A brief reflection
on European cinema audiences
This paper takes the data
of the European Cinema Yearbook as a starting point to reconsider the role
of film audiences within the broader context of the European cinema landscape
and the so-called ‘crisis’ of the European film industry. After a short
overview of the current situation of the European cinema landscape, we
reconsider the highly problematic concept ‘European cinema’ as a discursive
construction from an audience-centered approach. We shortly debate on the
possibility of a European popular cinema. In a final part we reflect on
possible research options to enter the field of film audiences, proposing
an ethnographic approach.
"European art and language
par excellence is cinema. There has been no better expression of European
identity in this century than European cinema."
(Wim Wenders quoted in Hill et al., 1994: 10)
‘You have no personalities,
to put on the screen, your stage actors and actresses are no good on the
screen, your effects are no good and you do not spend nearly so much money.’
(Joseph Schenk, president of United Artists on British film productions,
January 8, 1925, quoted in Nowell-Smith 1998: 12)
The European cinema landscape:
more dales then hills
Until the 1970s a flourishing
European film industry produced and exhibited about 150 to 200 popular
films a year. Now only 50 of the almost 600 films produced in Europe get
any public attention at all (Dale, 1997: 124,168). The figures of the cinema
attendance and the revenues are unequivocal: US films control the larger
part of the European cinema screens (for an overview, see European Cinema
Yearbook, 1998). A so-called revival of the European film industry is hardly
noticeable. Box office successes are seldom, let alone that there would
be any continuity in the production. The discrepancy between booming exhibition
and stagnating production is especially noticeable in smaller countries
such as Belgium. There are, however, also positive developments. The film
exhibition industry is blossoming again across Europe: cinema expenditure
and frequency per capita keep rising (Cinema Yearbook, 1998: 79). But there
is one problem: all these positive developments only marginally favour
the European cinema, US import being the major factor for growth. So necessarily,
we are dealing with the ‘Hollywood versus Europe question’, as Thomas
Elsaesser puts it (1994: 25) ‘the founding myth of academic film
studies’. We try to go beyond the traditional opposition ‘European art
film - American popular entertainment movie’, focussing on the interaction
This paper is no detailed
elaboration of the figures for Europe - they in a way speak for themselves.
Nor is it a structural analysis of the film industry, this has been done
thoroughly (e.g. Finney, 1997; Wolff, 1998); It does focus on a crucial
element of the exhibition sector: the audience. It develops a possible
approach to film audiences against the background of the European cinema
landscape and the so-called crisis of the European filmed entertainment
industry. What we want to elaborate in this brief space, is the concept
of the audience, a concept at the centre in analysis of the current situation,
but seldom studied in depth, in combination with a critical evaluation
of the ‘concept European cinema’.
In economic analyses (e.g.
Dale, 1997; Finney, 1997; Illot, 1996; Wolff, 1998) several recurring factors
are mentioned to explain the weak performance of the European film industry,
in contrast to the Hollywood machinery.2
"European cinema is forced
to go commercial. Run for decades as an art form, film making here is awakening
to the fact that it produces products -and it is asking itself why they
are products a majority of Europeans don’t watch." (Christie, 1993: 3)
On the level of production the
debate deals with issues such as the absence of a true industrial structure,
the lack of accessible films that appeal to a wide audience, and the lack
of a star system. On the distribution level, Europe is faced with the dominance
of US distributors in European networks and the problematic distribution
of European films.The picture is somewhat different at the exhibition level:
there is a slow recovery - especially through US box office successes -
after a huge decrease in cinema attendance. The lack of mainstream films
that appeal to a broad audience is regularly mentioned. On the structural
level, we can follow the analysis of Wolff (1998), that the production
is the key of the european film industry, and not so much the weak distribution.
But we develop the problems of the production from a critical, audience
European cinema and European
identity: more than policy peptalk?
In order to deal with the
possibility of a European cinema, let us first reconsider the highly problematic
concept of national cinema, from an audience point of view.3
Considering that the average cinemagoer in most countries has almost always
seen more foreign than nationally produced films, the notion of a static
and sealed national cinema identity is virtually impossible to sustain
(Ricci, 1998: viii) Therefore the need for a new conceptualization: national
cinema as relational and negotiating cultural transfers. National cinema
makes sense only as relation, not as an essence, being dependent of other
kinds of film making, such as commercial/international, to which its supplies
the other side of the coin (Elsaesser, 1994: 26). Most relevant for our
approach is the notion of Andrew Higson (1995) who distinguishes the national
reception culture as one of the different layers of national cinema. A
consumption based approach to national cinema as alternative to economic
or textual approaches: i.e. what are the actual cinematic experiences of
If one can no longer speak
of (static) national cinemas, how then deal with the posibility of a European
cinema (and its European audience) transcending national boundaries? What
is European cinema? The sum of the figures of all the European countries?
German director Wim Wenders
(see quote above) is at the least rather optimistic about the existence
of European cinema. He refers to film as part of European Culture, the
pan-European art and literature as ‘the unitary identity-producing machinery
of civilisation’ (Cubitt, 1989: 3). Bondebjerg (1998: 2) adds that Europe
and the cinematic culture of Europe is no longer just an intellectual phantasy
or normative concept, it is beginning to take form as an economic and institutional
reality. Other voices are more pessimistic in their denial (e.g. Hayward,
1996) or their problematisation of this concept. This doesn’t mean however
that there is no such constructed concept, as Hayward (1996:89) notes (see
also Uricchio, 1996): ‘Viewed from the US, more particularly Hollywood,
European cinema since 1920 has been constructed as a global concept and
perceived as a meaning two distinct things. First:European cinema is predominantly
art cinema and is often more sexually explicit second: it is the only true
rival to Hollywood and must at all costs be infiltrated and dominated.’
On the policy level such
a discursive construct is indeed already commonplace. In the discourse
of policymakers, European cinema is a part of the discursive construction
of a European identity. Media are seen as instruments in the creation of
a pan-European cultural identity (Morley & Robins: 1995:2). In the
policy documents, this is usually defined as opposed to US popular culture.
On the film level, however, very little is noticeable of such a ‘European’
identity reflected in ‘European cinema’, as the extremely weak results
of European films in other European countries illustrate (see Cinema yearbook,
1998: 94). And these results are in spite of the promotional counteraction
of the European film industry and the European audio visual policy (Media
But one of the main problems
remains how one decides on the European character of a film? Should the
label only apply to products that are made on European territory and with
European capital? Or products of European born directors even made elsewhere
with foreign capital? A second issue is wether it implies a quality of
expression or creative tradition, expressing the aesthetics of a culture
other than Hollywood-American (de Grazia, 1998: 20)? In other words, does
the label ‘European’ identify any common formal and thematic features in
films or does it simply provide a convenient peg on which to hang a variety
of films with nothing in common other than their place of origin (Hill,
This leads us to the development
of a popular European cinema. One could argue that the only really European
popular cinema is the US cinema (Dyer and Vincendeau, 1992: 11, Ciment,
1997: 146), considering the market shares of US films in European countries
(Cinema Yearbook, 1998: 93). What about popular entertainment made for
Europeans by Europeans? Is it really a problem of actors, effects and budgets,
as has been claimed for decades? According to Nowell Smith (1998: 13),
‘Europe has lost the art of producing trash, for it is trashy films that
are the manure of film culture, the source of the modern mythologies through
which the cinema speaks to its remaining audience.’ And this is the area
in which Europe has most seriously lost out over the last decades: the
popular genre production. A popular domestic cinema still exists however:
popular comedies featuring television celebrities (as e.g. in Belgium the
popular comedies Oesje, the Urbanus cycle) But this phenomenon remains
very culture related: there is no circulation in Europe (Cinema Yearbook,
1998: 94). Films aiming for the culturally specific are seen as more foreign
than Hollywood to other countries, because European audiences are used
to watching great quantities of Hollywood film (Dyer and Vincendeau, 1992:
9). This again illustrates how very little is to be found of a ‘European’
identity reflected in ‘European cinema’.
After the brief overview
of conceptual difficulties, let us move to the methodological level, and
shed some light on how to study mainstream European film audiences.
The research agenda for
television in Europe, as set by Paterson (1993: 4) is adaptable for film
studies: The study of processes of identification needs to proceed in two
distinct complementary directions. First, work top down analysing the discourses
of ‘nation’ offered in the governamentalisation of the state, focus on
the role of the medium as discursive carrier and television’s specificity
within the social formation and second: work bottom up, through the analysis
how individuals negotiate programme output. Researching European cinema,
this would mean analysing policy discourses and more importantly, researching
No other media audience
has been so ignored from a social sciences point of view (Austin, 1983)
Only a relatively small number of studies have been concerned with the
concrete audience for motion pictures. There is also a surprising shortage
of cross-cultural film audience studies (Norden and Wolfson, 1986). In
film studies, the viewer/spectator traditionally was embedded in psychoanalytic
and semiotic analyses (e.g. Metz, 1984). The viewer remains an abstraction:
the ideal viewer, the implied viewer in the text (Prince, 1996: 83). Within
the cognitive tradition, the viewer is studied empirically as an autonomous
rational being following schemata and mental sets (Austin, 1985; Bordwell
et al., 1985; Bordwell, 1996). The scarce academic interest for audiences
is in contrast with the the film companies marketeers’ enthusiasm, eager
to discover more about movie consumers.
Recently, there has been
a shift away from the early monolythic view of the spectator, to a more
heterogeneous one. The debate has become enlarged and the spectator-as-viewer
is now equally deemed to be an important area of investigation. Thus historical
and empirical models of spectator or viewer analysis have been established
(Hayward, 1996: 336). It is in this line of thinking that we propose a
search for the actual viewer, understood as the viewer in his/her social
and cultural context, i.e. without stepping in the pitfall of atomizing
and/or psychologizing. This approach, inspired by cultural studies, is
relatively new in film (Klinger, 1997; Staiger, 1992; Midkiff Debauche,
1998 ). The emphasis for these authors is more on ‘cultural sensemaking
processes involved in spectatorship’ than in the ‘microprocesses of perception
and response involved in viewing mass media forms’ (Spigel, 1990: 4).
In television studies on
the other hand, an extensive body of literature emerged on audience studies,
based upon diverse theoretical approaches (see e.g. McQuail, 1997). It
has been argued that audience studies on film still have a lot to learn
from television studies (Klinger, 1997:113; Prince, 1996: 77). Television
studies are all the more important as approach, taken in consideration
that film watching no longer is a mere cinemagoing experience. Film is
consumed across several media: cinema, television, video, internet… The
importance of the context of consumption has to be underlined: film watching
in ‘picture palaces’ or in the living room in a ‘domestic context’ is not
at all the same experience (Morley, 1992: 157-8). The question for ‘a cinematic
version of David Morley’s work in family television’ has already been uttered
(Klinger, 1997: 125).
Since consumption in the
cinemas has become rather the exception than the rule (e.g. for Flanders:
Jacobs & Stoffelen, 1997) it is logical that television and video consumption
obtain an crucial role in this research. The film audience no longer exists,
the diffuse audience consists of the cinemagoing audiences, as well as
audiences watching film on television and on video (Barker, 1999: 143).
In short, these are all
arguments that favour an ethnographic approach of film audiences. The approach
of television as a part of everyday life (Silverstone, 1994) could contribute
substantially to this project.
In this brief paper we brake
a lance for a new approach of the European film landscape, focussing on
the audience. We started questioning the concept of European cinema. We
proposed a media-ethnography research as a means to find out more
about the experiences of people in everyday life with film in all its forms:
cinema going, watching television and video at home. This approach could
shed a new light on the current problematic situation of the European cinema.
A critical analysis of film audiences will provide a way to go beyond superfluous
marketing talk on audiences. It could even lead to new findings with consequenses
for the so-called crisis in the European cinema.
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