Entertainment & Arts

Will streaming quota make for great art?

Actor Gerard Depardieu and actress Nadia Fares pose on the red carpet at the French premiere of Netflix's TV series Marseille Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Gerard Depardieu and Nadia Fares star in Marseille

I like to think that, somewhere in the US, there is an executive at one of the streaming services reading the European Commission's proposed new rules for a digital single market.

It says companies like the one this executive works for must in future pay to play. "I guess that means we'll just have to buy a few more programmes with Hercule Poirot in them," the executive thinks.

In doing so, the executive would be offending three EU nations at a stroke: the French because the fictional detective is Belgian, the Belgians because much of the rest of the world mistakenly thinks he's French, and the British because he was actually dreamt up by Agatha Christie in her native Torquay.

She or he would also be making the commission's case for it. Streaming services would be placed under the sort of obligation to support domestic production that already applies to media companies such as the BBC.

If the rules are adopted, a minimum of 20% of the catalogue of Netflix and the like would have to be "European".

Gunther Oettinger, European Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, said: "The way we watch TV or video may have changed, but our values don't."

Ah, values. For all the professed desire to create a level playing field, to ensure new media players don't just thrive by living off the investment and creativity of the old, I suspect that some of this is motivated by a sense of cultural superiority.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Arnaud Montebourg

In 2014, Arnaud Montebourg, who was at the time French Minister of the Economy, urged resistance to the "Anglo-Saxon offensive in culture and cinema".

The previous year, France had pushed the EU to exclude broadcasting and film from free trade negotiations with the US.

If the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is ever ratified, culture is one part of the market that will remain firmly closed.

During the consultation that preceded last month's announcement from the European Commission, Netflix warned that imposing a quota could create a "perverse incentive" to buy films or TV programmes because of where they were made rather than what they were like.

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Media captionWhat are the pros and cons of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal?

It's perhaps unfortunate timing, then, that the very first French production by Netflix was Marseille, described by Le Monde as an "industrial accident".

Gerard Depardieu plays the mayor of the eponymous city, locked in a succession battle with his former protege.

Despite the critical mauling, this week Netflix announced it had commissioned a second series, with a defiant social media posting: "Le combat n'est pas termine. #MarseilleNetflix Saison 2, prochainement". It translates as: "The fight is not over."

UK film quota

If all of this is making you feel smug about British cultural self-confidence, let me tell you of what it reminds me. In 1927, the then government legislated a film quota of its own: 7.5% of all films shown in cinemas had to be British. This quota wasn't finally abolished until 1960.

The film historian Matthew Sweet, writing in Shepperton Babylon, his excellent portrait of the British film industry, explains how the resulting films came to be known as quota quickies.

The largely American-owned distribution companies met the quota by commissioning British studios who could produce films cheap and quick.

Sometimes, they were projected in deserted cinemas in the morning, honouring the word of the law but hardly its spirit.

Sweet quotes Basil Wright, a documentary film-maker of the time, calling them "a great dreary mass of tasteless ill-made films which debased the spectators if they didn't send them to sleep".

Cheap and quick to produce they may have been. Yet arguably they also provided a training ground for those who would go on to put British cinema on the map.

The wonderfully named Tod Slaughter made his name as a film star in these years, fronting a series of murderous melodramas.

Image copyright Fred Morley
Image caption Horror actor Tod Slaughter played a character called the spine-breaker

I would love to see The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), where Slaughter's character leads a double life, as the "spine-breaker".

At one point, he is in a BBC radio studio, where the interviewer politely asks: "Have you any favourite method of murder, Mr Slaughter?" to which the scary looking Slaughter replies: "I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter."

So there is some cause for Netflix's concern that the European Commission's quota will create a "perverse incentive" to fill its catalogue with poorer quality content that is only there because of where it is made.

On the other hand, would streaming companies want to devalue their brand by allowing that, or are they more likely to seek content that matches the quality of their home-grown programmes.

At 20%, the European Commission's quota may sound ambitious.

Yet in Britain in 1937, the quota of home-grown films cinemas were required to show was raised to 20%, and remained there until the quota was abolished in 1960.

Whether it held back an American cultural tide or propped up a feeble domestic industry is for audiences to judge.

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