Small nations aim for big impact

Kristina Buozyte's Vanishing Waves

A conference at the Vilnius International Film Festival raised important issues about the future of film for the Europe’s smaller nations. SampoMedia’s Michael Gubbins chaired a series of debates at the festival and here considers some of the key themes.

More than half of European countries have populations of less than six million people, and Europe includes significant regions with their own distinctive cultural identity.

The sense of a unique culture is no less strongly felt by individual citizens small nations than those of larger neighbours; in many cases it is felt more strongly given the domination of bigger states, some of which, at various times in history, have tried to suppress national cultures and languages.

What smaller countries do not have is the size of population or scale of internal market to sustain much of the cultural work, such as film, to express that cultural identity.

Analysis of the production numbers produced in the last European Audiovisual Observatory Focus report shows that in 2011, the five biggest countries of the EU (Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain) accounted for almost 72% of the 100% nationally produced fiction feature films (569 of  792 films). France alone produced more fiction features than the combined total from the 15 (of 27) EU countries with populations below 10 million.

That number is significantly higher than the percentage of the total EU population (63%) but that misses the point; if film has a realistic claim to be a means of expressing all of Europe’s diverse culture, then the domination of film production by a small number of large countries is clearly an issue.

This was among the key themes for those attending the industry event at the Vilnius International Film Festival, which brought together film-makers from across Europe, and particularly from Eastern and Central Europe, where there are other critical factors in play, such as the lack of infrastructure and low levels of public investment. Nine of the bottom 10 countries in the EU in terms of GDP (PPP), are former states of the Communist bloc.

In the 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down, many of the nations represented have been struggling with these issues but have in different way have found ways to grow their creative businesses, not least in those countries which joined the European Union, which have been supported by schemes, such as the MEDIA programme.

It is, of course, lazy to lump together all those countries as a bloc that can be treated as a coherent entity. There are big differences in terms of culture and of speed of economic growth.

But if the idea of a distinct ‘new Europe’ is not entirely convincing, film-makers at the Vilnius event suggested that there was a common cause in ensuring that the voices from the central and eastern parts of Europe are heard.

The debates were dominated by two major themes: the importance of international cooperation, and particularly co-production; and the need to explore the potential of new digital means of production, distribution and exhibition.

The advantages of cooperation over competition are clearly at the fore. The Lithuanians, with a population of around three million, for example, have been bullish in embracing co-production as a means to develop and nurture talent, and in building the reputation of the country in global markets.

The approach has already yielded some results. Kristina Buozyte’s sci-fi drama Vanishing Waves (see picture), a Lithuania-France-Belgium co-production, has become the first film from the country to win US distribution. Producers speaking at the event demonstrated that putting together co-production deals was no easy option but the sense that there was little real choice, and the strength of emerging partnerships with other countries, has become a positive motivation.

French producer Jean des Forets, of Petit Film, suggested that despite the strength of his domestic market, there were rich stories and talent to tap into by coproduction partnerships in the East. And most of the Eastern and Central European producers and policy-makers present insisted that deals with bigger countries and companies had been genuinely equal arrangements without one side dominating.

Producer, director and president of the Transilvania International Film Festival, Tudor Giurgiu suggested that the key to the future was in nurturing talent, ideas and stories with a distinct sense of place but with a wide appeal.

That appeal might make a bigger impact in the wider world through digital technologies, social media and the Internet according to some film-makers. Central and Eastern Europe actually has advantages in the emerging digital economy, not least with some of the fastest broadband speeds.

Without a strong existing Internet infrastructure, many countries, supported by the EU, have started from scratch and skipped a number of stages of development. Lithuania, for example, has the highest fibre broadband penetration in Europe, and ranks sixth in the world.

Policy-makers are beginning to grasp opportunities, although the potential of cross-media development and online formats and distribution is yet to be fully exploited. Divisions, such as language and the depth of talent and skills, remain in the online world.

While the conference heard some case studies in crowd-funding and VOD sales, it is fair to say that the debate is not as advanced as in some of the bigger countries of Western Europe. And in some countries, such as Romania, the public investment in film and culture remains far below much smaller countries, such as the Baltic states.

Nonetheless, the culture of international cooperation and a desire to exploit digital advantages are inspiring policy-makers in some countries. Forward-thinking partnerships, such as the Sarajevo Film Festival’s Operation Kino, and the Locarno Film Festival’s Step In, are actively exploring ways to use digital technology to extend the reach of film from Central and Eastern Europe.

The issues raised at the event, raise big questions for all of Europe and much of the world. How does film, or any form of media, make an impact in a world in which size offers such huge advantages.

Experimentation and cooperation look like good places to start.

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