Country Focus: Belgium
Belgium incentive policies (published in March 2005)
by Chantal Gras
16/03/2005 - Silence, Belgium is shooting!
Belgium, this small patchwork of a country, has been present on the international cinema scene for a few years now. Is this only the result of good circumstances ? By no means. This progression owes not only to the talented filmmakers and actors, the skilful technicians and producers, but it also owes much to the public authorities. For thirty years, they have been very committed to initiating incentive policies, and this humble work on the infrastructures has eventually had positive ramifications.
The State of Belgium is divided into two great communities (the French-speaking citizens and the Dutch-speaking ones) plus a small one, the German-speaking community. In terms of administrative division, it falls into three regions : Flanders, Wallonie —which includes the Eastern German-speaking constituencies—, and Brussels, the capital, and its periphery). The Communities deal with ‘cultural’ matters (culture, education, etc.) and regions have political and economic functions. The federal State remains competent for the general national policies (taxes, health, etc.). This context makes film production rather complex, since it depends at least both on the Communities and on the State for taxes, and possibly on regional funds.
It all started about thirty years ago : on the French side, the Cultural Affairs Secretary, Jean-Maurice Dehousse, was very fond of cinema, but he was faced with the impossibility to increase out-of-date funds, which led him to reorganise the system and make it functional. A more efficient and fair set of structures were gradually created, including a selection committee of professionals and a new repartition of the (still insufficient) subsidies by categories (script development, production, promotion, short films, features, animation films, documentaries, etc.) .
The main purpose of the support strategy was to help not just a few movies but to operate as an incentive from the very beginning of the creation process, by making it unavoidable for Belgian filmmakers to come to coproduction, involving either Belgian or foreign TV channels or other producers. The Belgian cultural department started acting as a 'first counter', helping productions with a small amount which was nevertheless enough to reassure financers and trigger them into funding the projects. It surely took time for professionals to get used to this system, but the 'co-production reflex' initially imposed on them by the authorities eventually became natural : today, it is the keystone to the growing success of Belgian cinema…
This 'reflex' was likely to make it simpler for Belgian professionals to handle the gradual enforcement of all the European support schemes (a process initiated twenty years ago) depending on EURIMAGES and the MEDIA Programme. On top of the priority measures : partnerships involving at least three countries. Out of economic realism as much as out of willingness to create a European identity, the European Commission aimed at a really 'European' cinema, something quintessentially non-'nationalistic'. And as a matter of fact, Belgian professionals were already familiar with foreign co-productions. It is true, however, that Belgium had mostly cooperated with countries with a 'similar' cinema. The new European structures was going to widen its range of potential partners, including countries with a much bigger film industry, such as France, Italy, and Spain which, so far, tended to work on their own, but which the prospect European support would encourage to venture out of their borders. Big French, Italian, and Spanish stars would become more accessible to Belgian producers, and conversely, young Belgian actors would be given a chance —as were Marie Gillain, Cécile de France, and others— to become famous by working with directors from the 'big' surrounding countries. Europe was clearly a great opportunity for Belgian cinema. Local professionals had much to recommend them. First, the head office of the MEDIA Programme is based in Brussels —and not Strasbourg—, which made it easier for Belgians to enter the network and avoid certain inevitably complicated procedures. Secondly, the head of the Belgian French Commnunity’s Department, General Secretary Henry Ingberg, immediately put forward two new measures who would ‘fit’ perfectly with the European context. One of these measures consisted in establishing an expert, Henri Roanne (both a journalist on a Belgian TV channel and a documentarist who helped elaborating the European Programme) as head of the Belgian film selection committee ; his expertise certainly contributed for several years to a number of European partnerships. The second measure was the generous offer to host, within the Ministry, the media desk, the information platform of the MEDIA Programme.
As time passed, the small film department got bigger and in 1995, it changed names for 'Film and TV Centre'. It was still part of the Ministry of the French Community, but it grow more and more competent, active, and used to European and International interactions. Indeed, besides the MEDIA Programme, Belgium is an active member of Eurimages (which gathers 40 countries) and signed several international bilateral co-production agreements (with Canada, for instance). The rule is that a co-production is entitled to the Belgian nationality providing 20% of the money is Belgian, with some exceptions —with its French neighbour-, it only takes 10% of the budget.
As far as the Dutch-speaking Community is concerned, it must be acknowledged that its film production has been fairly marginal, isolated in Flanders and at most the Netherlands because of the linguistic and political barrier which cuts Belgium in two. Of course, some splendid films were made — Mira, De Loteling, Le lion des Flandres (adapted from famous Dutch-Belgian novels)— but they never reached foreign audiences. However, as time passes and European countries get closer, things are evolving. Collaborations are more and more frequent, especially since a Belgian film can now get funded by both Communities ; as a result, 6/7 features per year are 'bi-communautary', as Belgians say. In order to stimulate this process, three years ago, the old film section of the Dutch-speaking Community was made independent from the Ministry and became an association. This independent and simple structure is very flexible and free to provide all kinds of support (cf. doc. attached). It is nevertheless important to remember that both the TV and Film Centre on the French side and the Vlaams audiovisueel Funds in Flanders only have 'cultural' attributions. They can not neglect the economic aspects of each project, but their primary mission is to support creation, that is, quality films. It is not the case for regional authorities : thus, Wallonie has a regional fund with exclusively economic purposes (all three regions have their own 'governments' to handle 'regionalised' matters) : this fund is called Wallimages and it aims at ensuring good repercussions on the local economy when national or foreign movies are shot in Wallonie (cf. doc. attached).
Fortunately for filmmakers from the German-speaking area, they can benefit from Wallimages, which is very helpful for a Community more than often left un-supported. Its current budget only allows it to keep three cinema theatres and fund now and again documentaries co-produced by Belgian or German TV-channels.
The current success of Belgian films on the international scene is stimulating production. In 2004, only the third of the 358 (all categories included) projects which applied to the French Community could be supported —that is, 101 projects, including twenty features. They were selected by special 'committees' : 'first' committee allows 50% of the budget to first works, the second committee uses the other half to support second (or more) productions. ‘Star directors’ (Luc et Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Jaco Van Dormael, Frédéric Fonteyne, etc.) whose budget is often over €3M, can address a third committee which only helps an average of 2 features a year. Last year, it chose L’Enfant [trailer, film focus] by the Dardenne brothers (in competition at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival) and Gene Astaire (provisional title) by Alain Berliner (still in the making). This third possibility offered to big productions is usually what helps completing a nearly all covered budget. By no means does this operate at the expense of the young authors, for the idea is to put the emphasis on them while keeping an eye on confirmed directors.
Last year, the film selection committee had €8,700,000 to distribute, all categories included. A quarter of this sum (€2.2M) was provided by cable-channels — for the Wallon government created a special tax for cable-channels (proportional to subscriptions to their services), but this does not exist neither in Flanders nor in the Brussels region.
Today, the good commercial results of several national productions make their financial situation much less uncertain (while they used to walk on thin ice) ; still, they are not so popular and mainstream as to gather considerable benefits. They can boast a few prestigious prizes at famous festivals, and the recognition of the aficionados, but they never reach the heights where big Hollywood blockbusters easily climb. Besides, governmental support is supposed to consist in advances-on-admissions : in theory, it is no free money. Yet, in reality, in 2004, the Ministry only got €150,000 back, and its best year was 2002, with only €173,000 of the money back.
At that point, it is necessary to find new ways to fund cinema, lest the fantastic progress made in Belgium should slow down and stop. The question is : how to engage more money ? Now, while the European Union is discussing the Bolckestein idea that tax-reliefs should be suppressed (on the ground that the 'cultural exception' leads to unfair competition with other economic activities), the Belgian government is enforcing a scheme initiated three years ago in order to grant tax-reliefs to companies which have invested some of their benefits in a Belgian production (cf. see box). This original programme is designed to attract big foreign companies. It may be a little complex as a financial device (although it has already been revised and simplified) but it is very progressive on a fiscal point of view. It is a benefit which goes not to the producer or other professionals (despite their recurrent attempts to apply) : it favours the investor.
Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel ( www.cfwb.be)
Communauté Française Wallonie-Bruxelles
Date of creation: 1995
Name of director: Henry Ingberg
Total budget 2004:€ 21.700.000
Feature films support budget 2004:€ 5.740.000
Number of feature films supported in 2004: 20
Vlaams audiovisueel Funds ( www.vaf.be)
Date of creation: 2002
Name of director: Luckas Vander Taelen
Total Budget 2004:€ 12.500.000
Feature Films support budget 2004: € 4.500.000
Number of feature films supported in 2004 : 10
Date of creation: 2001
Name of director: Philippe Reynaert
Total budget 2004: € 2.500.000
Feature film support budget 2004: € 2.200.000
Number of feature films supported 2004: 7