To be European or not to be European? That is the question facing the UK industry as it debates whether to re-enter the Eurimages co-production fund. Geoffrey Macnab considers the issues at stake.
It is the question that just won’t go away: should the UK come in from the cold after 15 years and rejoin Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s co-production and distribution fund it joined in 1992 and left in 1996?
The momentum is certainly building behind a campaign for re-instatement to the fund, which supports projects with international potential that have producers attached from at least two member states.
The issue is known to have been explored by the UK government’s Film Policy Review, and in November the UK took over chairmanship of the Council of Europe. This means it can set the council agenda and lead the debate on policy.
“The UK is the only Council of Europe member state that is not benefiting from being a member of this fund,” says producer David P Kelly in a letter to Lord Prescott, who is part of the UK’s Council of Europe delegation. “This means we are outside a valuable forum of co-operation with the other  member states.”
At a time when the UK’s isolationism and attritional relationship with mainland Europe is in the spotlight, Kelly argues that rejoining Eurimages would “offer an olive branch to our friends in the European film industry”. There are 36 members of Eurimages and the UK cannot help but look like the odd one out.
Some 15 years on, it is not entirely clear why the UK withdrew from the fund in the first place. At the time in the early 1990s, the national subscription of £2m annually (around $3.1m at 2011 exchange rates) was accepted to leverage £45m-£50m ($69.8m-$77.6m at 2011 exchange rates) a year of European co-production money to the direct advantage of the UK industry.
More critical voices suggest the reason UK producers relished Eurimages membership was they received fat fees for relatively little work when they signed as minority co-producers on European projects.
The Conservative government at the time was also frustrated by what it saw as a lack of transparency in the workings of Eurimages.
This perception is given short shrift now by the fund’s present executive director, Roberto Olla.
“If the system was non-transparent and political, then politics is making fabulous films,” he says.
This year, there were 10 Eurimages-backed films in Cannes including six in Competition, such as Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papum (We Have A Pope) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
Pending the publication of the Film Policy Review, the British Film Institute (BFI) is keeping quiet about its attitude toward Eurimages. However, many UK producers have stories of projects they could not make work as UK co-productions as the UK is not in Eurimages. Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing and Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place are recent examples.
“A great number of productions benefiting from MEDIA development grants make a smooth and logical progression to have their projects supported by Eurimages,” points out Agnieszka Moody, the director of the MEDIA Desk UK, which is now based within the British Film Institute (BFI). “Both funds encourage similar projects — projects that promise to break out from their national market into the international arena. For UK-led projects, this route is not available.”
So what would it take for Britain to re-enter Eurimages? One question likely to be uppermost in the mind of the UK government is the cost. It is difficult to get a precise figure on what the UK’s likely subscription charges will be. France pays around $5.2m (€4m) for its annual membership, Italy pays $3.9m (€3m) and Germany slightly less. Spain and Russia both pay less than $2.6m (€2m).
Subscriptions are calculated by a complex system that assesses each member country’s GDP as well as the number of co-productions it makes. The UK makes so few co-productions its fee would be less than that of France or Germany, and likely to be in the $3.4m-$3.9m (€2.6m-€3m) bracket. In other words, still a considerable outlay.
“We’ve got to bear in mind the current state of the public finances,” says John McVay, chief executive of UK producers’ organisation Pact. “We are the only sector that gets a tax credit. If push came to shove between choosing either Eurimages or maintaining and sustaining the tax credit, I would go for the tax credit.”
The national authority (almost certainly the BFI) would have to apply to Eurimages via the UK ambassador in Strasbourg, where the Council of Europe (which is entirely separate from the European Union) is based. As a formality, Eurimages would then ask for a report on the UK film sector. Once Eurimages agreed to the UK coming on board, UK representatives would be invited to attend a plenary session at which they could discuss with the Eurimages board of management whether it would be beneficial for the UK to rejoin. This entire process would take from three months to one year.
Eurimages’ Olla says there has been “strong lobbying” from UK industry figures to rejoin Eurimages.
“Every time, I [tell them], ‘You are lobbying the wrong person. You should be lobbying in your own country.’ That’s the way it works. It’s not for Eurimages to convince the Brits they should come back. It’s the other way round.”
And if the UK does want to re-apply, Olla and his team would welcome them. “[The UK] is an important trunk of Europe, even though there is the sea between us.” Olla says. “Traditionally andhistorically, British cinema has always had an important role in continental Europe. Its place clearly is in Eurimages.”
Many in the industry now fear the UK industry will set up a series of talking shops at which the pros and cons of Eurimages are debated at great length without any final decision ever being made.
Film London chief executive Adrian Wootton is one of those who believes research needs to be done — but swiftly. “It has to be seriously considered,” Wootton says. “What needs to happen is a quick piece of research that looks at the likely financial benefit. [I am] predisposed to anything that can help provide UK producers with a better chance of working in Europe.”
A key question for UK public funders is whether it makes more sense to spend money directly with UK producers or to give it to a third party such as Eurimages. Another is how willing the UK will be to distribute foreign-language arthouse fare of the kind supported by Eurimages. One of the fund’s requirements is that a film it supports will be released in all the co-producing territories.
Even if the UK were to rejoin Eurimages, it would not change the fact the UK is not a particularly attractive co-production partner. The UK tax credit’s ‘used or consumed in the UK’ rules remain off-putting to foreign producers, as are the daunting legal requirements and hefty legal fees on UK projects.
Olla counters the UK “can bring a lot to European cinema, not only in terms of money but in professionalism and stories to be told”.
The Eurimages money comes in the form of a soft loan to productions at the end of their financing process. “It is very easy money because it doesn’t have to be spent in the countries of the co-production,” Olla suggests.
Since the UK exited, Ireland has benefited from being the only English-speaking country in Eurimages (it joined in 1992). Nonetheless, Irish producers say they would welcome the UK rejoining. “We do so much business with the UK, that [the UK rejoining] would be a conduit to Eurimages as well,” says Element Pictures’ Ed Guiney.
Oscar-winning producer and confirmed Europhile Jeremy Thomas has been arguing fervently for the UK to rejoin Eurimages for many years. For him, the benefits are self-evident. “We are losing out because we are not in Europe fully in the film business,” Thomas says.
As he points out, the debate about the UK’s film interests provides a mirror image of the debate about Britain’s place in Europe generally. “It is still a schizophrenic life in the UK,” he says.
“Are we Europeans or are we not Europeans? Are we islander people attached to the US or are we Europeans? It is very difficult to decide.”