The decision by the Rotterdam Film Festival (IFFR) to revive its Film Parliament format - first used 15 years ago - produced two of the sparkiest festival debates on film seen in recent years. By ditching the classical panel debates and opting instead for a confrontational set-up concluding in a vote the sessions on production of visionary cinema and the need for subsidy to the distribution sector provoked impassioned speeches and heart-felt points-of-view from the floor.
Speakers, perhaps surprisingly, stuck to the rules and traditions of British parliamentary debate. Many addressed the chair, called each other honourable and there was even the occasional calling of "here, here" - in a fashion that would have presumably have amused Winston Churchill, who was quoted by the day's able chairman, UK producer Nik Powell.
The morning's proceedings, discussion the motion "this house believes that current policies regarding film production in Europe are in danger of permanently smothering visionary cinema", were opened with a brilliantly lucid speech by Arte's Michel Reilhac. Revealing that Arte, the Franco-German public broadcaster has now been told to achieve a 15% audience targets, he said that there are no "safe oases" for visionary cinema and warned that festival circuits have become an alternative to real releases. He described these as "an alibi and a harmless playground where we can play away from the grown-ups." Opposing, Cedomir Kolar, who has himself suffered and survived a company collapse, said that Europe provides "enough [for producers] to survive".
Former bureaucrat, turned film producer, Peter Sainsbury arguing in favour of the motion, said that "cinema of reflection has today been replaced with the cinema of experience". He warned that public bodies commandeer power, take over script development - instead of allowing constructive "creative irresponsibility" - and still manage to transfer blame to the marketplace. Distributor and producer, San Fu Maltha, arguing against, said that there was no obligatory dilemma between creative dreams and making money. "We need money in order to be making films over the long term. Money is not the enemy, but the tool." The motion was won by 72 votes for to 69 votes against.
The afternoon session - debating the motion "the brutal truth is that without distribution subsidy there are no solutions to the problems of the European film business" - was, if anything even livelier.
The debate divided less on the need for subsidies in the European film sector, and more on the definition of distribution. The final vote - 95 for and 45 against - may have reflected a division between those who were taking the notion supplied by proposer Christa Saredi, who included exhibition subsidies, and those who took the text literally and focused on subsidy to theatrical and video distributors.
Saredi, a former sales agent, said that Europe "needs to do for cinema what we do for agriculture. There is a need to reintroduce quotas, even if it means conflict with the US in the WTO. Should stand up for what we believe in." Her opponent, another former film seller, Fiona Mitchell countered with the line "small distributors problems have not been solved by subsidies. They allow them to survive, but not to grow." She instead offered a more technology driven solution to distribution problems, based on digital exhibition and marketing techniques that reach demographics other than popcorn guzzling teens.
Backing Saredi, Italian exhibitor-distributor Andrea Occhipinti spoke of the "need to consolidate and harmonise the efforts made across Europe." UK distributor and producer Hamish McAlpine argued that it is a "great time to be a distributor," and pointed to growing audience, growing DVD and re-release possibilities and the expanding variety of TV platforms. He argued that increasing distribution subsidies would cause rights price inflation and said that there are already too many films being released. "More distribution subsidy would mean more mediocre films are released. That would in turn off audiences against European films."
Impassioned speakers from the audience included film director Marion Hansel, who radically argued that film schools be closed - "I suggest a moratorium on training subsidies and a redistribution to the distribution and exhibition sectors" - to Canada's Gilles Berrillaud who pointed to the experience of his country. "Distribution subsidies had exactly the opposite effect of that intended. Before, there were 20 firms in business, now there are about five worthwhile companies left." The Independent Feature Project's Colin Stanfield spoke for many when he said that exhibition and distribution support are impossible to separate. "It would be like arguing that car-makers do not need subsidy, when in fact they are dependent on public road building."
Reflecting the temperature of the debates, corridor talk remained heated for some hours after.
The Rotterdam Film Parliament was organised by the IFFR and CineMart in collaboration with Screen International, Film Fonds, European Film Promotion and Media Desk Nederland.