European film professionals are anxious to hear what’s discussed on March 18 about the hotly debated future of the MEDIA Programme.

It’s an important week ahead for anyone making films in Europe. On March 18 in Brussels, there will be a public hearing on the future of the European Union’s MEDIA and MEDIA Mundus programmes. More than 450 European professionals are expected to attend, and Persepolis filmmaker Marjane Satrapi and Celluloid Dreams president Hengameh Panahi will deliver keynote speeches on the day.

The day-long event comes hardly more than a month after the European film industry attending the Berlinale was rocked by rumours that the current MEDIA 2007 might be the last edition of the programme when it runs out in 2013 or be absorbed into a generic support programme for the European creative industries.

Letters were sent by European Film Agency Directors (EFADs), the Federation of European Film Directors (FERA) and a group of 12 European networks and international producer, distributor and exhibitor organisations to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso [pictured] calling on him to maintain MEDIA in its present form after 2013. The European Film Academy is also garnering member support for its open letter to Barroso.

In addition, petitions were organized in support of MEDIA by the French industry body L’ARP and the European association for animation film CARTOON. The latter has so far collected more than 6,400 signatures including those of such leading animators as Nick Park, Sylvain Chomet, and Jimmy Murakami as well as colleagues ranging from directors Tom Tykwer and Luc Besson, to UK actress Greta Scacchi and former Locarno artisitic director Frederic Maire.

The mobilization of the European film community to lobby for a clear commitment to a MEDIA programme after 2013 did not go unnoticed for long within the corridors of the European Commission at its Brussels HQ.

Speaking last weekend during a visit to Finland’s Turku, one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, Barroso declared that reports saying that the European Commission was intending to reduce the MEDIA Programme were “completely inaccurate.” On the contrary, he suggested that plans were being drafted to “reinforce” the programme.

EU culture commissioner Androulla Vassiliou echoed Barroso’s stance at the beginning of the week with an opinion piece in France’s Libération entitled “No, Europe has not abandoned its filmmakers.” She claimed that fears that the MEDIA Programme will be abolished are “unfounded” and “unjustified”. “My determination is unrelenting to support the MEDIA Programme,” Vassiliou wrote. “Thus, not only within the framework of the coming discussions on the new European budget, I will be particularly vigilant about maintaining at least the present level of financial provision for the MEDIA Programme, but also be looking to extend its activities and improve its efficiency.” She added that she would be wanting “to engage in a constructive and open dialogue with all parties concerned.”

Thus, the 450 European professionals headed to the hearing in Brussels next week now have more of an inkling of the Commission’s position vis-à-vis MEDIA’s future.

However, in a reaction to Barroso and Vassiliou’s statements, France’s L’ARP, who has gathered 1,800 signatures in its petitition so far, said that Europe’s filmmakers “will nevertheless remain vigilant as long as no statement as to the independence of the program has been clearly provided.”

A delegation of filmmakers led by Costa Gavras, Theo Angelopoulos and Radu Mihaileanu are being received by Barroso on March 17, a day before the public hearing, and may be joined at this meeting by Wim Wenders, Cristian Mungiu, Bertrand Tavernier and the Dardenne brothers.

According to the L’ARP board of directors, the delegation “will be expecting to receive an undertaking during this meeting concerning the fact that credits dedicated to the MEDIA Programme will not be allocated elsewhere to other more general cultural and educational programmes.”

Speaking exclusively to ScreenDaily, Martin Moszkowicz, President of the European Producers Club, said that he hopes that one of the results of next week’s hearing would be that “the idea of losing [MEDIA] or heavily reducing it would be catastrophic for European cinema as well as for the film industry on a worldwide level.”

He pointed out that the news of a possible threat to MEDIA’s future  had had an impact around the globe and letters of support for the European filmmakers’ campaign had been sent to Jose Barroso by producers guilds in India and China.

Moszkowicz suggested that there might be a need for certain shifts of focus in a future MEDIA Programme. “From a producer’s point of view, we need to have development financing put more in the focus of the MEDIA Programme. This is a high risk part of filmmaking, and small production companies in particular need this help.”

In addition, he said that, as far as distribution is concerned, he believed that the MEDIA’s P&A support should be kept at present level of funding.

“We feel that without the support from the European Union the chances for European cinema to survive are heavily reduced,” Moszkowicz stressed, “We hope that this point will be made at the hearing that MEDIA is an important pillar of support for European cinema.”

While MEDIA unit head Aviva Silver will unveil the first results from last autumn’s online consultation at the hearing, two panels will address the pros and cons of old and new business models for the two MEDIA programmes and seek to identify better ways of engagement with audiences for European cinema.

Panellists being lined up to speak include Sophie Bourdon of the Audiovisual Training Coalition (ATC); producers Johannes Rexin (Heimatfilm), Dariusz Jablonski (Apple Film), and Tero Kaukomaa (Blindspot Pictures); Bim Distribution’s Antonio de Medici; Xilam Animation chairman Marc du Pontavice; Cineregio general secretary Charlotte Applegren; Claude Eric Poiroux, director general of Europa Cinemas; and Alain Rocca, president of the French VOD platform Universcine.

This hearing will be followed three days later by the two-day MEDIA Initial Training conference (March 21- 22) to address future challenges and opportunities for film and audiovisual schools and universities in Europe, and a third public forum on MEDIA will be held on May 16 during the Cannes Film Festival.

Meanwhile, this week has seen the European Commission launching a public consultation on the future of its MEDIA Mundus programme. MEDIA Mundus was launched in Berlin last month with a budget of $20.7m (€15m) from 2011-2013 to support training, market access, distribution, cross-border circulation and so-called cross-activities.

According to the European Commission, the consultation, which is open for online submissions until May 23, 2011, is “intended to stimulate debate on the part of stakeholders and the public. It does not prejudge the form or content of any future proposal by the European Commission.”