Screen Policies in the 21st Century 


Nolwenn MINGANT (Université de Nantes)

Over these two days, screen policies were approached from different angles. ‘Industry-based policies’, i.e. policies initiated by private players, were alluded to, notably the US major distributors’ action in the areas of censorship in the 1920s and very recently in the adoption of digital technologies by the exhibition circuits. The centre of attention, however, was clearly public policies, i.e. policies emanating from local, national as well as supa-national public bodies.

A first focus was the motivations of public powers. David Newman identified three ‘imperatives’ behind public policies: safety, social control and development, and economic motivation. One issue that was debated was the link – the opposition? – between economic and cultural motivations. An operative concept was offered by Gertjan Willems, the idea of a ‘continuum’ between the two types of motivations, with priorities shifting from one pole to the other depending on the context. Economic motivations were fairly easy to identify. Over the past decade, regions have increasingly tried to attract foreign shootings, counting on economic benefits not only in the film sector but also in their economy at large. Cultural motivations, however, hold some paradoxes. On the one hand, film commissions insist on territorialisation clauses, demanding that filmmakers shoot in their area. Beyond the economic impact, they indeed wish to obtain a certain level of recognition. Stephan Bender, of the North-East of Paris Film Commission (Commission du Film de Seine-Saint-Denis), underlined the difference between the ‘mediatic’ impact, i.e. the image of the region given in the films and conveyed to outsiders, and the ‘cultural’ impact, i.e. the way the local population can appropriate a film and adopt it as an element of its local culture. This sense of recognition and even pride fostered by the film commission, however, runs counter to the way they advertise the riches of their region. Indeed film bodies tend to insist on the ability of their location to stand out – to double – for other places. The Liverpool Film Office website for example offers ‘Liverpool as London’ and ‘Liverpool as New York’ sections. The balance between the economic importance of this ‘substitution factor’ and the cultural importance of recognition is an issue that deserves further studies.

Secondly, the issue of the organization of public policy bodies was explored. The central place of the regional level became apparent. Marco Cucco differentiated between a vertical axis –region/state/Europe – and a horizontal axis – regions/regions. As regions have obtained more power and autonomy, due to what he called ‘devolution,’, they have started to bypass the national level and form their own partnership with other regions, as could be seen in Jamie Steele’s case study on the Wallimage/Nord-Pas-de-Calais collaboration.

Showing the creation and mechanisms of trans-regional policies, the presentations also highlighted their limits. Gertjan Willems insisted that they couldn’t be defined as ‘international’, but as ‘transnational’ collaboration. Indeed these regional collaborations tend to be geographically limited, with Belgium for example cooperating only with its closest neighbours, especially France. Petar Mitric also insisted on the fundamental inequality between regions and thus the imbalance between regions in rich countries such as Germany and in poor countries such as Serbia. A third case was the policy-innovative Nordic region. Besides, behind the rosy picture depicting regions and cities successfully attracting foreign shootings and economically benefitting from them, a darker reality appeared. Harsh competition opposes not only cities from different countries – Paris vs. London for example – but also regions within the same country. In the UK, the Liverpool Film Office finds itself competing with Screen Yorkshire. In France, Seine-Saint-Denis’ main competitor is actually… Paris. In Italy, about 20 film bodies exist. In the future, one can predict that not all regions will be strong enough or attractive enough to hold their own, especially in times of economic crisis.

On the other end of the vertical axis, supra-national stakes are also at play. In the realm of international relationships, screen policies can take on a diplomatic hue and become soft power tools. Petar Mitric for example showed how Germany is now looking for coproduction treaties with BRIC countries rather than with its neighbours, in a diplomatic effort to reach out beyond Europe. An exploration of this international level indeed appears as essential as national public policies are constrained by international agreements. European Commissioner Anna Herold showed how the European Union was establishing frameworks to harmonize policies across its member countries, trying to strike the right balance between cultural diversity promotion and fair competition. But she also showed the EU’s constant effort to have its views respected – and hopefully adopted – in the World Trade Organization forum. Bjarke Liboriussen also showed how China devised its public policy regarding gaming consoles within the constraints of the WTO. China’s ban on gaming consoles between 2000 and 2014 was implemented in the name of ‘national cultural security’, but attacked as economic protectionism by the US private sector. Bjarke Liboriussen advanced several reasons explaining why China lifted the ban in 2014, one of them being that the compliance to WTO decisions might be viewed as a soft power move. 

A third element touched upon was the impact of film policies on film content. Julia Hammett-Jamart and Jamie Steel told us of changes in scripts, cast and locations to conform to film commissions’ requirements and guarantee funding. Two examples studied were Cages (O. Masset-Depasse, Belgium/France, 2006) and Jusqu’au bout du monde (W. Wenders, France/Australia, 1991).  The Pôle Média Grand Paris, a cluster of media industries, for example, organizes workshops in order to advise filmmakers on project development and their adaptation to the market. Film content is thus deeply influenced by film commissions’ criteria, and, in the case of co-productions, by the diplomatic relationships between film commissions and countries. Such issues deserve further exploration.

A final issue that appeared in many presentations is the evolving technological context and its influence on public policies. As the digital turn is changing the film industry ecology, how do states react – and should they react? As Aurélie Pinto emphasized, the answer to these new conditions is specific to each country, depending on its film industry structure and film policy history. The roundtable with representatives of the Liverpool Film Office and the North-East of Paris Film Commission showed this new focus on the ‘image sector’ and its transmedia characteristics. New ways to reach the audience have appeared, with the rise of interactivity, social media and what Roger Shannon called ‘fandemic’. As a consequence, new storytelling techniques must be devised to try and create new multiscreen economic models. Private initiatives such as ‘Power to the Pixel’ explore these paths. Digital technologies also impact the exhibition sector. Aurélie Pinto showed how the US and France have reacted to the wave of digitalisation of movie theatres. While in the US private-sector initiatives have dominated, in France, public policies have specifically been put in place for the smaller, art-house cinemas. As digitalisation leads to more concentration in the exhibition sector, each state has to consider whether it should intervene or not. Digital technologies are indeed a challenge, but by making films more widely accessible, for example through VOD, they also represent an opportunity for the promotion of cultural diversity. Regional cinemas, such as the Basque cinema presented by Miren Manias-Muñoz, could benefit from such an impetus.

Screen policies is a rich research field, with its many interrogations and paradoxes. However it is largely understudied. In-depth research, independent from public film bodies, is needed. It can and should be carried out in the academic realm. Screen policy studies are nascent and this field can only be constructed by bringing together academics exploring different media – film, television, videogames, the Internet – and with different disciplinary backgrounds – film and television studies, communication studies, media studies, area studies, but also history, sociology, economics. A dialogue between academia and the film and public policies worlds is also vital. The quality research presented over these two days bodes well for the future of screen policy studies.