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How Hollywood defines Europe’s identity

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At no other time of the year does the film industry get quite as much attention as now. We are currently in full swing of the awards season, which runs from December to February on both sides of the Atlantic, crowned of course by Hollywood’s Golden Globes and Academy Awards, but also featuring the European Film Awards, the BAFTAs, the Berlinale and the Rotterdam Film Festival. At a time when the press are debating the nominees’ merits, predicting the winners and commenting on acceptance speeches, it is worth zooming out and considering what role the film industry plays in Europe and on the broader global stage.

         The vast majority of the world’s population will never step foot in Europe or experience it first-hand. However, even without a trip to Europe, billions of people still form an impression of Europe in their minds, a social imaginary,[1] and claim to know about Europe through what they see on screens of smartphones, televisions, social media, websites, and, to a lesser extent nowadays, in cinemas, print media and outdoor advertising. Of course, what these non-Europeans see portrayed in films may not always represent reality, and their imagined impression informed by film is inevitably slanted by power dynamics, media moguls, financial stakeholders, public institutions, Westernisation and myriad other factors. Even though the imaginary Europe that lives in non-European minds might not be authentic or accurate, it still exists and it affects perceptions and attitudes about Europe, prompting certain emotions and driving certain actions. But how does this ‘false’ imaginary come into existence? What are the consequences of the film industry’s often inaccurate representation of Europe? How does this impact a sense of collective European identity?

         In the context of rising nationalism in an increasingly divided Europe, where EU citizens are all too aware of their national differences and struggle to identify characteristics of a common European identity, the film industry has a starring role to play. Several speeches made at the recent European Film Awards on the 10th December 2016 highlighted the need for Europe’s filmmakers to tackle the political crisis and malaise in Europe through their artistic productions and to use their films as a tool to help construct and project narratives of a shared European identity.[2] While defining European identity remains so problematic for those within Europe, the perspective offered through film to the rest of the world can shed an interesting new angle on the issue.

           The prevalence of Hollywood films is responsible for this false, one-dimensional and stereotypical imaginary of Europe that exists beyond Europe’s borders, because more authentic narratives depicted in homegrown European-produced films struggle to compete with Hollywood for audience figures. Even in their home market of the EU, a mere 26% of the market share belongs to European films, ceding a growing 70% of the market share to US-made films.[3] Beyond Europe, the struggle really is real, with European films often advertised in the US as niche arthouse films, thus attracting even fewer viewers and only in certain segments of American society. Given the shortage of authentic European films promoted and recognised in the public sphere outside of Europe, American blockbusters set in Europe comprise the dominant representations of Europe in film.

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       One particular genre of American film that often portrays an idealised, aesthetically stunning vision of European culture is the formulaic romantic comedy dramas that feature American characters visiting Europe. Think of the popularity of films such as Letters to Juliet (2010), Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), A Good Year (2006) and Woody Allen’s trio of European magical realist films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011) and To Rome with Love (2012). Characteristic of Hollywood, they all sought to attract a mass audience, thereby having far greater reach and influence on perceptions of Europe than European-made films, which could arguably be deemed more authentic.[4] The result of this Hollywood genre is a somewhat coherent, if ultimately misguided, romanticised imaginary or stereotype of Europe existing in the eyes of millions of Americans and other foreign audiences. Presented in a recognisable genre of ‘romantic comedy dramas in Europe’, featuring American characters and produced by American filmmakers, the external audience perceives the similarities between European countries and cultures, rather than the national differences that are all too visible to Europeans themselves.

         Europeans fail to identify with this false depiction of Europe in Hollywood blockbusters for a number of reasons: the one-sided view of an elite European society that masks Europe’s diversity; the conspicuous absence of counter-hegemonic narratives from what Manuela Boatcă terms epigonal Europe (i.e. Central and Eastern Europe); and the unrealistic predominance of the English language in these films.[5] In this respect, these romanticised films actually contribute to an increasing divergence between Europe’s self-perception and others’ perceptions, a discord between the ‘in’ group and the ‘out’ group.[6]

          On the other hand, while these films’ authenticity may be up for debate, they often form part of a larger nation branding campaign that seeks to project a single coherent national image to the rest of world in order to attract visitors, students, business and income.[7] Through ‘product placement’ of a city such as Barcelona in Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which local public authorities contributed 10% of the total budget (Barcelona’s city hall paid €1 million and the Catalan Regional Government paid €500,000),[8] a city can advertise and promote itself to an external audience, boosting tourist numbers and revenues.[9] Despite the controversy surrounding the use of public money to fund Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it has proved a successful model for increasing tourism, which was subsequently repeated in Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love. Allen is in high demand for such projects and has also reportedly received offers of €20 million from the Stockholm Film Commission[10] and 100% of production costs from the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, to work his magic in those locations too.[11]

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         Is it not only for increasing tourism that such films are made, there is also a trend of universities funding films in order to recruit more international students and the associated higher tuition fees they pay. For example, the University of Leicester in the UK has hosted three Bollywood films since 2001, with a deal struck in the latest film that the protagonist would say on screen that he graduated from the University of Leicester, in the hope of attracting more Indian students to consider studying at the university.[12] Research by Kristy Tucciarone has shown that the depiction of specific universities in films plays a considerable role in prospective international students’ decision-making on where to study, given the limited alternative sources of information accessible to them.[13]

         There is now neurological research that proves how images and narratives impact decision-making, and further demonstrates that ‘decisions are driven more by emotions than a rational weighing of information’.[14] As the power of film in opinion formation is becoming better understood, more and more destinations and public bodies are adopting this form of cultural relations and public diplomacy activity through film. Their primary objective is often to promote the most appealing vision of their destination or institution to an external audience, not necessarily to reflect the true essence and complex composition of the community depicted. One result of this is the risk of over-tourism, with Barcelona serving as a prime example. For many years, Spain did not feature very heavily in the rite-of-passage ‘Euro trip’ or modern-day ‘Grand Tour’ that some young Americans traditionally undertake through more famous Italy, France and the UK, but Woody Allen’s 2008 movie firmly placed Barcelona on their tourist maps. A city with only 1.6 million inhabitants, Barcelona played host to 5.6 million tourists in 2005.[15] Post-Woody Allen’s makeover in 2008, this soared dramatically by 46.8%, with the city receiving 8.3 million tourists in 2015, just ten years later. The city council also hopes to increase this to 10 million a year.[16] However, local citizens are protesting against the impact this over-tourism has on their city, with some suggesting a cap on tourist numbers to preserve their local customs and lifestyle, without sacrificing too much of their city to tourism.[17]

          By increasing the number of Americans and other nationalities visiting these key cities, such as Barcelona, Rome and Paris, Woody Allen’s idealised portrayals of these European cities have in fact contributed to their over-tourism, with consequences for the local communities and even the local culture itself. As a result of the idealised vision of Europe that these tourists have extracted from Woody Allen’s films and packed deep into their suitcases, the local society often adapts its culture into a commercially profitable proposition that caters to the expectations of these visiting tourists, thus profoundly impacting or even altering that European culture the tourists have travelled across the ocean to experience.

         Seen from another angle however, while the American blockbusters in this genre each portray different cities in different European countries, as a collective of films they link together key themes of Europe and are often viewed as one depiction of Europe. Due to the cost and distances involved, when these films prompt a visit from Americans it is often as part of a so-called ‘Euro trip’, in which the continent gains a united identity in the minds of the foreign tourists, which does not necessarily exist in the constructed social imaginary of Europeans themselves.

        These films are representative examples of the wider phenomena of cultural diplomacy and nation branding, through which countries seek to improve their global recognition and reputation in order to attract income from tourists, students and the export of goods, through branding them as desirable and high-quality.

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         As we can see, in reality, the inaccurate visual representation of Europe projected in these American films attracts both benefits (increased numbers of tourists and students) and challenges for Europe (over-tourism and a fictitious identity to which locals do not relate). While the narrative presented may not be authentic, it is up for debate whether the pros outweigh the cons at the end of the day.

         Or is there an alternative? Could increased investment in promotion of homegrown European films that contain more accurate narratives and uniting markers of identity still serve the same purpose? One barrier in the European film industry is undoubtedly language, with those produced in English almost automatically reaching a larger audience than those in French, Spanish or German, let alone the other lesser-spoken languages within Europe. Mass audiences in English-speaking markets like the US are not yet accustomed to subtitled films and English serves as the lingua franca of the Western world. There are however successful examples of transnational productions in Europe such as The Bridge[1] and The Team,[18] there is some element of funding available from the Council of Europe and the European Commission, and film producers such as Leontine Petit have extolled the importance of working transnationally in Europe.[2] These homegrown options are yet to gain equal traction and fully influence or amend the stereotype exported outside of Europe by American films and European tourist boards, but they do offer an alternative to the constructed narrative of Europe presented in Hollywood films.

         Turning to the role of these films in the development of a collective European identity that can unite Europe’s citizens, authenticity may be preferable on paper and in an ideal world. But the wider impact of such films on non-Europeans’ opinion-formation, decision-making, and subsequent action (i.e. expenditure), should not be overlooked either.

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This paper was written in January 2017 for a course in ‘Cultural Construction of Europe’, completed as part of the University of Groningen’s Master’s degree in Euroculture: European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.

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Footnotes and sources:

[1] Ib Bondebjerg, “Transnational Europe: TV-drama, co-production networks and mediated cultural encounters,” Palgrave Communications 2, no. 16034 (2016): 12.

[2] Leontine Petit, “Leontine Petit’s speech,” European Film Awards, last modified December 10, 2016.

[3] Ivana Katsarova, “An overview of Europe’s film industry,” European Parliament, last modified December 2014.

[4] Celestino Deleyto and Gemma López, “Catalan beauty and the transnational beast: Barcelona on the screen,” Transnational Cinemas 3, no. 2, (2012): 159.

[5] Manuela Boatcă, “Multiple Europes and the Politics of Difference Within,” World and Knowledge Otherwise 3, no. 3 (2013).

[6] Bo Stråth, “A European identity to the historical limits of a concept,” European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 4 (2002): 388.

[7] Melissa Aronzyck, Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[8]Allen film funding angers Spanish,” BBC News, last modified July 30, 2007.

[9] Lorena Rodríguez Campo, José Antonio Fraiz Brea and Diego Rodríguez‐Toubes Muñiz, “Tourist Destination Image Formed by the Cinema: Barcelona positioning through the feature film Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” European Journal of Tourism, Hospitality and Recreation 2, no. 1 (2011): 137.

[10] Oliver Gee, “Woody Allen ‘needs a story’ for Stockholm film,” The Local, last modified July 2, 2013.

[11] Catherine Shoard, “Woody Allen is offered ‘whatever it takes’ to film in Rio,” The Guardian, last modified August 19, 2013.

[12] Matt Pickles, “Do students pick universities because of movies?BBC News, last modified May 23, 2016.

[13] Kristy Tucciarone, “How Hollywood Movies Influence International Students to Study in the United States,” College and University 88, no. 4 (2013).

[14] Cynthia P. Schneider, “The Unrealized Potential of Cultural Diplomacy: “Best Practices” and What Could Be, If Only…” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 39, no. 4 (2009): 264.

[15]2015 Tourism Statistics. Barcelona: city and surroundings,” Barcelona Turisme, accessed January 3, 2017.

[16] Ada Colau, “Mass tourism can kill a city – just ask Barcelona’s residents,” The Guardian, last modified September 2, 2014.

[17] Chris Leadbeater, “Should tourist numbers be capped in cities like Barcelona?The Telegraph, last modified June 17, 2015.

[18] Gunhild Agger, “The development of transnationality in Danish Noir–from Unit One to The Team,” Northern Lights: Film & Media Studies Yearbook 14, no. 1 (2016): 83-101.

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