Europe's troubled film industry tries to hold the line against Hollywood imports

Box office successes like ''Chariots of Fire'' and ''Gandhi'' notwithstanding , the European film industry is in trouble. A cast of European Community (EC) culture ministers, that included Greece's Melina Mercouri, met here last week to consider the industry's plight and possible remedies against the continuing influx of Hollywood productions and dwindling audiences.

As usual when industrial issues are discussed in the EC, differences in economic and political orientation prevented rapid decisions. But experts were told to provide recommendations soon on actions ranging from quotas on United States films and subsidies for European ones to letting what remains of the vanishing breed of movie moguls handle all the financing themselves.

The ministers had before them a report prepared by the EC staff noting that in Europe, one of every two films shown in cinemas is American. On television, the survey added, two of every three programs is US-made.

2 Production has slumped in France from 180 films in 1973 to 130 a decade later, in Italy from 250 to 110 in the same period, and in Britain from 80 to 36 . Co-production, once popular, has also declined from 150 a decade ago to about 30 annually now.

This has been accompanied by a severe decline in movie attendance largely attributed to competition from television, video cassettes, and other entertainment. In Italy, movie attendance has dropped by 300 million in the past seven years.

In reaction, some governments and industry sources, spearheaded by France's controversial culture minister, Jack Lang, have called for state intervention involving either restrictions on US films or financial subsidies for European productions. Mr. Lang, who aroused considerable attention two years ago by criticizing what he termed ''American cultural imperialism,'' used the Brussels meeting to appeal for the creation of a $15 million European film production aid fund.

3 The idea received support from a number of EC member states, but ran into stiff opposition from more free-market oriented Britain and Germany. After the session, the British arts minister, the Earl of Gowrie, remarked that ''At these meetings, I am sometimes the odd man out in saying to those who feel that Community financing is the only way out that money from other sources has been flowing into films in Britain.''

He added that he sought practical ways whereby ''film funding could be done privately and how broadcasting could also finance films. . . . There is a big audience with a great appetite for films that could provide great opportunities.'' He and others noted that the big four European producing countries currently turn out some 50,000 hours of film annually, but that forecasts of European TV needs amount to 120,000 hours a year.

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