Moviemaking: Europe Strikes Back
US dominance challenged as European blockbusters make inroads on market share abroad.
Hollywood - long the supplier of intrigue for the world's silver screens - suddenly finds itself confronted with a new plot twist. It's got competition.Skip to next paragraph
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For the first time in decades, European films are challenging Hollywood's cultural hegemony on their own turf. In Germany, England, Italy, and Spain, American-made movies once generated 85 to 95 percent of the box-office revenues. In 1997, that's dropped to as low as 70 percent.
Moreover, the success of some European films in America, such as the surprise British blockbuster "The Full Monty," is prompting Hollywood execs to take a keener financial interest in the foreign-film market.
The result: The film industry is becoming more global, even as it begins to cater more to individual cultures.
"People want to watch stories that somehow reflect their own culture, and they want to listen to those stories in their own language," says Marcelino Oreja, the European Union's commissioner in charge of audio and visual affairs.
Hollywood continues to dominate the international film market: US exports to Europe are 10 times greater than European exports to the US, creating a $6 billion trade gap. But Hollywood studios like Sony and Miramax have opened their own European-based companies in the past year to produce local films. And others, like Warner Bros. and Buena Vista International, are engaging in a record number of joint ventures with European film companies.
Britain's "The Full Monty" was marketed and distributed by Miramax in the United States, and the German blockbuster "Knocking on Heaven's Door" was financed jointly by Germany's Cinepool and Hollywood's Buena Vista International. The American company actually distributed the film in Germany.
"That type of sharing of costs doesn't know country borders," says Bill Baker, president of the Motion Picture Association, the Hollywood studios' trade association. "Certainly that's a way to take some of the risk out of a very risky venture."
The story behind the European film industry's revival is complicated. First was the construction of a record number of new screens in Britain and on the Continent, most in the American multiplex style. Another 2,000 are slated to be built by the end of the century.
Then, Europe's political leaders turned their angst over Hollywood's cultural dominance into action. They created tax breaks and subsidies to nurture new filmmakers, production companies, and distribution systems.
Next, Europe began developing a US-style celebrity culture with stars such as Germany's Til Schweiger - and a media ready to report on their every move.
Finally, Europeans' simple thirst for entertainment that reflects their own culture, language, and humor dulled their appetite for Hollywood fare, at least to a degree.
"It's like we've figured out what works in Germany," says Jerry Payne of Kinowelt, a German distribution and production company. "Most of these films are unashamedly populist, submainstream German humor."
The successful German films are predominantly comedies and, unlike Hollywood hits, they're made primarily for Germans. "They don't, on the whole, travel very well," says Mr. Payne.
But they've whetted Germans' appetite for German films. Successful comedies like the 1995 hit "Maybe, Maybe Not" prompted other producers to copy the formula. Now, German films are more than 30 percent of the country's box-office revenues.
Til Schweiger's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" gets much of the credit for the box-office boost of 1997. The plot takes off after two strangers with polar personalities suddenly find themselves confronting the same dire crisis. Together they tumble into a chain of fast-paced comic episodes that are at once bawdy and outrageous. There are touches of irony but mostly lots of slapstick gags.