OPINION – An extension of the Geo-blocking Regulation to audiovisual works would be very bad news for consumers

OPINION - Juliette Prissard, general delegate of Eurocinéma, warns Europe: banning territorial exclusivity in the cinematographic and audiovisual sectors would be a fatal blow to the way films are financed. This, she explains, will penalize the final consumer.

The audiovisual and cinematographic sector is going through a bitter experience.  At issue is the revision of the European regulation on "unjustified geographical blocking" adopted during the previous legislature, which prohibits geographical discrimination of customers purchasing goods or services in the European Union, including when this discrimination is linked to means of payment or is carried out by price differentiation. However, this text does not apply to audiovisual services or to online content protected by copyright, thus respecting the principle of territoriality linked to the financing of their creations.

The implementation of this 2018 regulation has just been evaluated by the European Commission. The conclusions recommend the launch in the coming weeks of a large consultation of the audiovisual and cinematographic sector to identify the obstacles to the online circulation of audiovisual works in the internal market.

It is in this context that some MEPs are taking this dialogue up in order to influence its future outcome.

Indeed, pretending to respond to the requests of many European citizens (which remains to be proven) and in the name of those from linguistic minorities, who would be frustrated not to have access in their country of residence to all the content available in their country of origin, these members of the European Parliament are exerting pressures on the European Commission in order to obtain the extension of the regulation to the audiovisual and film sector.

This logic, if it were to convince, could have very serious consequences on the economy of creation and will not serve the interest of consumers.

Obviously, the objective of all producers is above all that their films be seen and accessible to the greatest number. They all want international success and recognition from the widest possible audience. This is, I would even say, their deepest motivation.

To understand their reluctance, it is necessary to do a little teaching, to explain some perhaps counter-intuitive truths.

A film, whether cinematographic or audiovisual, is expensive. For example, the budget for a documentary intended for national broadcasting is already more than 150,000 euros. A feature film can cost up to tens of millions of euros. Those who finance the production of these works are not only the producers - whose function is more to gather financing, to accompany the authors in the development of their stories and to guarantee the completion of the film - but also the broadcasters, i.e. the cinema distributors, television channels, and today the video-on-demand platforms. They all make funding commitments before the greenlight of the shooting and make the funds available upon delivery of the film.

In consideration of this very important risk-taking that constitutes the pre-financing of a film, they demand not only the exclusive right to distribute the work, of course, but also exclusivity in their territory of intervention (France for a French theatrical film distributor, French-speaking countries for a French-speaking broadcaster, etc.). This request is totally legitimate.

Sometimes the equation becomes more complex: the producer asks other producers in another country to co-produce the work. The latter then do the same work (seeking pre-financing from broadcasters) in exchange for exclusive distribution rights in their own territory.

But the issue is also elsewhere: being able to grant exclusivity means guaranteeing the diversity of production and giving films a better chance of being promoted, and therefore known and seen. A work is not necessarily intended for a local audience, but it is marketed differently according to the cultural realities of each territory. The communication campaign for the same audiovisual work is not done in the same way in France as in Spain. It is not even presented in the same way in Walloon Belgium as in Flemish Belgium. That's how it is, we are different, that's our history and our strength.

It is therefore better in most cases that a work be exploited in each country in a possibly staggered way, after having benefited from a strong national promotion by an exclusive broadcaster which will have made it known, rather than being immediately offered to all without anyone paying attention to it and which will remain lost at the end of the recommendation algorithms of an online platform.

As for the demands of consumers (whom we prefer to call "the public"), solutions have already been proposed to them in the “content portability” regulation, the purpose of which is precisely to allow the public to have access to online works during a temporary move outside their main country of residence, under certain conditions. Even if the first feedback from the implementation of this text is encouraging, it is still too early to know the real impact it will have. So, before changing the rules, let us evaluate those that have just been put in place! The free circulation of products on the internal market does not concern the cultural sector, which is not a commodity like any other. These two above mentioned texts, include key achievements for all European citizens without jeopardizing European cinematographic and audiovisual production.

The whole industry is not mistaken, even the big non-European platforms practice geo-blocking and they represent almost 90% of the subscription video on demand market.

On the other hand, questioning the territorial exclusivity of our broadcasters would have an immediate effect on the diversity of financiers (and therefore on production) because only those who could afford to buy films for the whole European territory (or even the world) could finance them. But who are we talking about? Precisely these international video-on-demand platforms that would then become an oligopoly threatening the independence of the sector, the plurality of financing and therefore of writing.

This questioning would also represent a considerable loss of value for our cultural sector, which is composed mainly of SMEs and very small SMEs. It would threaten the diversity of the offer and would put in danger the great majority of the festivals. It would lead irremediably to the opposite of what some say they want to achieve: we would mechanically have an increase in the prices charged to consumers by online content services in countries with lower purchasing power and a limitation of the catalogs made available.

So yes, the professionals of the sector will participate in this debate initiated by the European Commission with the visceral desire to promote the diversity of creation and the accessibility of their works to the greatest number. They will seek a balanced approach between the public interest, entrepreneurial freedom, diversity, respect of copyright and freedom of creation.  I am convinced that the measures that will be suggested by the profession will also correspond to the expectations of European public authorities.

Europe produces independent, committed and diverse works that offer a new vison of the world. It is this resource that we all benefit from, that we must all together support.

It is essential to take all these elements into consideration in order to form an opinion on this very sensitive issue, which is not only technical and economic. What is at stake is rather freedom of creation and expression, complexity of cultures rather than the algorithmic standardization of demands.

Juliette Prissard

General Delegate of EUROCINEMA