Money, Exoticism, and Aesthetic
How Oriental Films Make it to Europe
Bassem Samra in Yousry Nasrallah’s 'El Medina – La Ville' (1999). Copyright: Kool Filmdistribution
Great cinema tells stories that captivate the whole world. But who makes these films? Whose are the stories that capture our hearts from Sao Paolo to Jakarta? Europe, that trembles in the face of Polish workmen and Indian computer programmers? More than 750 films were made on this little continent last year, more than in the USA – supported by fat subsidies provided with the intention of protecting European cultural assets. The only problem is that even here in their home region hardly anyone has seen these films. Out of one billion EU cinema-goers 70% preferred US American movies, 20% saw films made by their respective nations, and only 10% watched films from other European countries. Not to mention films from other parts of the world: you’d need a magnifying glass to look for films from Arab countries, and a microscope for films from sub-Saharan Africa!
The distributor’s task
Why is this? Have the Americans conquered the world with their movies? Has Hollywood destroyed local cinema culture? Have all our many and colourful silver-screen dreams become victims of American cultural imperialism?
Until a few years ago I would not have hesitated to believe the slogans from the anti-American anti-globalisation activists’ song sheet. Then, by happy accident, I became a film distributor. That’s the person without whom no film gets a cinema screening - because someone has to buy the exploitation rights for his own territory, i.e. usually his home country, and arrange for copies to be made of the film, make trailers and posters, deal with the marketing, the media, and renting the film to cinemas. Not to mention the tiresome settling of accounts with the world sales department, sponsors, and the tax bureaucracy. In short, I am the eye of the needle through which the majority of camels unfortunately fail to pass – because the market cannot cope with more than a dozen openings per week. To be honest it can’t even cope with half that number; but that’s something the promoters of culture are not prepared to admit. Fine: in that case I’ll raise my hand too and apply for subsidies for projects that in the end maybe no one will see…
Since then, my attempts to get Arab and other non-European films to appeal to German cinema-goers have resulted in more than just the one bloody nose. I know today that Hollywood, like the rest of us, is at the mercy of a capricious public. Not the dream industry but the audience is king, and even the heads of the studios, the bosses of Hollywood, kneel before it. If the Europeans were to prefer Bollywood, Hollywood would copy Bollywood in the blink of an eye – just as it already invests in ‘local language cinema’ like the French anti-war film Mathilde by Jean-Pierre Jeunet if this looks like hitting the jackpot.
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