassing cast an interesting light on the financial and creative challenges in making such a film and co-production and working with a truly challenging auteur.

Making television for national (and international) audiences

The second case dealt with the upcoming Danish series, Follow the Money, from DR – one of the most successful Scandinavian TV-drama producers. Eva Novrup Redvall (MeCETES / University of Copenhagen) was moderator and the series’ writer/creator, Jeppe Gjervig Gram and Head of DR Drama, Piv Bernth, represented the series creative team.

The series was shown at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, a tribute to the new position of TV-drama and to DR. The series deals with economic crime, and as Jeppe Gjervig Gram explained this was a natural inspiration given the financial crisis after 2008.

DR drama is committed to taking up contemporary social issues, so it is a natural thing to be inspired by actual events. He and DR heard of a lot of similar shows around Europe, but eventually not many were actually made. Jeppe Gjervig Gram discovered during the creative work how difficult it actually was to tell a story like that.

But Piv Bernth underlined her interest by pointing to the fact that what was so appealing by the story was that it took this complex, global story to a human level. We see this financial crisis from the executive level, but also from the perspective of ordinary people and those hit by the crisis. The dialogue also dealt very much with the creative formula and processes behind the Danish success.

Production and co-production in the new European film and television culture

Follow the money

Writer Jeppe Gjervig & Head of DR Drama Piv Bernth talking with Eva Novrup Redvall on Bedraget (Follow the Money).

Kicking off the panel on production and co-production, Richard Paterson from British Film Institute (BFI) gave an overview of the present state of the UK production landscape. Even though the UK is one of the big five in Europe, he saw a problematic tendency towards decline of independent production companies, take overs by bigger American companies which together with the present attack on BBC and PSB television was quite alarming.

In response to this, Ross Biggam from the Association of Commercial TV talked about some of main challenges affecting commercial broadcasters across Europe, while executive producer Christian Rank talked about production strategy about the Danish commercial station TV2.

Distributing and selling film and TV in Europe: what is the problem?

The panel on distribution was moderated by Roderik Smits (MeCETES) and the panelist represented very different companies: Rikke Ennis (CEO of Trust Nordisk) is the biggest Danish player, Helene Aurø represents the international sales arm of DR, whereas Jon Sadler (Marketing director, Arrow Films UK) is a key player in distribution and marketing of independent film and TV and the company that launched the Nordic Noir concept.

Roderik Smits outlined the changes in distribution from the traditional system to the new digital system, and each of the participants described how their companies worked, what venues and strategies they used for different types of film and television products. The convergence between film and TV also became quite clear, both Trust Nordisk and Arrow Films are moving into that territory.

In the final part of the panel each of the panellists had chosen a recent example of a product they had distributed and how they had done that. The panel gave a deep insight into different mainly national players and how they handled the transnational distribution in a still fragmented Europe, a Europe however where transnational co-production and distribution and the digital development are beginning to to change the traditional landscape.

Navigating in the digital culture: the audience perspective

One of the key issues in today’s European media culture is of course the digital challenge. Professor Philip Drake from Edge Hill University reported on the research project on the VOD platform for independent film, We are Colony:

In his presentation he stressed that at present in the UK the discussion around independent filmmaking is very much about failure, about business models that do not work. The new digital world is interesting as a perhaps new way of attracting audiences and also – with the inclusion of crowd sourcing – maybe also for making money.

Independent filmmaking is often high risk, and in the present changing situation the risk and uncertainty is increased. The We are Colony platform is really about testing new ways of building an audience in the new digital world, where the access to and abundance of films is dramatically increased.

In his response to Philip Drake’s presentation, Professor James Bennett (Royal Holloway University of London) pointed out that this experiment was a really interesting example of how film culture is part of a much larger project of democracy and the public sphere in the digital era. He also focused on the importance of independent film culture as part of the European project. Elements such as creative freedom, democracy and cultural diversity are why independent cinema matters, and digital projects supporting this are important.

Creative Europe: the digital challenge?

Distribution panel

Talking with sales agents and distributors about distributing and selling film and TV in Europe.

Perhaps most eagerly awaited presentation of the day was that by Lucia Recalde, Head of Creative Europe Media. She presented the recent developments in EU media policy, not least the very debated and for many in the creative industry controversial proposal on a single digital market in Europe.

Recadle very much stressed that Creative Europe is not just about policy and money, but indeed about content and cultural diversity, and she saluted Copenhagen as one of the truly creative hubs of Europe.

In presenting the Commissions suggestion for a Digital Single Market (DSM), she stressed that this was both an initiative for citizens and businesses – it has an economic component, but also a cultural. It was an initiative to meet the challenges of the global development.

Recadle reminded the audience of the single market created in 1957 and the debate it raised. Now it is considered an established success and cornerstone of EU an element in growth. She focused on the different focus areas of the digital economy in Europe and pointed out how important that is. The ICT sector is now 4%, but if we look at the connected services and businesses it is around 17%, and as such a huge factor in the present economy.

The European Commissions’ DSM proposal aims to reduce geo-blocking, which is directly relevant for film and TV. Recadle stressed that the Commission wanted to get rid of unjustified restrictions, but that there could be examples of justified restrictions.

After outlining the DSM initiative, Recadle focused more on Creative Europe and the direct film and media policy initiatives. Her message was that Creative Europe wants to help overcome the obstacles of a fragmented cultural market, and in doing so also seizing the possibilities of the digital development to enhance the transnational production, distribution and dissemination of cultural products. She also pointed to the Commissions interest in dialogue with the film and media stakeholders in Europe.

Responding to Recalde’s presentation, independent digital expert Claus Bülow Christensen (Zibra Digital Media) stressed the huge, exponential acceleration of the digital development and the speed with which audiences are starting to take in the new media culture. We have been in a rather flat curve, but now we are moving very fast, he said.

Christensen presented data on the steep rise of real time entertainment on the internet, in both the US and EU, with so far US leading the way. For instance, Netflix takes up one-third of all activities on the internet in the US. He also addressed the piracy question, and pointed out that in the US where a lot is legally available the piracy problem is much less than in the restricted and fragmented EU market.

Christensen finished by saying that looking at audience behaviour globally, the digital single market is actually already there. The savvy users have created it individually, through creative use of VPNs and apps. So political action on a European level need to act fast.

CEO of the Danish Producer’s Association, Nina Crone, was on the other hand very skeptical towards the DSM initiative. She based her presentation on a survey made by the European Producer’s Association showing how the financing and re-coupment of money function in the present Europe.

Lucie Recalde

Lucie Recalde, Head of Creative Europe, Media, talking about the Digital Single Market.

Her figures showed that all types of films are very dependent on being able to use the national territories to sale and by exclusive rights, something that involves a film’s life through all windows. They show that the non-national part of financing in co-production and local goes from 30-70%, with variations in various countries.

So territoriality in the producer’s opinion is necessary, if they are abandoned it will mean an immediate drop in financing. So we have a dilemma she said, we all wish the films to go out to all Europe, but if we abandoned territories, this will be even less likely.

The debate afterwards, which was moderated by Caroline Pauwels (MeCETES, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and also involved Ilse Schooneknaep (MeCETES / Vrije Universiteit Brussel), was very lively indeed, and showed skeptical attitudes towards the DSM initiative from many sides, both producers and distributors. But other opinions were also expressed, especially that consumers are moving in new directions that challenge the traditional ways of producing and distributing.

The discussion also dealt with the impact of the MEDIA program and thus EU’s possibilities of changing the fragmented European film and television market. In the debate, Recalde pointed to the problem that Europe makes a lot of films, but many do not circulate, and that we have many rather small companies. The debate also touched upon experiments with simultaneous release, which seem to indicate that collapsing windows perhaps doesn’t damage the films audience and revenue.

Closing debate: future trends and challenges

In the closing session, moderated by Ib Bondebjerg, Petri Kempinen from the Nordic Film and TV Fund (NFTF), Piv Bernth from DR drama, James Bennett from Royal Holloway University and Claus Ladegaard from the Danish Film Institute had been asked to reflect on the themes of the day and to point out where the big challenges lie seen from their respective position.

Petri Kempinen started by saying the EU development had been an important part of the development, a positive part tat had taught us what we have in common and where our specificities lie. His message was first of all a positive one since the growth in support for film and TV in the Nordic region has been significant, and furthermore transnational distribution is increased.

Piv Bernth from DR drama on the other hand pointed out that despite the success, PSB stations in Europe are now under attack. This is a problem if we want to maintain high quality in Europe. Referring to the American situation she said, that here the quality is much more mixed.

James Bennett dealt with the UK-situation and BBC from a different perspective. Even though BBC is also under attack they have launched several initiatives on the digital front, where part of the fight for PSB in the future will take place.

The final speaker, Claus Ladegaard, like Petri Kempinen, started out pointing to the strong success of Danish cinema, strong national market share, rather strong international distribution and winning many prices. So it is difficult to be a pessimist. He pointed out that although all the new platforms were there, and the price for going to cinema for a family was much higher that for instance a Netflix subscription, the number of sold tickets has never been so high since 1980.

So Danes want to see films in the cinema, and they like national films a lot. However the challenges ahead are that DVD-sales have dropped considerably and the new digital economy is not there yet. So we need to develop new models for digital consumption so that it is easy and cheap to have access to a wide variety of films. This will probably mean shorter windows and involving the digital distributors in financing.

Watch videos from the conference on our YouTube Channel.

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