The European Union has been granting funding for the digital distribution of audiovisual media since 2007 as part of its MEDIA Programme for the support of film and media. Projects eligible for grants are divided into the categories Digital Cinema Distribution and Video on Demand (VoD).
Eight million euros, two million more than the year before, have been set aside for the current funding round, which bears the Eurocratic name “Call for Proposals EACEA 02-2009″. These funds will be made available to the chosen applicants in the form of co-financing of projects by independent production and distribution companies.
The Video on Demand area in particular includes projects that indirectly touch on the short-film sector, or which offer a platform for the short form. Now, in the programme’s third year, it’s worth taking a look back at what has been achieved thus far and reflecting on what the future might hold.
The broader framework
The aim of MEDIA is to support the European film and media industry. Historically, the MEDIA Programme can be traced primarily to efforts by France to develop a tool for strengthening its own film industry in the face of competition from abroad – in other words, from the USA.
In formal terms, MEDIA is a joint funding instrument of the European Commission’s Information Society & Media Directorate-General and the Education, Audiovisual & Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), which in turn operates under the aegis of three directorates general of the European Commission. MEDIA is not a government authority, nor is it an institution, but rather in each case a promotion programme of limited duration. MEDIA 2007 is currently in effect, ending in 2013. But the promotion scheme does have a funding structure with its own administration.
The MEDIA department of the EACEA is in charge of administering the programme, i.e. for calls for proposals and for monitoring and evaluating the promotion measures. This department is divided into three sectors: support for independent producers, distribution, and promotion, which includes promotion of festivals and of training and pilot projects. While digital distribution projects have been, and still are, supported within the scope of pilot project promotion – such as the submission and festival platform REELPORT or the distribution platform online.org – the funding of Video on Demand projects falls under the province of the distribution funding division.
As contacts and guides through the jungle of European administration, there are national Media Desks and regional Antennae available in all European Union member states and associated countries taking part in the MEDIA Programme.
Eligibility requirements for a Video on Demand grant
The decisive criterion for the granting of funds is the European dimension of a project. In concrete terms, this means that the content offered must come from at least five MEDIA member states, covering five languages. At most 40% of the content – measured in programming time – can come from a single European country. Applications are rated according to the number of partners and countries, the quality of the film catalogue, the target group and the cost/benefit ratio.
In practice, many of these requirements act as restrictions or hurdles. The “˜language problems’ associated with the stipulations are relatively easy to resolve. But a founders’ initiative from a single country will find itself confronted with so many tasks that it will hardly be able to tackle them all by the proposal deadline, i.e. under considerable time pressure. More difficult still is the search for the right partners. Companies that already have transnational business relationships or even branches in several countries have a great advantage here.
Hurdles in applying for funding and executing projects
In sectors of business and industry with a long tradition of European funding, special contact exchanges and a network of public consulting agencies have long been in place. It is common for businesses to seek commercial support from consulting agencies and management consultants. In the field of digital distribution, these long years of experience are lacking. In particular small, innovative projects are left to their own devices when it comes to project development and grant applications, areas where they quickly find themselves out of their depth.
There is thus a risk that such companies will be tempted to seek alibi partners amongst foreign friends who do not really fulfil the necessary specifications for the project. Among other things, partners must dispose of sufficient human resources, expert knowledge and areas of competence that complement those of the other participants. Another hurdle to be conquered is when various types of organisation must be integrated into the project. Finally, such cooperative ventures must be codified by means of contracts and their financing secured.
A MEDIA grant offers neither full nor shortfall funding, but rather only partial funding. The grant covers a maximum of 50% of the calculated costs. Often, however, only a portion of the funds applied for is granted. The remaining costs, i.e. at least 50%, must be financed by the applicants themselves in order to take advantage of the grant.
This partial financing poses an especially high hurdle for organisations in the so-called tertiary sector (non-profit organisations, clubs, cultural associations, NGOs). These types of organisations often take on public tasks as a subsidiary mission, but usually do not have any capital of their own and are unable or not allowed to obtain credit.
The time and effort staff must expend to apply for a project, to follow up on the application and to provide documentation of how the grant has been used can also act as an indirect financial hurdle. Only larger organisations can afford this kind of administrative expense. Many even hire staff who specialize in Eurocratic project procedures.
European policy background: Questionable cultural limitations and exclusions
In European politics people often speak of a “˜Europe of the regions’. This formula was coined on the one hand as a way to win over regional allies for Europe as opposed to the centralist tendencies in the respective country and on the other hand to take the wind out of the sails of nationalist criticism of European integration. The announcement of European measures is consequently often embellished with the declaration of this kind of cultural policy intention.
At the latest since European film promotion had a series of negative experiences with so-called “˜Europudding’ films which reduced characteristic cultural features to the least common denominator, European funding programmes have pursed as primary aims the preservation and promotion of European cultural and linguistic diversity. In the film and media sector, the objective was to maintain Europe’s cinematic and audiovisual heritage.
This aim recognizes at least indirectly that film and media must be considered not only under commercial aspects, but also for their cultural value, and that culture can justifiably also be anchored locally and regionally rather than merely nationally.
The dark side of European funding instruments is the exclusion of non-European players. In the economic sector, where the competitiveness of the European internal market is usually unabashedly propagated, it is perhaps still acceptable for Europe to distinguish itself at outsiders’ expense. In the media and in particular the culture sector, however, this kind of politics is at least dubious, if not downright destructive.
An especially blatant example is European film festival funding. As far as inner-European relations are concerned, the focus is placed on diversification and variety – in keeping with the chant of cultural diversity. For example, for a festival to be eligible for MEDIA funding, at least 10 different (European) countries participating in the MEDIA programme must be represented, and the programme presented to the public must be at least 70% European. This means for one thing that less than 30% of programming is left over for the rest of the world. For international festivals and organizers with demanding cultural and aesthetic quality criteria, this is simply unacceptable. Regulations like these either tempt people to circumvent the restrictions through application trickery, or they lead to a kind of European cultural bastion.
The powers that be in the European Union have shown that they are by all means capable of learning from their mistakes. However, the current response to the MEDIA programme’s implicit Eurocentrism is not to change the rules but instead to launch a new programme dedicated exclusively to the cooperation between the European audiovisual industry and the rest of the world. Under the title MEDIA MUNDUS, 15 million euros is earmarked for projects with non-European countries between 2011 and 2013.
The initiation of the MEDIA MUNDUS programme was not culturally motivated, but rather clearly pursues commercial ends, designed to boost the presence of European audiovisual works in the international market. It aims among other things to improve market research, to facilitate international co-productions, to improve transnational distribution and to tap new viewer groups.
MEDIA VoD funding – Taking stock after two years
Two years have gone by since funds were granted to applicants who responded to the two previous calls for proposals, and we can therefore appraise the initial results of the programme.
In the first round, eleven VoD projects and one digital cinema project were granted funds totalling five million euros. Amongst the projects financed were DocsOnline, mk2vod.com, Filmklik and Moviepilot.
On Groupe MK2’s VoD platform there are hardly any short films, although the company founded by Martin Karmitz is active in almost every other sector of the film industry, from production to film sales to cinema and DVD distribution.
The Hungarian platform Filmklik offers a few short films, but apparently only Hungarian productions. Navigating through the website and consequently any evaluation of the offerings is difficult – especially as not all parts of the site have been translated into the only other language available there – English. Some films are evidently streamed free of charge – requiring a Windows operating system, however, due to the DRM system – and others are offered via an inscrutable rental and sales system. The overall picture can therefore only be called confusing!
The Berlin-based Moviepilot platform is now offered in five languages, although Video on Demand has to date only been implemented on the German page. Moviepilot is a recommendation site and film community platform that also sells DVDs for Amazon.de. Short film does not figure there.
<a”opens href=”http://www.docsonline.tv/”></a”opens>DocsOnline<//a> operated by the Dutch foundation of the same name, is a platform for international documentaries (including short films) which works together with NGOs according to the themes of their work. Filmmakers receive 50% of the income from Pay-per-View and Download-to-Own. The website boasts an interesting geographic and thematic navigation, which is however very susceptible to glitches due to the innumerable Java scripts it employs. Here as well, DRM excludes all potential users who do not run Windows. The classics section and the license-free area with clips from documentary classics could be of interest once the technical problems are ironed out – despite the annoying Google ads, which have a way of popping up with a link to sex websites while a film about Auschwitz is playing …
In the second round of grants, seventeen VoD projects and one digital cinema project received funding for a total of just over six million euros. DocsOnline, mk2vod.com, Filmklik and Moviepilot were again amongst the recipients. New this time were The Auteurs Europe, Doc-Air (Doc Alliance), Shortz! and Daazo.com – European Short Film Centre, among others.
Funding was also granted to Filmin, a portal run by a consortium of Spanish producers that is planning an upload area for short films which was not yet online at the time of this writing. URL: http://www.filmin.es/
We have already reported previously on other MEDIA-sponsored projects. One of these is the Movieeurope portal launched by Filmmakers’ Independent Digital Distribution, a Danish coalition of European filmmakers and producers initiated by the former Zentropa managing director Niels Aalbí¦k Jensen.
Information on DocAlliance – also a recipient in the second VoD funding round – can be found in our current News section.
The most impressive Video on Demand portal from this funding round is doubtless <a”opens href=”http://www.theauteurs.com/”></a”opens>The Auteurs Europe<//a>. This project is in a category of its own in all respects, including in terms of promotion policy. The Auteurs was founded by cineastes in Palo Alto, i.e. the Silicon Valley. The site puts contemporary, intellectually demanding independent films as well as art film classics in excellent technical quality online. Having come far from its roots in a typical garage operation, the company today cooperates with the distinguished distributor Criterion (New York) and of late also with the French worldwide distributor Celluloid Dreams (Paris). The American website, which is likewise outstanding in terms of design and functionality, has now received funding for a beta version adapted to the European market. The extensive film catalogue – which unfortunately contains hardly any shorts – is only partially accessible due to current licensing legislation. Other special features of the site are collaborations with renowned festivals such as Cannes, Rotterdam, the Berlinale, Venice etc., from whose competitions films are offered online, along with a lively discussion forum.
Short film on demand 1
Two of the most recently sponsored Video on Demand projects specialize in short film. One of them is the Shortz! website launched by KIWI Media. This VoD portal is dedicated to films on mobile phone (Mobile TV). The organizers have promised to present a selection of the best short films from international festivals, but the repertoire is still too small to judge and the six films currently advertised online do not reveal any unifying concept. The organizers and staff of the portal are not exactly unknowns, however, having previously acted as content providers in Germany, Austria and Spain, for example at plan_b media in Cologne (plan_b supplied T-Mobile and others with content on its channel ShortCuts TV). Partnering with Barcelona-based KIWI Media S.L. is ohm:tv (Cologne), which specializes in the development and distribution of digital television formats, in particular series.
Short film on demand 2
The second MEDIA-funded Video on Demand portal, <a”opens href=”http://www.daazo.com/”></a”opens>Daazo Shortfilms!<//a> , offers substantially more to watch, although the calculated budget and the grant represent only a small fraction of the sums being invested in other projects.
Operating the site is Daazo Film and Media Ltd. (Budapest), which was founded by two Hungarian students. Both are members of the organisation Nisi Masa, a European network of youth-culture film clubs – a sociocultural background that is amply evident from the website and film selection.
The portal with the somewhat pompous-sounding subtitle “European Short Film Centre” is not a Video on Demand platform in the classic sense, but rather a combination of film-sharing and distribution platform. No business model is discernible. Films are streamed free of charge, which means that their producers are not paid any license fees. Daazo does not address filmmakers and visitors to the website as their business partner. Instead, one finds oneself there in a very congenial atmosphere, amongst friends and fellow short-film enthusiasts.
Although anyone can upload films, Daazo Shortfilms! is not your typical video-sharing platform. The operators aspire to quality content, trying to achieve this aim through editorial intervention. There is thus a channel called “Editor’s choice” with selected films, i.e. those recommended by the editors, and another “Daazo films” section with selections solicited by the operators. Daazo actively courts the award-winners at European short-film festivals. The majority of the films are in the entertainment category. The search categories in the fiction film sector are thus comparatively wide-ranging, with a good number of works in several different genres. Fewer selections are found under the Art and Experimental categories, however, and not by any means the films one might expect to see there.
Most of the films seem to come from the immediate circle of friends, or at least the sociocultural milieu, of the organizers. This is also evident from the large number of Hungarian films and the many selections from festivals and competitions from the region, which include in particular the results of various film workshops. Foreign films on the site come mainly from South-Eastern Europe, i.e. from the countries neighbouring Hungary.
The fact that this platform received a MEDIA grant offers encouraging proof that smaller projects do in fact have a chance for European funding. The decision committee presumably interpreted some of the eligibility criteria quite generously here (diversity of the countries and partners participating, the cost/benefit ratio) …
Questions on the concept behind MEDIA policy
The MEDIA VoD/DCD programme is still too young to be able to judge its success. On the other hand, its policies do raise some questions that are worth discussing. But this is only the start: the problem is that there is virtually no public discourse on the concept behind the scheme, the way in which it is conducted and the effectiveness of the funding. This is naturally due above all to the unwillingness or inability of both rejected and accepted applicants to speak frankly about their experiences. Criticism is only voiced in whispers – and is usually directed at the bureaucracy involved in the application process. And the committee’s decisions are of course made behind closed doors …
It would be interesting to find out, for example, which applications did not make the final cut and why certain projects were selected for funding. There is also the question of whether there is an overall funding policy agenda in terms of content and, if so, whether there should in fact be such a concept. It is noticeable that many of the sponsored projects have similar content. This goes especially for the numerous documentary film platforms that have been set up in the recent past. According to the decisions reached, it looks as though it is left to the market to determine which of the European platforms will prevail in the end. In economic policy terms this is surely correct, but with respect to cultural policy it is probably a mistake.
The demand that the funded projects should demonstrate a Europe-wide, transnational reach often goes unmet. A conspicuous number of projects with strong roots in a particular region or culture are, perhaps due to this very fact, hardly in a position to act and have an impact across all of Europe. Should one try to counteract this tendency, perhaps at the price of lowering quality standards? Or does it not make much more sense – in view of the cross-border World Wide Web for one thing – to set the programme’s sights on a more regional focus within Europe?
Drawback: The lack of a complementary European cultural promotion scheme
The unfortunate aspect of European film and media promotion is that for historical reasons it was conceived as a commercial funding scheme in which cultural aspects are not decisive and are only reflected as an empty formula or by way of detours. European integration however urgently demands an explicitly culturally defined field of action. A pan-European perspective of this sort, one freed of commercial constraints, would then presumably no longer need to position itself Eurocentrically and defensively vis-í -vis the world outside European borders.
With respect to Internet platforms for short film, it would be fitting if the same standards were to apply as for television and radio, namely the inclusion not only of private providers but also public stations. Within the scope of European media policy a common European public service is basically regarded as constitutionally legitimate. In May 2009 the European Council held a conference of media ministers on the subject of the public mandate with regard to new media. Unfortunately, the discussion revolved solely around the media-law issue of whether and to what extent public television stations may be allowed to extend their offerings onto the Internet as well. The cultural dimension was neglected here as well.
Cultural cooperation in a narrower sense is still in its infancy in the realm of European policy. Apart from the pompous European Capital of Culture programmes, a tentative first step has been taken since 2007 with the “Cultural Contact Point”. In institutional terms, the Cultural Contact Points recently set up in 34 European countries promise an intensification of European cultural policy.
References / links
European Audiovisual Observatory URL http://www.obs.coe.int/about/oea/org/index.html.en
Commission – Audiovisual and Media Policies: http://ec.europa.eu/avpolicy/index_en.htm
Media Desks: ec.europa.eu/information_society/media/overview/who/desks/index_en.htm
Culture Programme: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/culture/index_en.php
MEDIA – Eligible countries
Only countries participating in the MEDIA Programme are eligible:
Member States of the European Union,
Member States of the European Economic Agreement participating in the MEDIA Programme (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway),
Switzerland and Croatia.