Look who’s watching!

A brief reflection on European cinema audiences

Philippe Meers


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 context-text-audience.
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 centered perspective.
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 popular audiences?
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 I &II).
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, 1994: 55)?
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’.
Researching audiences in context
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 film audiences.
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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