Filmmakers suffer, but COVID-19 is not the only cause

COVID-19 has taken us through emotions of grief, denial, anger and sadness. Hit by the second wave of the pandemic, the virus has demonstrated its force and resulted in the final stage: acceptance. We are slowly learning how to live with and adapt to our new reality. However, the symptoms of a fragile audiovisual sector were there long before the pandemic and the virus is not the only cause.

The pandemic has exacerbated the systemic vulnerability of the EU film sector. The sector is at large made up of small companies employing creative and technical freelancers. “Nearly half (48%) of the over 2 million artists and writers in the EU-28 are self-employed, three times higher than that in total employment, which demonstrates the extreme lack of job security in the sector.” (EP report). The sector was fragile before the COVID-19 crisis, with TV advertising being challenged by Internet advertising and linear pay TV by SVOD and now many small European production and distribution companies risk failing altogether, writes the European Audiovisual Observatory.

While the audiovisual sector, governments and the EU quickly mobilised emergency funds and relaxation of rules, support measures must go beyond the immediate crisis and the way to receive funding should be simplified, as it is a labyrinth, echoed participants at a webinar during the Cannes Virtual Market at the end of June. While cinemas are slowly reopening and production resuming, the loss of revenues remain high and the fact that many SMEs risk not to survive will have repercussions on the cultural diversity in Europe (Cannes webinar). Endangering the diversity of cultural creation was also a conclusion by CISAC when assessing the impact after the crisis “Creators and authors societies face profound harm long into 2021 as a result of coronavirus. (---) Many businesses using creative works will either not reopen or will have trouble paying – leading irrecoverable debt to rise (---) CMOs worldwide will see their collections decrease by hundreds of millions of euros.” (CISAC, June 2020).

As much as the devastating impact of COVID-19 must be treated, full recovery cannot be reached if the underlying conditions are not addressed. The measures put in place tackle the short-term effects and the “back to normal” strategy is not sufficient (European Audiovisual Observatory). For audiovisual authors the primary ‘sicknesses’ are several, including lack of professional status, buy-out contracts and denial of royalties for the exploitation of their works. One of the ‘cures’ that can be swiftly implemented is an unwaivable right to remuneration for the exploitation of audiovisual works, in particular online. This remedy can be part of the implementation of Article 18 of the EU Copyright Directive on fair and proportionate remuneration for authors. 

The lack of payment of royalties to audiovisual authors behind the films and series available via on-demand services was an issue long before the pandemic, and even more so now. Lack of revenue pay-outs from the exploitations of rights will span way past 2020 and affect workers and self-employed in the sector (European Audiovisual Observatory). Major US video-on-demand providers have benefited though from the increased consumption. In 2020, Netflix's shares have risen by 50.2%, its stock hit an all-time high and the market value reached nearly $219 billion (Hollywoodreporter). Little or none of these revenues reaches European filmmakers.

The sole purpose of authors’ collective management organisations (CMOs) is to ensure that authors receive their fair share of revenues for the exploitation of their works. The SAA was created 10-years ago to expose the weaknesses within the audiovisual sector, amplify the voices of European CMOs and advocate to ensure that filmmakers are not left behind when regulating EU copyright laws

As eager as the world is to find a vaccine against COVID-19, the SAA and European filmmakers are impatient to see the enforcement of a European framework that supports screenwriters and directors, both legally and financially. Only then can creators recover and re-create European audiovisual culture.