European Film Academy Chief Matthijs Wouter Knol on the Need for European Unity

Leo Barraclough
·7-min read

Matthijs Wouter Knol took over as director of the European Film Academy at the start of the year, having served as director of the European Film Market since 2014. He speaks to Variety about how the academy seeks to protect and promote European cinema as the film industry continues to morph.

Among the priorities of the academy – under the leadership of its president Agnieszka Holland and its chairman Mike Downey – is the need for unity within the European industry, and one area where this is relevant is how it responds to the continued expansion and growing influence of the streaming giants.

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The pandemic has accelerated the consumption of films on streaming platforms, and the consequences for European cinema of this shift in consumption – with linear TV, which was once a significant backer of European films, and exhibition both facing financial challenges – are still being worked out.

One issue for the academy is to how to promote European cinema within the streaming universe, and Knol calls for a unified approach.

“It’s very hard to join forces when it comes to promoting European film because each country will choose a French or German or Swedish or Bulgarian or Greek way to promote their films. Obviously, there are organizations like European Film Promotion, but the European Film Academy can also help to bring people together, and make sure – or try at least – that forces are joined,” he says.

He cautions that the failure to present a united front when dealing with the streaming giants – not just Netflix and Amazon, but others such as HBO Max and Apple – will lead to “divide and rule.”

At present the different parts of the European film business – production companies, sales companies, distributors, film institutions, and so on – have each developed their own relationship with the streamers.

When pondering this situation, Knol refers to a scene in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema,” in which a young man enchants each member of a household one by one, and when he leaves they find they no longer have anything in common with each other.

“I have the feeling it’s a similar approach in which everybody feels happy that they’ve struck their own deal, but in the end, we see that the visibility of European film is lost in a way,” Knol says. “I think that’s something we should avoid, by sitting together, and not just talking about it, but acting on it.”

When Knol considers the academy’s future path, especially at the time of a devastating global pandemic, he is conscious of the historical context in which the academy was created, and the objectives of its founders.

The idea for such an institution emerged from a meeting in the Hotel Kempinski in West Berlin, as it was then, by a group of eminent European filmmakers – Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Zanussi and István Szabó among them – on the eve of the first European Film Awards in 1988. The European Cinema Society, which later became the European Film Academy, was founded a few months later, with Ingmar Bergman as its president. By the time the second European Film Awards took place in late 1989 everything had changed: the Berlin Wall had fallen, and Europe was reunited.

With this in mind, Knol is mindful that as the world changes the European film industry must adapt, and one of the academy’s objectives is to help it do so. When it was first formed, the founders saw the academy’s mission as preserving European cinema as a distinct form of filmmaking as there was an “awareness of European film being under threat,” Knol says. “It was all about protecting European cinema and making sure that the core of what defines European cinema wouldn’t get lost in a world in which the power of the moving image was leading to a more homogenous kind of film.

“The filmmakers then involved – ranging from Ingmar Bergman and Theo Angelopoulos to Wim Wenders and István Szabó, and many more – were basically saying: ‘Listen, if we’d like to keep European film as it is – a visible entity that can be enjoyed and recognized – we need to stand up, and we need to connect everybody who’s prepared to fight for that, and also take responsibility for doing that.”

The academy has grown over the years, both in terms of membership – with more than 3,800 members – and activities. The awards, which have evolved and expanded to cover 23 categories, remain an important tool in promoting European cinema, and encouraging communication between the various parts of the continent’s industry, but its other activities also play their part, such as debates on business challenges facing European cinema, and societal and political concerns, such as efforts to free imprisoned filmmakers around the world.

European cinema has strengthened since the academy was formed, Knol says. “If we look at the past three decades, the landscape in which European film is being made, developed, distributed, and showcased at festivals has completely changed, and I would say improved.”

He adds: “If you look at, for example, the training programs that have been initiated since then, the possibility of doing co-productions, funding schemes that have been increased, and also other pan-European organizations that have seen the light of days, I can absolutely say that things have improved.”

However, there is still much to be done to defend European cinema, and one part of that fight is to re-examine the structure of the industry. “We need to have a look into how films are financed, how films are distributed, how films are promoted, and seen by audiences in Europe,” he says. “The academy is not a place in which we always have to start those discussions, but we should follow what’s being discussed, and then react as an academy, and facilitate those conversations among members.”

He sees a role for the academy in shaping opinions and influencing decisions, so that “it is part of the time in which we live, and not just following years after things have actually changed.”

He adds: “If on a national, regional or European level, the financing or policymaking threatens the possibility to have strong European films being made, then it’s in the nature of an organization like the European Film Academy to take part in discussion about it, and take a stand on that. The academy should absolutely act in the interest of its members.”

One challenge for the European industry is to better reflect the continent’s population, and diversity and inclusion is an issue that the academy that needs to address if it is “to stay relevant,” Knol says. As well as highlighting inequality and bias within the industry, the academy also needs to make itself more diverse and inclusive, and increasing the size of the membership is one way that it can do this, he says.

The academy is also taking a lead in highlighting human rights issues, especially in terms of defending filmmakers. It helped set up the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk, which was launched in Venice last year in collaboration with IDFA, the documentary festival in Amsterdam, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The issues of diversity and inclusion, and the defense of freedom of expression, Knol says, relate “to what European film stands for – the culture in which we live, the values that we have as Europeans, and that we like to defend. When it comes to defending these values, freedom of speech, and freedom of making films and expressing ourselves, that is something the academy absolutely can take a lead in, and has already done.”

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