Posts tagged ‘The Viscount’

September 16, 2008

Pan(ned) Atlantic – The dreaded international co-production.

by Dean Brandum

To any self-respecting, serious film-buff, the term ‘international co-production’ is cause for instant derision and immediate dismissal. Conjuring up memories of turgid and incomprehensible narratives set in far-flung corners of the earth and populated with a gallery of disinterested, fading performers delivering depressingly dreadful dialouge. Once a staple of 1960s-1970s cinema (and later filling many a late night TV schedule), such Europuddings are still concocted, but their multi-national pedigrees are somewhat better disguised.  Indeed, if you follow the production histories of many recent Hollywood blockbusters you will find they are a complex web of financial necessities are considerations, with input from a consortium of international backers. Tax concessions, currency exchange rates, available production facilities, appeal to foreign markets are all woven into the getting a film off the ground. Today’s international co-production may appear more seamless than those earlier forays into a true, global cinema, yet such smoothing of the edges has robbed the mode of its jet-setting soul.

There is little love lost for the original euro-pudding (or ‘runaway production’ as the trade more kindly described it), however, in a regular series, I would like to delve into this rather forgotten past and pay some tribute to the films, their makers and how (and why) they came into being.

For those unfamiliar and those just trying to forget, perhaps a very brief and potted explanation is in order…

“In the age of political integration, co-productions are inevitable and necessary. Indeed, they provide the only strategy to boost the cinema economically and to secure a film’s success at the boxoffice. Worries that artistic input might suffer in purely economic considerations might be justified. But much more important is to find the foundations for workable joint productions with any country in the world which is willing to co-operate…” – Horst Axtmann in 1967

Following the Second World War the European Cinema was in a state of crisis. Individual nations were deep in debt, talent had been decimated and infrastructure destroyed. Assistance to the European countries from the United States arrived swiftly to both wartime allies and enemies in the form of loans and rebuilding programs. A number of American films also arrived on the continent, provided free for educational, inspirational and entertainment purposes.

During the war, Hollywood lost its once lucrative European markets. Apart from Britain, the studios were only importing (and deriving income from) the British Empire, Latin America and a handful of neutral countries of negligible value. With a number of markets now again available, the studios leapt into the void created by the war and the dearth of local product by flooding European cinemas with the backlog of films accumulated over several years. The American industry was also aided by the loss, during the war period, of the many practices such as quotas and tariffs imposed by governments that had restricted the import of foreign (especially American) films. With the approval by the US government for a legal cartel formed by the studios to enhance export opportunities, these factors allowed for a concerted effort by Hollywood to gain a position of power in a vulnerable European film market. That it was detrimental to the European industries was an inevitable consequence.

Yet, the European nations fought back. Apart from the damage to European industry and culture, the American studios were draining currency from desperately poor nations with little tangible in return. Restrictions on film imports were implemented and, in an attempt to stem the currency loss, new regulations were imposed whereby the American companies could only use such funds (or percentages of them) if they were used for purposes of production or investment within the European countries. In 1946 Italy and France signed an ‘experimental’ co-production agreement, ratifying it in 1949. Of the many bi-lateral and more expansive agreements made in the decade after the war, this was the most successful, producing over 230 films by 1957. Germany signed with France in 1951, France with Argentina and Spain in 1953, then with Yugoslavia and Austria two years later. Eventually nearly all of the filmmaking countries (including smaller nations such as Holland, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark) of Europe had passed agreements, often with overlap. Each of these agreements had a complex set of criteria for each participating company to fulfil in order that the production met the requirements of national representation within the pact. This process was often tied in with government initiatives that supported film production, such as subsidies and tax rebates. Various categories were established (often markedly different over each agreement) in which the percentage of investment could be evaluated. This would determine such details as how many performers and crew would be required from that country and, how many scenes would need to be shot there. Indeed, in many cases, having a compatriot fulfil a certain high profile position, such as director, would be regarded highly by the regulators at the expense of some other, otherwise mandatory, requirements.

When quantified in numbers of pure production, the co-production method was highly successful. Between 1949-1964 there were 1091 films made involving at least two national partners. Mostly genre films, the filmmakers adapted quickly to ever-changing market tastes. In the process some genres such as the German ‘Heimatfilme’ (domestic melodramas of the ‘homeland’) which were very popular in the 1950s had vanished by the end of the decade. Action became the key ingredient of the co-production, a selling point that appealed to audiences across all national boundaries. The concentration of spectacle also alleviated the reliance upon dialogue, relegating it to general conversation and exposition. This also strengthened the films’ claims to being truly pan-European, with post-synchronising (dubbing) of the soundtrack made easier. Importantly, action-based genre films, especially those featuring Europe’s most cinematic natural and urban landscapes, could be exported outside of the continent, including to the lucrative US market. Although not within the scope of this discussion, it must be noted that many well received films that played well in the international arthouse market were the product of co-production details. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) was an Italian-French co-production, as was Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) was financed through Italian, German, French and American partners. The system did allow an auteur-cinema to flourish, as long as the directors were willing to bend to certain pan-national conditions.

Hollywood was suffering its own crises at home during this period. Forced to divest itself of its theatre chains they also faced a post-war slump in the audiences who were now finding their entertainment in other sources, especially television. The various measures set up in Europe to negate a perceived attempt at American domination actually proved a blessing in disguise for the Hollywood studios. After attempting a number of underhanded schemes to access boxoffice funds frozen on the continent, the studios finally relented and began investing in European films. Believing that spectacle would lure audiences back to cinemas, they found Europe offered the scenery required for such exotic epics and that production crews were not only capable but comparatively inexpensive. For a time the giant Cinecitta studios in Rome were known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ due to the number of what would be referred to as ‘runaway’ American productions shooting there. The Hollywood studios also carefully met any requirement for such films to be declared ‘French’, ‘Italian’, ‘British’ or wherever they were shooting in order to receive the due government inducements such as tax minimisations and subsidies offered by that particular country. Although Britain was reluctant to join any pan-European co-production agreements, they also benefited from American involvement, with Hollywood investment paving the way for a number of successful films in the 1960s that were ostensibly British but backed with American finance. In fact, American involvement was so important in Britain that when it was withdrawn late in that decade the British industry ground to a halt, subsisting through much of the 1970s on low budget exploitation product. The success of European genre films in the 1960s also allowed for a number of small distributors in the United States to expand rapidly by importing these films at low cost to an appreciative American youth market, who had become the most important audience for the Hollywood studios. A company such as AIP made a fortune by cheaply acquiring the distribution rights to Goliath and the Barbarians (1959: Carlo Campogallianni) and after similar successes then began financing European productions.

Even within the confines of the action genre the co-produced film would move through various cycles and forms, mimicking successful Hollywood hits or even finding variations on their own profitable formulas. From peplums to gothic thrillers, westerns to detective thrillers, espionage adventures to softcore pornography, it became a business of gambles and speculations, whether a producer could jump aboard a particular genre when it was popular with audiences and if they knew it was time to move on before the audience tired of that particular formula.

From the early 1960s, there was a surge in the number of films co-produced by companies in two or more countries, particularly within Europe. Although their initial aim was for Continental success, many found their way to the United States, often through the distribution arms of the major Hollywood studios, who found them to be ideal product for cheaply buffering their release schedules. The derision for the international co-production from critics in the United States and Britain stemmed from a number of factors. A New York Times review of The Viscount (1970: Maurice Cloche), a West German-French-Spanish co-produced espionage thriller partly set in the USA was typical in relaying several of the prejudices which could be expressed in a short-hand fashion in many reviews for such productions:

“[The Viscount] pretends to the title and the class of a high-born Bond-type picture and all it is is a low-grade gangster film-so low that it thinks Jersey City was the height of elegance as a center of crime in years gone by. Charge that up to the fact that it is one of those European sausage films – ground out by a group of co-producers representing West Germany, France and Spain-and you know what usually happens when the Europeans try to show how wise they are about America….it is the sort of picture they’d be strongly inclined to brush under the rug in Hollywood-or quickly sell to television for burial on the late night shows.” (Crowther).

Within this review is the belief that the film is attempting to defraud the audience, by modeling itself on a genre created, refined and perfected by British and American filmmakers (in this case, the high-class spy thriller). It tries to present a familiarity with the American milieu, yet its background reveals it an imposter in Hollywood guise. The reviewer displays a possible xenophobic streak in his distrust of European comment of American issues (and seems to feel that the newspaper’s readership agrees). The film’s international pedigree is described in a manner that implies financial considerations over artistic ambition (referring to producers rather than a director), with no singular national vision. That it was ‘ground out’ demeans the film as a low-grade factory created product, but one without any class, skill or even pretence to art. The inclusion of “one of those” indicates a pre-supposed knowledge on behalf of the readership in that that they are well-aware of this type of film and its inherent traits. Finally, in a direct comparison with Hollywood product, The Viscount is assessed as being so inferior as to being worthy of the then lowest and last rung of mainstream exhibition – late night television.

Yet, for all the invective they suffered, the internationally co-produced genre film flourished for many years, particularly in Europe and through various channels still found distribution in English language markets.

Even when the budgets were substantial and the aims highbrow, the critics rarely let up –

The Red Tent (1969: Mikhail K. Kalatozov), an Italian-Soviet aviation drama featuring a cast of mixed nationalities including Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Hardy Kruger “Soon succumbs to that spectre of modern movie-making, International Co-Production….one is left with a niggling doubt about the wisdom of spreading creative co-operation over so many boundaries” – Monthly Film Bulletin.

Such critical invective may be explained by the refusal to accept the notion of a trans-national cinema. This stubborn attitude was borne of a belief in the inherent ‘purity’ of a singular national voice which – through the work of a filmmaking collective from that particular country – will impart a sincere representation of the issues, concerns and art of that nation and its people. The by-product of a transnational cinema which utilizes cast, crew, finances and locations from several nations is an inevitable dilution of such a voice. The transnational film it was believed, was one created by filmmakers thrown together for funding purposes rather than any true desire to work together, creating a narrative with the intent of appealing to as many nationalities as possible and in the process, thought many critics, pleasing very few. These were the sentiments of Sidney Cole in 1962. Within his concerns for the future of European film was an anxiety for the future of his own industry. As founder of the British Film Technicians Union, he feared that, in order to compete with a flourishing pan-European market, Britain film companies would be forced to integrate, losing their cultural identity in the process.

Cole had other things to worry about – namely Hollywood pulling up stumps by the end of the decade and leaving the British industry in ruins, taking nearly two decades to return to a near-viable concern. In that time, Hollywood reconsolidated its position as of world dominance and, streamlining their release slates, fewer overtly international co-productions were included in their schedules. Instead, the major studios adapted the mode to their own benefit – securing their own international finance, taking advantage of available concessions, shooting where cheapest and, with varying degrees of discretion, slotting international stars into their casts, for maximum global boxoffice potential.

The true euro-pudding was left to the continental market and when they found American distribution, it was generally in the lower tiers of the art and grind markets, eventually ghettoing in films direct to video or the wasteland of cable television. Oh yes, in these single continental currency days the highbrow euro-pudding is still around and can be found on display at various notable festivals. Check out The Barber of Siberia (1998: Nikita Mikhalkov), Vatel (2000: Roland Joffe) and Luther (2003: Eric Till). The bewildering world of pre-sales usually ensures the films make profits, even if few actually perform well at the box office.

Films seemingly from nowhere, trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by pleasing few in the process. Yet there are pleasures to be found as I hope this ongoing series of Europudding pieces will illustrate.