Economization of Culture

or: Thoughts on the topic of film funding


Filme  Films 

Naturally, this topic has preoccupied me for years. My credo: if we only argue economically when it comes to the urgently needed increases in funding, we won't achieve anything; this economization of culture is a contradiction in terms. When it comes to this topic, politicians close their ears, bank directors get diarrhea and the public is over-amused anyway and doesn't even notice that it is under-entertained.

The onslaught on funding institutions and TV stations continues, and the graveyard of unrealized projects is becoming almost unmanageable. Some projects have rightly ended up there, but most of them fail because of the fierce competition between the industry and the fact that the decision-making bodies do not make decisions that are comprehensible to everyone in view of the abundance of submissions. The mantra of the sponsors, that quality ultimately wins through, rings like a mockery in the ears of some - much of what has been launched with great advance praise finds no audience, convinces at best festival curators, who are similarly structured in terms of personnel composition to the sponsors' commissions, and is occasionally co-financed by the ORF, but then programmed only tentatively because of the expected audience enthusiasm. At some point, the funding institutions react in a huff; criticism is permissible, but it rarely helps in a serious way. 

1 In the meantime, the competition among the industry continues in the discussion about future funding models: the Green Economy, which with Alexander Dummreicher-Ivancaneau provides the new section chairman in the Federal Chamber of Commerce, prefers the tax shelter model, i.e. something like an expanded FISA: from the money you spend in Austria, you get a share back. This model has been around in Austria for years, and some US states are competing with it for filming. The "Belgian model" (which also exists in FRA and Spain in a slightly different form) is not preferred by officials because tax avoidance is not a green policy. The "Belgian tax model" gets its money, roughly simplified, from entrepreneurs or liberal professions (lawyers, doctors, architects, etc.), who thus save taxes. By the way, the amount that can be deposited here in a tax-saving way is capped in Belgium. The disadvantage is that banks act as aggregators of these funds, and their handling fees, financing costs, etc. can amount to up to 40% of the subsidy sum. The tax-shelter model could be quickly implemented in Austria, as it could be located at the FISA. For the tax model, there was allegedly an already negotiated draft law of the ÖVP, which, however, has disappeared due to the excitement around the "Ibiza Video" and, in view of the pandemic, is certainly not a priority at the moment. 

2 Recently, a well-known and successful producer said to me that somehow he could no longer understand the decisions - and he really meant "understand", which has nothing to do with whether he liked the decisions. Comprehension in the sense of, I don't know anymore what I should submit and I don't dare to assess whether the material has a chance to be promoted or not.

David Mamet already admonished his students, "Be aware of your colleagues!" and meant those fellow students, according to Memet the majority, who do not end up in the film industry, at least not as filmmakers. Almost the opposite, in fact, those fellow students dutifully finish their studies and then go on to get another degree, but ultimately end up on boards, commissions and juries, as advisors, dramaturges and editors, who then decide whether the few percent who have become filmmakers are allowed to earn money.

David Memet, the directing and dramaturgy guru in Hollywood, whose masterful films themselves (such as "The Spanish Prisoner," the ultimate Hitchcock homage) put together only a manageable performance at the box office. The criticism of the funding decisions, which I think is permissible, also falls short, because the bottom line is that we have too little money in the funding pots and the bottom line is that the ORF also invests too little in the domestic production landscape. Too little to be able to show the film industry in all its breadth and diversity, even though everyone claims that they are making an effort to do just that. There is no objection to films that do not find an audience in the cinemas, see also Memet, but are successful at festivals - the filmmaking of our country is of course also reflected in these films. The current retrospective on the occasion of the 27th anniversary of Amour Fou is an excellent example of this. I can't think of any film produced by Amour Fou, however, think of any number of films that more than deserve the designation "work of art" without contradiction.

If we compare the funding pots in other European countries, Austria is in 4th place! Hurrah! But only if we put film funding in relation to the population. Unfortunately, we cannot relate the average cost of a full-length feature film in Europe to the number of Austrians. Absolute figures apply here, and we tend to be much further behind. The increases in funding in recent years were not really increases, but mostly replacements for previously canceled or "reallocated" funds or additional agendas that had to be financed from the funding pots. The fact is that the Film Promotion Act originally provided for an automatic inflation adjustment, which was abolished by the black/blue government in 2000. At that time, the ÖFI budget stagnated at 9.6 million p.a. until 2006, when the increase to 20 million promised by the then SPÖ Minister of Culture was begun. Only in 2013 the budget was then at the level promised after the Oscar for "The Counterfeiters" (that was 2007 !!!). If we calculate purchasing power and 

inflation over all these years, the ÖFI budget lost more than 10% of its purchasing power from 2000 to 2006, which means that the 9.6 million was actually worth 10% less. The 20 million has also been diluted over the years of "no increase." Conservatively calculated by about 17%. From that perspective, the increases in recent years don't even compensate for inflation, so there's no question of real increases. Applies also to all other promotion pots. 

To put on the policy, thus seen rather nix brings. Which cultural politician, and we are dealing with two politicians in the federal government and Vienna - where, as is well known, the largest state pot for film funding is administered - likes to hear that the budget increases, which were proclaimed to be super and "voi-leiwanden", turned out to be rather modest compared to the other departments in the government and are therefore not even half as great as they were hailed to be. That's all there is to it, because you can't win elections with culture. If, however, a politician should happen to be interested in film and his interest should happen to extend beyond Til Schweiger, and if he should then also happen to have noticed something about the complexity of film funding and thus the financing of feature films, then all he has to do is to form his own opinion and thus assert himself against all the other ideas of the other politicians. Always, as mentioned, taking into account the fact that success in improving the situation of the film industry does not win elections. Not even supposedly culturally affine parties devote even a rudimentary amount of serious attention to this issue.

Lisa Giehl, a former employee of film funding in Bavaria and now on the management board of Constantin, dealt with an important aspect of film funding in her dissertation (2016) under the title "Cultural Capital." Everything today, she said, has to be arguable in economic terms; effects and leverage form the underlining fodder for cultural policy demands on the federal budget, on the budget. The industry argues with its gross value added, with employment figures and the impact on tourism and the supply industry. Cultural workers in their entirety are viewed like employees in other industries: as an economic factor, as an aggregate of jobs. However, Giehl asks whether this does not mean that other essential elements are being neglected. Basically, it is repeatedly stated, in Germany as well as here in Austria, that film promotion constantly oscillates between economic promotion and cultural promotion, depending on who is asking for it.


And as the SPÖ's economic spokesman and former state secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Christoph Matznetter, puts it: Demanding subsidies is something that others can do better: farmers or industry, for example. Question: If we are no longer to argue with economic efficiency, the macroeconomic effects, which is what our industry representatives are currently doing, then with what?

Insertion: Culture is a merit good that is or was only in very rare cases able to finance itself via the market - patrons or the state have intervened since antiquity. Onations or subsidies and thus keep culture alive at the level we know today. European politicians who like to look to the U.S. in connection with culture and argue that there the market regulates culture forget, first, that it is a market of 300 million viewers at roughly the same cultural level who speak predominantly the same language, the few intellectuals on the East Coast and in California do not come into play, and second, that cultural investment in the U.S. enjoys state intervention through tax models and RePaids. These then take place in the context of fierce competition among the states, which bid each other up.

Demerit goods are those that are financed by the market and do not require government intervention to survive, but social consensus leads to restrictions - drugs, for example, would certainly sell well, but are sometimes subject to very rigid access restrictions. In truth, the climate debate also leads to some goods that are not sustainable enough or whose carbon footprint is atrocious becoming demeritory, as their sale is made more difficult or banned by the state. The counterexample of a merit good, for once not culture: solar panels, which are still not entirely profitable at present, are generously subsidized because they are considered ecologically sound.

Seen in this light, we would have to argue for culture, for film, in the same way as the manufacturers of solar panels.

The authors of a study by the IHS (Institute for Advanced Studies/Vienna) state (the study dates from 2008 and is the "most recent" on the subject of culture and economic leverage) that it is necessary to justify the use of financial policy instruments for merit goods, i.e., for film promotion, nota bene, several problem areas would emerge in this regard. First, it must be justified why state intervention must or should influence consumer sovereignty through additional, state-supported, offerings. After all, for whatever reason, consumers' individual preferences are apparently not sufficient to obtain these goods without state intervention. In this context, the distinction between private and public goods, which is not always clear-cut, plays a major role in the case of merit goods. From a historical, ethical and sociopolitical perspective, the preservation of culture is part of every 

Austrian's bundle of preferences. In other words, Austrians perceive Austria as a cultural nation and see this quite irrationally, as one of Austria's unique selling points. Nevertheless, the individual willingness to preserve these goods is apparently low (the fact that this willingness is even lower in the case of soccer, for example, measured in terms of viewer numbers, is not really comforting in this context and is hardly reflected in the public debate). So much for our being a cultural nation.

An anecdote from the 1970s tells of a young man who sent the KjdF (Kuratorium junger deutscher Film - Board of Trustees for Young German Film) not a script, but only a novel, and stated in the enclosed letter that he wanted to make it into a film. The rights were also no problem, the author was a friend of his. Nevertheless, the board invited the applicant to present his project. The young director told in a long-winded way what he had already written. The committee trusted the young gentleman and he was able to realize the film, which was then released in theaters under the same title as the novel: "The Fear of the Goalkeeper at the Penalty Kick." Would Wim Wenders have become famous even without this film, and the question of whether that would still be possible today may and must also be asked.

At the very end there is the audience, which would like to go to the cinema. Which is really difficult with some films. Few copies and hardly mass-suitable starting times. For operators of movie theaters and distributors, the money has obviously not yet been abolished.

Only, without the exploitation in the classic cinema, the film would be severely threatened not only as a cultural institution but also financially, the streaming services pay less and have a different business model - they're all about subscribers and not about producing or showing good films. The films there are just a means to an end.

That's probably our weakness, probably why we don't argue with the topic of "culture", because we believe that we have to be able to keep up with the economy. Because we are fascinated by models like the streaming services. It's also fascinating how the market is shaken up and suddenly they're so big that they're a factor. Politicians are watching, as always, and are happy because all Til Schweiger films can finally be seen. Even the not so successful ones. More about this in my article "We are equal to you".