Belgium is increasingly prominent on the world stage as a source of hot films and talent that can travel. Geoffrey Macnab explores the rise of a territory with big potential

For a small, politically divided country, Belgium has a remarkably robust film culture.

“Today, Belgium produces as many films as the UK does,” says Adrian Politowski, the founder and CEO of Brussels and London-based mini-studio uMedia. “It has, per million of inhabitants, one of the most dynamic industries in the world.”

Whether it is the Dardenne brothers with their two Palme d’Or awards, Michaël R Roskam with his Oscar-nominated Bullhead or, more recently, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown — which won the audience and Europa Cinemas Label awards at Berlin — Flemish and Walloon films are drawing attention across the world.

‘Once you have one or two successes, the others see that it is possible and there is a positive attitude’

Pierre Drouot, producer

Thanks to Belgium’s Tax Shelter, the territory is also attracting inward investment and some very big projects have been Belgium-bound in recent months. DreamWorks’ Wiki-Leaks drama The Fifth Estate recently wrapped in Belgium, while Olivier Dahan’s Grace Of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman, recently completed production outside Antwerp.

“Today, Belgium is [not just] capable of attracting French and Dutch productions but large international projects. That is a tribute to the quality of the industry,” Politowski reflects. Indeed, the more films shooting in Belgium the more experienced local crews become.

Belgian box-office hits are also being remade abroad. For example, Erik van Looy recently remade his own 2008 thriller Loft for US producer Joel Silver with Wentworth Miller, James Marsden and Karl Urban as leads.

Belgian stars are also travelling. Bullhead lead Matthias Schoenaerts won awards for his performance in Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone, and will appear in Animal Rescue alongside Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, the next film from Roskam which is due to shoot this spring. Schoenaerts is also attached to star in Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos alongside Kate Winslet.

A big international future is also predicted for Veerle Baetens, who stars as the tattoo-parlour owner/singer/mother in The Broken Circle Breakdown. Meanwhile, Cécile De France has worked both with the Dardennes (The Kid With A Bike) and with Clint Eastwood (Hereafter), while actor-comedian Benoit Poelvoorde who co-directed cult 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog, is a regular fixture in French films.

One sure sign of Belgium’s increasing prominence is the number of film-makers and actors who have been headhunted by top US talent agents: Roskam is now represented by UTA, Schoenaerts is repped by CAA, as is van Looy. Meanwhile, van Groeningen is represented by Management 360 and maverick young cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead) is repped by UTA.

Two sides to the story

Local producers agree that this is boom time for Belgium. This is a country of 11 million people: six million are Flemish; around four million are French-speaking Walloons, and there are also some German speakers.

As a result, Belgium has a double identity and the phrase ‘waffle-iron politics’ is often used to describe the way the country is administered. Almost every Flemish institution has a mirror image in Wallonia, and when federal money is invested in one community, it is expected the same will be invested in the other.

While there have been increasing calls — especially from the Flemish nationalist party — for the communities to separate, when it comes to film there is real, increasing co-operation and both communities are thriving. Indeed, there is a fund that obliges both the Flemish and Walloons to invest in certain same projects.

“In Flanders, what has been crucial has been the functioning of a strong internal market,” says Peter Bouckaert, head of Eyeworks (Belgium).

Local share for Flemish films at the box office has risen sharply from a derisory 1.5% to over 20% in recent years. “It’s not because all of a sudden people have discovered ‘oh, hey, we have Flemish films’,” Bouckaert continues. “It’s because we are making films that are distinctive, that are really tapping into our own identity and have their own specific flavour but are also entertaining.”

The films that perform the best locally — such as Bullhead, Loft, Hasta La Vista, Ben X and The Broken Circle Breakdown — have also had the strongest international careers.

Savage Film’s Bart van Langendonck, producer of Bullhead, points to the emergence of a generation of young directors with strong personal visions. He also highlights the work of public funding agency, the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), in supporting both more commercial work and in “taking risks” on new talent.

‘In Flanders, what has been crucial has been the functioning of a strong internal market’

Peter Bouckaert, Eyeworks (Belgium)

Pierre Drouot, producer of Daughters Of Darkness and Toto The Hero who has headed the VAF since 2006, argues that the industry has strengthened at every level. “We’ve got better [film] schools, the passage from the schools to professional life is also improved… there is money and we have the Tax Shelter. Once you have one or two successes, the others see that it is possible and there is a positive attitude.”

There is now continuity of production. Leading talents like van Groeningen, Fien Troch (Someone Else’s Happiness), Geoffrey Enthoven (Hasta La Vista), duo Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth (The Fifth Season), Nic Balthazar (Ben X), Gust van den Berghe (Little Baby Jesus Of Flandr) and Patrice Toye (Rosie) have all been able to make several features.

Roskam, who is attached to several US projects alongside Animal Rescue, is committed to shooting The Faithful back home in Belgium. Schoenaerts will again star in the contemporary film noir/romance set in Brussels and slated to shoot in 2014 for a 2015 release. Savage is producing alongside French partners Stone Angels. “Michaël is pretty faithful and he wants to continue making European movies,” van Langendonck observes.

Flemish optimism about the state of the industry is largely shared in the French-speaking community. “It’s a time where you can feel the effect of the policy that we’ve been [following],” says Jeanne Brunfaut, directrice générale adjointe for the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, the government of the French-speaking Belgian community. “For a few years, we have had the idea that we need to support the new directors and producers, but also to keep going with them — to help them with the second and third films.”

Even so, French-speaking Belgian film still struggles at the box office. “Flemish directors make really interesting movies that are of high artistic quality and reach a large audience — that is not the case with French-speaking Belgian cinema, which gets appalling results at the box-office,” says producer and financier Genevieve Lemal of Scope Invest.

“In the French-speaking part of Belgium, few people go to watch even the Dardennes’ films. In comparison with that, Flemish films, even if they are arthouse, get a good audience in Flanders.”

Brunfaut counters that French-speaking Belgian films also have a market in France.

In spite of the economic problems the government has faced, public funding for production on both sides of the community has remained relatively stable — and in some instances has increased. “We have reached the point where all the public systems are very complementary,” Brunfaut says of the way the public funders work with the Tax Shelter.

Several new initiatives are being introduced by both communities with the Walloons planning to launch a TV fund later this year in which broadcaster RTBF and Wallimage will partner.

Two years ago, the VAF suffered a 10% cut in its $20.7m (€16m) per annum ‘film fund’ budget, but in 2011, a new $5.2m (€4m) fund was set up dedicated to quality drama, documentary and animation on Flemish TV. This was followed in 2012 by the creation of Screen Flanders, a new $6.5m (€5m) fund aimed at attracting international co-production to the region.

Then, in early 2013, Flemish cultural affairs minister Joke Schauvliege greenlit the Flanders Distribution Grant, an initiative to be run by the VAF aimed at boosting Flemish productions that are being released theatrically abroad. The budget for the first year is $526,000 (€389,000).

The aim now is to ensure that Belgian cinema is seen abroad. Leading industry figures frequently cite Denmark, another small film-making nation that has a big reputation internationally, as an inspiration. Belgium may not yet have unearthed its own Lars von Trier but from the Dardennes to Roskam, there is talent aplenty.