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Abstract

A new European Parliament mandate brings the opportunity to shape a new culturally driven and sustainable approach to the European Commission’s agenda for the audiovisual sector in Europe. Films, series, and documentaries have a unique impact on audiences and are an important mirror to contemporary society in well-functioning democracies. This article thus looks at the European Union’s past, present, and future vision for the audiovisual sector and its impact on the people who make films. Originally based on a delicate balance between single market and cultural diversity objectives, the legacy of European audiovisual policy and its recent evolutions in the digital age are put in the perspective of the socio-economic reality of European filmmakers today as they navigate recent crises and profound industry changes. In the streaming era, they have the opportunity to reach global audiences on an unprecedented scale, yet they face a number of challenges, from persistent precarity to artificial intelligence and threats to artistic freedom. As we look ahead to this new frontier for European audiovisual creation, European audiovisual policy initial objectives are more relevant than ever.

Introduction

The power of visual storytelling is at the heart of the unique impact of cinema films, and later of audiovisual works made for TV and streaming, on audiences. Its effect is such that, across Europe, people can name actors and directors off the top of their head.

The household names that first come to mind are usually Americans. This says a lot about the level of soft power achieved by the US audiovisual industry, resulting from century-long shrewd political, business, and influence strategies. Yet in Europe, local names associated with European and national productions will eventually come back to you, and this is no coincidence.

It may seem trivial, but relating to characters on screen who speak your language and reflect your reality and values is important. The stories told by creators are a mirror they hold up to us all –individually and collectively. The image of us they reflect can be reassuring or critical: in both cases, it is proof that we exist in all our singularities, and it gives us a chance to pause and think about who we are and what we do.

Films, series, and documentaries are a contemporary looking glass which is just as important as the cultural heritage from our past: both are fundamental parts of our cultural identity, helping to build who we are collectively as a society, and an intrinsic part of any well-functioning democracy.

It may seem trivial, but relating to characters on screen who speak your language and reflect your reality and values is important. The stories told by creators are a mirror they hold up to us all – individually and collectively.

Europe’s audiovisual policy: striking a balance between the single market and cultural diversity

It is therefore no surprise that the European Union (EU) has developed an audiovisual policy over the years – although it came late in the European integration process. While cinema and the audiovisual sector were originally perceived to be a matter of Member States’ competencies, the application of the single market in the field of broadcasting became a focus in the 1980s.

The cornerstone of the EU’s audiovisual policy, the Television Without Frontiers Directive, was adopted in 1989 before morphing over time into today’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive. It establishes the principle that Member States must ensure freedom of reception and that they generally may not restrict retransmission of television programmes from other Member States on their territory. It also crucially lays out provisions to encourage the distribution and production of European audiovisual works, including by imposing minimum content quotas of European works for broadcasters. In the same year, the Paris ‘Assises européennes de l’audiovisuel’ laid the ground for a European audiovisual industry support policy, which became the MEDIA programme in 1991.

The overall objective of the EU’s approach to audiovisual policy from the outset was to create a strong market for European audiovisual works by encouraging the circulation of works in Europe and their competitiveness against US content, which dominated the European market. To achieve this, the EU built upon different visions across Europe in a complex and difficult negotiation process, as some Member States, such as Denmark, opposed such intervention, considering the audiovisual sector – as part of the cultural field – an exclusively national responsibility.

A balance was struck between a single market approach backed by those in favour of deregulating the sector (e.g. the United Kingdom, Germany) and a more interventionist approach supported by those in favour of a proactive audiovisual policy (e.g. France) (Delwit & Gobin, 1991). This was reinforced by new provisions relating to culture introduced in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and in the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, extending EU competences in the field of culture in full compliance with the principle of subsidiarity, by complementing national policies and encouraging cultural cooperation.

In parallel, the cultural exception concept, developed in the context of international trade negotiations, was championed by France. This asserts the unique character and role of culture as not to be equated to other purely commercial goods or services. This led to a regular carve-out of the European Commission’s mandate in trade negotiations for audiovisual services.

Enshrined in the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, this special status granted to the cultural sector stems from the acknowledgement that freedom and diversity of cultural expression underpin democratic societies. It is therefore justifiable and desirable that public authorities make special provision for the flourishing of culture, ensuring access for all of society and the fair remuneration of creators.

This chimes with the EU motto ‘United in diversity’, which came into use in 2000, meaning ‘how Europeans have come together, in the form of the EU, to work for peace and prosperity, while at the same time being enriched by the continent’s many different cultures, traditions and languages’.

Yet balancing the principles of the internal market on the one hand, and much-needed proactive audiovisual policies on the other, remains a challenge.

Today, the perception of EU intervention among audiovisual professionals and businesses across Europe seems to be increasingly negative. Some of the basics of the sector’s functioning have been regularly challenged by a number of European Commission proposals over the years. Contentious issues include proposals to ban geo-blocking and territorial exclusivity of licensing for audiovisual services; to include audiovisual services in the EU mandate in trade negotiations; and to limit state aid at national level.

The audiovisual sector in Europe has undergone massive changes in recent years. In the context of economic instability triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine, the exponential rise of global streamers in Europe has deeply affected the relationship with audiences and the European audiovisual production and distribution landscape. It is therefore not surprising that European intervention that directly or indirectly affects the audiovisual sector is perceived critically by audiovisual stakeholders under high pressure.

The perspective of European filmmakers

To better grasp the impact of these sea changes on European audiovisual creation and the industry behind it, it is useful to start at the beginning – with the people who envision stories and bring them to the screen.

From the dawn of cinema and the first-ever projection of moving pictures for a paying audience by the Lumière brothers in Paris in late 1895, to Netflix chilling and millions of people going to cinemas around the globe to view the same films – the world of creators who tell stories from the screen has changed significantly.

For decades, film auteurs have fared well in Europe. This peculiar breed of bullish creators exercises a high level of control across a complex collaborative creative process to tell stories on the big screen in a singular, personal way. To them, artistic freedom and creative control simply cannot be surrendered if their vision of a story is to succeed in captivating an audience.

While it is not difficult for one to think of a filmmaker’s name, it is more challenging to comprehend what they do exactly – and how the fame of the few obscures the precarity of the many in the European audiovisual creative community today.

Like all creatives in the audiovisual sector, directors are highly skilled independent professionals. They are the principal authors at the heart of the creative process of an audiovisual work, responsible for overseeing every facet of its realisation in a process of artistic collaboration with a wide range of co-authors and creative workers, including actors, cinematographers, directors of photography, lighting technicians, sound and costume designers, and editors.

The craft requires a very specific skill set. Alongside their co-authors, screenwriters, and composers, screen directors develop a script into a visual story, but it is their sole responsibility to direct the camera and actors to visualise the screenplay. With the moving images captured, directors then commission music and supervise the edit, sound design, and visual effects to create and then promote the finished audiovisual work – a commitment of time and energy which can span several years.

Crucially, directors are also responsible for the completion of the finished audiovisual work, be it a feature film, an episode of a series, or a documentary film. They take final responsibility for the aesthetic cohesion and artistic integrity of the work – in all types of production contexts, and often under severe time and cost pressure, which they bear throughout the creative production process.

In Europe, the director is recognised by law as the primary author of an audiovisual work – be it produced for cinema, TV, or streaming. As such, they hold moral and economic rights which they exercise to assert their artistic and creative freedom as well as to build sustainable careers. By contrast, in the United States, directors and screenwriters are not recognised as authors and are employed under ‘work made for hire’ contracts.

When working on a project under contract, audiovisual authors transfer their rights to a production company. Due to their systemically weak negotiating position, acknowledged in European law since 2019, the terms of this transfer in individual contracts can be abusive, involving illicit moral and economic rights waivers without compensation and disproportionately low buy-out remuneration clauses.

Such abuses are common in the European audiovisual sector and lead to singularly unstable careers for audiovisual authors, who are mostly self-employed, with little to no access to social benefits and limited collective representation. They generally cannot make ends meet solely through their work as an audiovisual author.

Data shows that a screen director’s career in Europe is as unstable at it is precarious: they are the lowest- paid audiovisual authors in Europe, with a median annual income after tax from their directing work of €12,500 for female directors and €18,000 for male directors (FEU, 2019). This can be explained by the profession’s specific workflow, as directors are committed to each project from development to promotion and are not able to work on several projects at the same time during time-intensive production stages (e.g. shooting, post-production), as well as by abusive practices in individual contracts.

Recent crises and industry changes reshaping Europe’s filmmaking future

Despite these difficult circumstances, filmmaking remains an incredibly appealing vocation, and individuals with strong artistic drive are still flocking to creative professions in the audiovisual sector
across Europe – even if they continue to struggle to maintain sustainable careers. To survive, these
versatile and resilient professionals adapt by working other jobs within or outside the industry, moving from one genre to another – from fiction to documentary, and from cinema to TV and streaming production. Such flexibility proved to be an asset during the recent multifaceted upheaval experienced by the audiovisual industry – allowing them to survive, if not for them to thrive.

In 2020 and subsequent years, the cultural and creative sectors across Europe were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Authors, performers, and creative workers, many of whom were already struggling before the pandemic, were severely affected by the discontinuation of their work opportunities. In sectors characterised by self-employment, freelancing, and job flexibility, combined with little or no access to social benefits, the loss of income posed a direct and immediate threat to their day-to-day survival.

During the lockdowns, millions of citizens across Europe turned to music, films, books, and online performances as a source of solace and hope. Yet support for the sector was delayed and insufficient. For example, furlough schemes were not immediately introduced and were not extended to freelance workers everywhere. Cultural professionals and businesses also did not benefit from the European recovery plan – with the notable exception, in the audiovisual sector, of significant support for infrastructures such as film studios to accommodate global streamers’ rising production footprint in those Member States who are large producers.

Getting back to work in the post-lockdown world was a challenging experience for everyone involved in the creation and production process. Sanitary protocols on set slowed the pace of work and increased costs at a time when investment remained sluggish, increasing the pressure to do more in less time, resulting in cascading mental health and safety issues and risking a decline in production quality.

Yet one part of the sector thrived during these difficult periods: online streaming boomed as consumption by confined populations rose to record highs and embedded new habits in audiences’ daily lives around the world – habits which survived the pandemic.

This led to the exponential rise of relatively new players in the European audiovisual market: global streaming companies. As their strategy to conquer new markets includes producing local content to build subscribers’ loyalty, production boomed, and the new job opportunities were met by freelance actors and creative workers who desperately needed the work after unpaid confinement periods.

During the lockdowns, millions of citizens across Europe turned to music, films, books, and online performances as a source of solace and hope. Yet support for the sector was delayed and insufficient.

Coupled with post-pandemic tension, the boom turned into a bubble, generating massive inflation of production costs and pressure on cast and crew to keep delivering in the shortest time possible. It is also worth noting that it did not require the same engagement from all creative professions, or from Member States with different production capacities.

But everywhere, a business and creative culture shock was afoot: new contractual practices arose, with global companies seeking to concentrate intellectual property to mitigate the risks of developing new business models on a global scale. This predatory behaviour impacted authors’ rights and catalogues’ acquisition negotiations, as complete opacity reigned over the performance and success of the audiovisual works they acquired or produced and revenue sharing models were rejected. Meanwhile, European audiovisual creation had the opportunity to meet global audiences who were becoming more and more open to watching content, dubbed or subtitled, from everywhere in the world: an opportunity well worth the challenge!

Then, as audiences started to flock back to cinemas, it appeared that long-standing European funders of audiovisual creation were not in such bad shape after all. Nevertheless, although broadcasting and public funding never collapsed, the pressure caused by the rise of new players and a new approach to production focusing on certain types of content is yet to be absorbed by local audiovisual ecosystems.

European filmmakers’ artistic freedom at stake

Independent cinema production is clearly struggling to maintain a space in this new environment, and that is never good news for audiovisual creators’ artistic freedom. Many other industries have already come under pressure to produce more, faster, and eventually cheaper to meet increasing demand, leading to the standardisation of production processes, while consumers’ willingness or ability to pay decreases.

In the audiovisual sector, this can mean either turning to cheaper, non-authored formats such as unscripted TV, for example reality TV and game shows, or standardising the creative process by analysing subscribers’ data and behaviour while interacting with content to determine popular casting choices, favourite genres, or the most efficient story twists, for example.

This standardisation process could well be accelerated by artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Not all companies have equal access to consumption or creative data to train tools such as recommendation algorithms or generative AI. For authors and performers, the challenge is first to get transparency on the way their work, performances, and personal data are used to train generative AI, which competes directly with their work, and how the technology will interact with their creative process, then to be able to consent to it on sustainable terms – including fair remuneration.

Yet standardisation is only one aspect of the current high-level threat to audiovisual creators’ artistic freedom. The rise of populist movements across Europe is already proving a direct threat to individual filmmakers. Systemic censorship can also be applied through the misuse of public service broadcasting or public funding, two essential pillars of the functioning of local audiovisual industries.

Finally, there is no escaping the large environmental footprint of audiovisual production and the distribution of audiovisual works and content in general – one of the least discussed impacts of the rise of global streaming consumption and the production bubble, yet one that cannot be ignored. For filmmakers, a path to more artistic and creative freedom could be cleared through sustainable, environmentally friendly local production, but systemic solutions for the audiovisual sector
at large must continue to be developed.

The European way forward

This is the new frontier European audiovisual creators, their business partners, and policymakers are facing today. While the response so far has been chaotic, it is clear that the way forward is to stand together on sustainable terms, and in the spirit of a level playing field between Member States with varying production capacities.

With the notable exceptions of the rise of global companies and AI, most of the challenges the sector faces today are not new, and the initial objective of the European audiovisual policy has never been more relevant than in the digital era. For all the profound challenges these changes create, they also present an opportunity for policymakers to revisit the core objectives of EU intervention and to assert new industrial policy choices that do not just pay lip service to the cultural aspect of the audiovisual sector but put it back at its very heart.

The Digital Single Market strategy has yet to provide structuring results for the benefit of a culturally diverse audiovisual sector in Europe. Audiovisual creation – and, it seems, the audiovisual sector itself – has become a loss-leader product in the vision for a wider media and tech sector.110 It is for this wider industry that new policy is built on the premise that light-touch regulation will unleash Europe’s technological innovation potential and lead to economic growth. This is reflected in the new orientation of the Creative Europe MEDIA programme, as well as in the latest regulatory proposals affecting the audiovisual sector.

This ambitious agenda fails to cater to the artistic and cultural dimension of the audiovisual sector, and one wonders what the consequences of this blind spot will be. Will European audiovisual creation slowly fossilise as public support increasingly focuses on heritage and media literacy? What will become of singular voices in smaller production capacity countries and of co-productions if the EU bans geo-blocking for audiovisual works, thus dealing a fatal blow to the ability to raise funds, public and private, for production and distribution based on territorial exclusivity of rights? What of the impact of generative AI on creation and copyright if the AI Act does not deliver more transparency and the most extensive theft of copyrighted works in history is allowed by a copyright exception which was never meant to cover such uses in the first place?

Conclusions: looking ahead to the new policy cycle

The European creative community has always found strong support in the European Parliament and believes in its political strength. A new mandate brings the opportunity to shape a new, culturally driven, and sustainable approach to the European Commission agenda. If policymakers continue to believe in the essential importance of culture for the European project, they must fight to refocus and champion our European audiovisual policy accordingly.

The audiovisual industry is intrinsically cultural and as such has a unique part to play in the European project. Each of its pillars remains consistent with this reality, from media regulation through AVMSD (ex post evaluation and possible review proposal in 2026) to its dedicated support programme (potential renewal in 2028), the cultural exception in trade agreements, and EU state aid rules, as well as the European Copyright legal framework (2019 CDSM Directive to be reviewed no sooner than 2026).

They must be considered as a whole as policymakers set out a vision for the next European Parliament mandate: to ensure the autonomy of the European audiovisual sector in all its diversity, and to strengthen local audiovisual humancentric creation as AI technology is increasingly deployed in cultural sectors.

In each Member State and beyond the European Union, audiovisual creation is an instrument of independence and influence. Given the cultural, political, and economic issues specific to this sector, an ambitious audiovisual policy respecting its intrinsic diversity is of essential importance for the future of the Union and its ability to shine on the world stage.


References

  • Delwit, P. & Gobin, C. (1991). ‘Étude du cheminement de la directive “télévision sans frontières”: synthèse des prises de position des institutions communautaires’. In L’espace audiovisuel européen, sous la dir. de G. Vandersanden, Bruxelles, Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1991, pp. 55–87.
  • FEU. (2019). ‘First Ever EU-Wide Study Finds Audiovisual Authors Struggling to Make Ends Meet and to Maintain Sustainable Careers’. 25 March 2019
  • https://screendirectors.eu/new-report-first-ever-eu-wide-study-finds-audiovisualauthors-struggling-to-make-ends-meet-and-to-maintain-sustainable-careers/.
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