Commercial Success Eludes European Film Awards Nominees

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
'Cold War'

The critics love the contenders for the 2018 European Film Awards but, except for frontrunner 'Cold War,' the art house heavy lineup has had trouble breaking through at the Euro box office.

The European Film Awards, which will be held Saturday in Seville, Spain, are billed as the ultimate celebration of European cinema.

Judging by this year's nominees, the claim is more than just a sales pitch. The 2018 European Film category is packed with critical darlings and festival favorites that have made many a year-end best-off list.

Pawel Pawlikowski's Polish drama Cold War, which leads the EFA pack with five nominations, won best director honors in its debut at Cannes in May and has been universally praised. “Bittersweet and unbearably lovely” was The Hollywood Reporter's verdict on Pawlikowski's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida. The black-and-white love story, set against the political upheaval of a divided Europe, is the favorite to take top honors Saturday night in Seville.

But a Cold War sweep is hardly a done deal. The other four European Film contenders — Matteo Garrone's neo-realist drama Dogman, Ali Abbasi's Swedish fantasy tale Border, Lukas Dhont's transgender dance drama Girl and Alice Rohrwacher's socially critical fable Happy as Lazzaro — enter the EFA race backed by a groundswell of critical support and a trophy case's worth of honors.

Dogman's star Marcello Fonte was named best actor at Cannes, and the movie swept the Italian Film Journalists' awards, taking eight prizes, including for best film. Abbasi's Border won best film honors in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section and nabbed prizes at festivals as far apart as Los Angeles, Munich and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Dhont's feature debut Girl won the Golden Camera for best first film at Cannes, as well as a best actor nod in the Un Certain Regard section for star Victor Polster. Girl was also just nominated for a Golden Globe in the best foreign-language film category. And Happy as Lazzaro earned Rohrwacher Cannes' best screenplay honor, as well as the jury prize at the Sitges Film Festival.

Critical praise, however, has not translated into box office success for this year's nominees. With the exception of Cold War, which has earned more than $10 million across Europe, EFA's class of 2018 has had a tough time crossing over, particularly outside the films' home territories. Several of the titles — including Happy as Lazzaro, Border and Girl — have yet to premiere in several major regions, and the attention of the European Film Awards could help their prospects. “The European Film Awards are meant to be a promotional platform,” says European Film Academy director Marion Doring, “we can help get audiences.”

But it seems clear that that the pan-European cinema culture the EFAs are designed to celebrate is not being reflected at the European box office. While Doring says she thinks European cinema “is flourishing,” she admits that “it's not always visible” in the cold hard figures of theater receipts.

In fact, in the top five European territories (the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Spain), the only two European films to make it into the top 10 at the box office outside their home territory were Bohemian Rhapsody and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, both U.S.-U.K. co-productions that we buoyed by major studio distribution support — Fox in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody and Universal with Mamma Mia 2. Similarly, Joe Wright's Churchill biopic Darkest Hour charted in the top 50 in a few European territories, thanks to the Universal's marketing nous. StudioCanal, the closest thing Europe has to a U.S.-style major, managed to crack the top 50 in France and Spain (though not in Germany or Italy) with Nick Park's prehistoric claymation comedy Early Man

But otherwise, outside their local territories, European art house titles, of the kind the European Film Awards celebrates, are virtually nowhere to be found in the top 10, or even the top 100 titles. Only two non-British European films made it onto the top 100 in the U.K.: Lance Daly's Irish period drama Black 47 (at No. 92) and Clergy, Wojciech Smarzowski's comedic take-down of the Polish Catholic Church, which came it at No. 98 on the U.K. charts, due largely to Britain's substantial Polish-language minority. In Germany, the most successful non-local, non studio-backed European film this year was Dany Boon's French comedy La ch'tite famille, which ranks No. 73 overall to date on the box office chart.

Doring says access to European cinema is a major issue. "For example, in a city like Seville, where you have a European film festival, you hear people who are enthusiastic about European cinema because they have a chance to access it — it’s coming to them,” she says, pointing as well to the success of the EFA's young audience award, which is voted on by European audiences aged 12-14 who attend screenings in 43 cities across 34 countries in Europe.

European art house films often face an uphill battle in an increasingly crowded market dominated by studio titles and the occasional local movie. National television channels, traditionally a prime supporter and promoter of European cinema, has also cut back on primetime movie slots, further reducing their visibility.

“National audiences are less open to films from neighboring European countries,” notes an exec from a leading German distributor. “You used to have films like [French comedies] The Intouchables and Welcome to the Sticks doing huge business. Now, audiences seem to prefer local fare.”

Indeed, instead of importing a French, Spanish or Italian film, many European distributors these days find it is a better business to make a local-language remake and pitch the title as a homegrown original. The 2012 French hit What's in a Name, for example, has been adapted three times already — as Il nome del figlio in Italy (in 2015), El Nom in Spain (2017) and, earlier this year, in Germany as Der Vorname.

“Europe is drifting apart, cinematically, just as, arguably, it is drifting apart politically,” notes one veteran producer. Which all gives further weight to the 2019 European Film Awards. With news headlines full of Brexit and reports of growing anti-European sentiment in Italy, France and beyond, the EFAs stand out as one of the few pan-European cultural events the continent has to offer.

“The feel on the night is that of a big European family,” says Doring of the EFA gala. “People are curious to know about each other, and they’re open-minded. I don’t know any other cultural event where people are talking about Europe and and celebrating diversity in this way.”