Hollywood isn’t often on the agenda of the Bundestag, Germany’s lower legislative chamber. But on Thursday, the parliamentary budget committee will take up the subject of financial aid to films – and Hollywood will play a starring role.
The 41 committee members will be working through the 2015 federal budget, which in its entirety is €300 billion for the coming year, or about $373 billion. One relatively small item on the list is a €50 million appropriation for the German Federal Film Fund, and it is making the movie industry see red.
The budgeted amount represents a €10 million cut from the federal film fund’s current budget, which subsidizes filmmaking in Germany. The fund was set up seven years ago, but has been cut again and again in recent years. Now the film lobby is sounding the alarm.
In an open letter to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, 60 renowned actors, directors and other film industry celebrities have warned that the budget cuts will hurt sales, employment and tax revenues. The program – which covers up to 20 percent of the costs of film production in Germany – has turned the country into a “player in world cinema that is held in high esteem for its craftsmanship, technology and artistry,” according to the letter.
The film fund is actually a tax credit, a sort of pre-financing of what the government takes in subsequently, multiplied many times over. Alexander Thies, Chairman of the producers’ alliance
Among those who signed the letter are Christoph Waltz, who won Oscars for his roles in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” Others include actors Bruno Ganz and Nina Hoss, and directors Michael Haneke and Wim Wenders. They are concerned about more than just art, and speak about “economic effectiveness” and “know-how transfer.”
The German Federal Film Fund has had a significant economic impact over the years.
Since January 2007, 757 film productions have been supported with about €420 million ($522 million).
In a study commissioned by the film industry, the consulting firm Roland Berger calculated that financial support generated investments in Germany totaling €2.5 billion ($3.1 billion). For every one euro in grants, six euros were invested in Germany, according to the producers’ alliance, an association that represents 230 film companies.
“The (film fund) is actually not a classic instrument for promoting films, although that is part of its name. It is a tax credit, a sort of pre-financing of what the government takes in subsequently, multiplied many times over,” said Alexander Thies, chairman of the producers’ alliance.
Big-time international producers are also lured to German film locations by the fund.
Otherwise, those productions might go to London or Prague, where aid money is also available. Since 2007, almost half the German film fund has gone to international co-productions — including Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and, most recently, Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.”
But critics are asking why Hollywood needs grants financed by German taxpayers. They also argue that the German film industry already gets enough assistance: Each year, €170 million is budgeted at the federal or state level to finance movie production, which creates about 10,000 jobs.
In addition, there is TV money along with prizes and loans. A total of 21 federal and state institutions support the industry — not all of them with tax revenues. “Subsidy madness is proliferating more and more,” said an official with the taxpayers’ association.
The German producers' association is indignant at such statements. International film productions “made in Germany” are important for the country to be competitive as a film location, said Mr. Thies.
“When Christoph Waltz is filming with Quentin Tarantino in Babelsberg, that means something, and not just in the industry,” he said. “A photo of Tom Hanks at a German film location is priceless publicity for Germany.”
In the struggle to maintain filmmaking subsidies at their current level, film employers have unions alongside them.
Frank Werneke, deputy head of the United Service Union of Germany, warns against seeking savings in the wrong place. If the film fund budget is cut, it will reduce the number of movies produced in Germany by three to five large films, he said, and 1,000 jobs could be lost.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the idea of stabilizing financial support for the movie industry at current levels.
The appeal by film companies and the union is directed at Monika Grütters, the federal minister for culture and media. This was never the case with her predecessor, Bernd Neumann. With his enthusiastic commitment to film, he could always be counted on to support the industry.
“That’s what we based our plans on,” said Mr. Thies. “We are surprised that the government is putting so much pressure on legislators to approve the cut.”
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at the Berlin Film Festival, supported the idea of stabilizing financial support for the movie industry at current levels. “We were counting on that,” said Mr. Thies. “Apparently, we gave too much weight to her words and didn’t realize that the finance ministry doesn’t feel the same way.”
Ms. Grütters rejects the criticism, and declined to comment before the budget committee meeting.
But her spokesperson pointed out that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had wanted to freeze the film fund budget at €30 million. “At the insistence of the culture minister, it was raised back to €50 million. And she was able to assure [the industry] that it is anchored permanently at that level.”
Did the industry smell the coffee too late and not lobby hard enough?
“Up to now, we have remained silent and placed our trust in the protagonists, the facts and the success story,” said Mr. Thies. “But that seems to have led many to conclude, ‘They’re not complaining — so we can seek savings in the film fund as well.’ ”
Now Mr. Thies hopes that industry lobbying hasn’t come too late. “If the tough game of politics is played this way,” he said, “then we’re going to weigh in ourselves.”
This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]