Appreciating mid-level film culture

The last few days the Swedish independent filmmakers union (www.off.se) are promoting their new film Bergmans kuk [Bergman’s Cock], a film about “democracy and film policy”. In the poster, they argue that it is “undemocratic” that state funding only will go to producers, and not to directors. (Obviously according to OFF the Director is the only creative agent involved in filmmaking.) They also counter a creative industries kind of argument that the Swedish film industry should be twice as large as today, by the statement: “Size does not matter”.

Obviously 30 years of critique of auteurism is not enough here, but logically speaking isn’t it strange to say that complete power to the director is a democratic move?

Seriously, the independent filmmakers union and their friends have for some time rallied against producers. To put art against commerce is of course an old, but still efficient strategy. But is that really what it is about today, here in Sweden?

Here some fast thoughts.

1. Experimental vs. blockbuster film is not a relevant argument. Even if blockbusters often are receiving public support they are less and less dependent upon state support. So even if “industrial” support to blockbusters would go away, it would only marginally change that part of the market. One possible result might be that producers would have to look more at foreign markets than the broad domestic audience, which would be good for European co-productions and potential US remakes, but bad for the not-so-good-but-with-popular-comedians kind of domestic comedies. And, of course, it does not affect foreign films’ app. 80 % share of the market. But it affects the structure of the cinema-going public.

2. Cinema going is a culturally important social practice. Blockbusters and experimental films share one characteristic: they have quite homogenous audiences (teenagers and university educated urban white middle-class respectively). The present state support system has become a corrective to that. According to Nordicom statistics the major change during the last 20 years is that in the age group 45-65 twice as many went to the cinemas in 2011 as in 1991. (And in the group 65-79 the increase is even bigger). In the 15-24 group there is a small decrease while the 25-44 is constant. The relation between the 25-44 and 45-64 group may indicate that more 50 year olds continue their cinema going habits from before or that a new middle-age audience appear, that is, people who did not regularly go to the cinemas ten or twenty years earlier. Either alternative, the small box office figures for experimental films cannot explain these large-scale figures.

Adding to this, there is a small difference between the figures for men and women: the increase among women was slightly larger than among men in 2011 than in 1991.

More interesting is Mediebarometern’s categorization according to education. I don’t know how they define their three levels (low, medium, high), but I suppose they use the official statistics agency’s definition (only pre-high school, high school, or post-high school education). In the group “low” there are frequent changes, but no significant, large-scale change between 1991 and 2011. In the group “high” it’s a significant reduction since 1991 (it seems though that this group had a peak in 1990-91 with another peak around 2000). But generally there is a small reduction in this group since the late 1990s. In the group “middle” there are some smaller peaks than in the “high” group but about the same figures seen from the late 1980s to 2011. These are figures that are relative to the population. During this period only the “middle” group is the same (about 45 % of the population). The group “low” has gone from being about one third of the population in 1990 to 14 % in 2010. Consequently the group “high” has increased from 23 % in 1990 to 38 % in 2010. So even if there are so many more people with high education in 2011 as large share of them are going to cinemas. And the same for the people with “low education”. Even considering that teenagers hardly fit into this categorization, in real numbers more people with high education are attending cinemas in 2011 than in 1991! Given the popular image of cinema as an entertainment for young people, the Swedish support system obviously has been doing something right the last two decades in increasing the (age and education) diversity among the cinema going public.

3. The public service argument: There is no film culture without the “middle” audience and the “middle” films. Here size does matter. If there are any precursors to the successes of the US cable quality television (HBO) it is hardly to be found in the marginal US public broadcasting, PBS, but in the large BBC. The recent Danish successes in the US are also based on the outcomes of a strong and large public service broadcaster, DR, Danish Radio. Defences of the public funding of public service broadcasting is partly based on size, if it becomes too small the public interest in paying for it buy licenses or by tax will decrease. But equally important for public service is its potential for change, whether it is the change of the public, or politicians, or the media industries. And, again, a large public service affects the commercial industry more than a small one (if not we would not have had the European regulations of public service’s impact on commercial matters).

In most small countries film production have always been dominated by reasonably successful, reasonably artistic films. Not as popular as Hollywood’s, not as artistic as the avant-garde’s. Or, as Edgar Morin wrote in 1961:

The super-production and the independent film tend to wipe out the zone of the standard mid-level film the movie industry was built on. (Communications, 1, 1961)

The Swedish system has thus contributed to a more diversified cinema going public both at the multiplexes (not only kids) and the art house cinemas (not only the avant-garde), despite a cinema market dominated by two major cinema-owning companies. And, it is neither blockbusters nor experimental films that have dome this, but the “mid-level” films: those on number 3 or 4 to 10 at the box office lists during the last decade:

– Films that are too expensive to bear their own costs and not popular enough to break even without subsidies.

-Films that for hundreds of thousands of people have created an entertaining and probably thoughtful experience. For many of those, perhaps the only films they see in a cinema.

– Films, like the two most recent film awards winners, Sebbe and Apflickorna, which are made by young, talented “mid-level” filmmakers: artistically and industrially competent.

That is the kind of films the independent filmmakers union want to stop.

Does this mean that cinema is a bourgeois medium made by a bourgeois industry for a bourgeois audience? YES! And that is what makes cinema such a wonderful medium, such a wonderful business, such a wonderful art.

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