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World Film Gears for Change

US movies will dominate; sequels fade, theaters will spruce up, tech up

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 1991


MOVIE insiders don't expect 1991 to be a big year for change. But get ready for major changes in 1992 - and for the growing preparations these will bring during the next 12 months. On the international film scene, Europe is the place being watched most closely. ``Europe is in a calm before the storm,'' says Richard Pena, director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and an expert on world cinema. ``Europeans are waiting to see what the effects will be of political and economic changes from the 1992 unification.''

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Europe's film industries are already somewhat internationalized because coproductions - joint ventures by studios in different countries - have become increasingly popular. But uncertainties still abound for the post-1992 period, including the question of whether new trade agreements will provide a firmer base for European filmmaking.

If this does happen, it could reverse an alarming trend whereby European films have drastically lowered their presence in European theaters, losing much of their ``market share'' to ever-popular American productions. In the movie theaters of Germany, according to Mr. Pena, only about 5.8 percent of tickets sold are for German films - a situation that has both cultural and economic consequences, since a small audience for German-made cinema leads inevitably to decreased German production. The situation has been worsening in Spain, too, where Pena says about 30 films are currently produced each year - compared with about 140 during the mid-'70s.

Things are less bleak in France and some other countries. But all Europe is eager for answers to 1992's big imponderables, Pena says. Will the market become more open and free for European films? Will new quotas limit the predominance of American films? Would this lead to more European production, and therefore more jobs and other benefits? In all these areas, says Pena, ``something is probably going to change - but nobody knows what or how.''

In the United States, the major Hollywood studios tightened their hold on the film industry during the late '80s, as many independent distribution companies downscaled or closed their doors - reducing the number of outlets for foreign films and independently produced American movies. Independent filmmaking continues in the US, however, and in 1991 the ``majors'' are likely to intensify their search for ``indie'' pictures they can acquire cheaply and turn (they hope) into hits. More studios and distributors may open ``classics'' or ``boutique'' divisions devoted to offbeat and somewhat specialized fare, and if audiences respond, the trend could continue to grow.

Such a trend is needed if serious independent filmmaking is to regain the presence it had in the US as recently as 15 years ago. Pena cites two documentaries by filmmaker Barbara Kopple as an example of how things have changed in this area. ``Harlan County, USA,'' about a strike by Kentucky coal miners, was acquired by the ``aggressive and independent'' distributor Cinema 5 in 1976, and played widely in desirable theaters.

By contrast, Ms. Kopple's new ``American Dream,'' about a Minnesota meat-packers strike, is still looking for a distributor months after its critically applauded showing at the New York Film Festival last autumn. ``The old network of independent theaters has largely closed down,'' Pena notes, accounting for one major obstacle in the film's path. ``Structurally, there's no place for an `American Dream' right now.''