Tuesday, July 23, 2024

What the Seismic European Elections Mean for the Entertainment Industry

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The impact of pivotal elections in the U.K. and France this week will be felt across Europe and across the globe. Within the entertainment industry, the results of voting on both sides of the channel are being carefully watched for signs of what seismic shifts in the political landscape — the end of 14 years of Conservative rule in Britain, the potential lurch to the far-right in France — will mean for those across film, television, art, fashion, music, and publishing.

Kier Starmer’s centrist Labour Party won the U.K. election Thursday night by a landslide, securing more than 400 seats in parliament to less than 120 for Rishi Sunak’s outgoing Conservatives. Whatever the exact size of Starmer’s majority, it looks like the most convincing win for Labour since Tony Blair’s sweep back in 1997 and the worst performance ever for the right-wing Tories in their party’s history, which goes back to the 1830s.

In France, the swing has been in the other direction. On June 30, the National Rally (RN), a far-right, anti-immigrant party headed by populist politician Marie Le Pen, was the big winner in the first round of parliamentary elections, winning 33 percent of the vote, well ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Together bloc on 21 percent. The second round of voting, on Sunday, July 7, will determine whether the National Rally can actually form a government. It is difficult to predict what the result will be, because France’s two-round voting system encourages strategic voting and centrist and far-left parties have in the past worked together to keep out the far-right.

But the success of Le Pen and France’s far-right is impossible to ignore. RN was the big winner in European elections last month, securing more than double the vote of Marcon’s party. It was that shock result that led the French President to call the snap parliamentary elections.

“I think for most people [in the French industry], it was an eye-opening experience,” says Antoine Le Bos, whose Le Groupe Quest supports film labs and writing workshops for French and European creators year round. “It was the moment those of us in independent cinema, in the TV industry who have the pretension that the culture [we create] can carry a humanist message, had to really wake up and do something.”

Keir Starmer

Labour leader and incumbent British Prime Minister Keir Starmer

Jeff Moore/PA Images via Getty Images

The results in France and the U.K. could substantial reshape the politics of Europe and have a wide-ranging impact on everything from immigration policy to support for NATO and the war in Ukraine. For parties in both countries, film and TV are far down on their list of priorities. That doesn’t mean the elections aren’t significant for the media industry. In Britain, cultural creators are broadly supportive of the incoming Labour Party, hoping for an end to years of austerity and budget cuts. In France, the more progressive sections of the industry fear they could be losing their cultural identity.

In their 14-year reign, the Conservatives have done little to support the U.K. entertainment business, despite the size of the industry. According to official BFI statistics from 2023, the national film, television, and video sectors contributed a mammoth $26.5 billion to the U.K. economy in 2022, up from $16 billion in 2019. The Tories, however, have largely starved the industry of funding. The budget for Britain’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) was slashed 24 percent from 2010 to 2015. Boris Johnson, Sunak’s predecessor as Prime Minister, at one point threatened to cut support for beloved public broadcaster the BBC, by axing its license fee, the TV tax that Britons pay for that accounts for 65 percent of the BBC’s total budget.

The Tories did make efforts to help culture creators in the wake of the COVID pandemic. In 2021, the government-backed a £500 million ($638 million) Global Screen Fund in partnership with the British Film Institute (BFI) to support the country’s independent screen sector, supporting at least 835 productions across the U.K., and protecting an estimated 70,000 jobs. But that program was limited and targeted in scope and came to an end in April 2022.

Under Starmer’s Labour government, the industry is hoping for more.

“With the election completed, our new government must get to grips with the performing arts and entertainment, a critical sector for the U.K.’s long-term success,” said Paul W. Fleming, general secretary for Equity, the U.K.’s performing arts and entertainment trade union, in a statement provided to The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday. “We’ll be pressing the new administration to set out a long-term plan for U.K. arts funding to reach the European average, to tackle the high upfront fees charged by casting directories, to make Universal Credit fairer for freelancers, to ensure public subsidy only supports work on decent union terms, and to fight for better rights in the video games and TV commercials sector. There are no creative industries without this incredible workforce. It’s time politicians stand up and offer them the same recognition that is offered by audiences across the world.”

Starmer made few concrete promises going into the 2024 general election, counting on voters’ frustration with the Tories to carry the day. On March 14, the party unveiled their plan for the creative industries, entitled “Creating Growth,” which was big on praise for U.K. creatives and public service broadcasters such as the BBC, Sky, ITV, and Channel 4, but light on specific policy proposals. Labour’s election manifesto, published on June 13, makes no concrete commitments for the sector.

For many in the British media industry, it may be enough just to see the back of the Conservative Party, given their general animosity to the BBC.

“After seemingly endless political shrill surrounding the BBC, we’re pleased to have a party in power that won’t use our world-class public service broadcaster as a political football,” said Philippa Childs, head of broadcaster workers union Bectu in a statement. “It’s essential that Labour understands the key role the BBC plays in the delicate ecosystem of the creative industries, and its importance as an incubator of skills and talent.”

James Burstall, CEO of production group Argonon, whose labels produce The Masked Singer and other film and TV projects in the U.K., said in a statement that he was “encouraged and hopeful that we will see strong, sustainable and much-needed support for our sector in the coming months and years” under the new Labour government, adding that such support was “urgently needed. Since the beginning of 2023, our world-class creative sector has endured – and continues to battle against – a perfect storm of tough economic headwinds, fracturing business models and declining audiences, with huge knocks on effects for our world-class production base as well as our talented freelancers at all levels. These are the immediate challenges we’re facing today.”

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage

But the electoral success of Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, a radical right-wing party that won at least 4 seats, could give them pause. Farage, who was elected to parliament for the first time Thursday, on what was his eighth attempt, has called for a scrapping of the BBC’s TV license fee within 100 days of the next Parliament, and his party has advocated for a Free Speech Bill to combat what they perceive as left-wing bias in public institutions and social media. Those might not be majority-held views, but they will now have a very loud voice supporting them in Westminster.

In France, the threat to public broadcasting and government support of culture is much more imminent. On June 16, Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old President of the National Rally, and the man who would become French Prime Minister if the party secures a majority on Sunday, confirmed the RN’s support for the privatization of France’s public broadcaster. RN has argued privatization could bring up to €3 billion ($3.25 billion) in savings, but it could also threaten the jobs of the more than 300,000 people employed by France’s public television and radio channels.

Jordan Bardella

National Rally President Jordan Bardella

BERTRAND GUAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A collection of French media groups, including national unions representing actors, directors, writers and producers, decried the plan.

“The RN, acting openly, is proposing a measure that would leave the information and creation market subject to private interests alone, to the detriment of the search for truth, contradiction and diversity of stories, in the absence of the counterweight of a strong and independent public audiovisual pole,” the group said in a statement, noting that “No European country has taken the risk of privatizing public broadcasting.”

On June 23, more than 800 cultural professionals, including actors Romane Bohringer and Gilles Lellouche and director Cédric Klapisch, published an open letter in the national newspaper Le Monde calling for mobilization against the National Rally, “so that the France of the Enlightenment has a future,” and French artists can continue “to express different points of view [on] human nature, on our world, on our societies [and] on the richness of different identities and cultures.”

Many in France fear a “Hungarian-style drift” if the National Rally wins on Sunday. Since taking power in 2010, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has succeeded in securing control over much of the country’s media, often under the pretext of fighting against “left-wing” journalists. Public broadcasters are well-funded by tightly controlled and most private media companies have Orban-friendly owners. (Even with their support, Orban’s Fidesz party failed to secure an absolute majority in last month’s European elections, though it won a plurality of votes, taking 44 percent, down from 52 percent in the 2019 EU vote).

Italy provides another cautionary tale for France. Last month, Nicola Maccanico resigned as head of Rome’s iconic Cinecittà Studios, with widespread speculation he was pushed out by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government. Since taking power last year, Meloni has sparked concerns about a crackdown on freedom of expression. Journalists at state broadcaster RAI went on strike in May to protest what they call “suffocating control” by Meloni’s administration. The government in Rome has also replaced leadership at prestigious museums and cultural organizations, including the Experimental Cinematography Center and Rome’s contemporary art museum MAXXI, moves seen by critics as a political purge aimed at silencing dissent.

Looming over France’s media politics is Vincent Bolloré, a Catholic construction tycoon who has become France’s most powerful media magnate, the local equivalent of Rupert Murdoch. He and his family control two of France’s largest publishing houses, a major advertising agency, national radio station Europe 1, and several magazines and weeklies, including Gala, Voici, and Paris Match. In TV and film, Bolloré’s family is the main shareholder of the Vivendi media group, which controls Canal+, France’s number-one pay-TV channel, and CNews, a 24-hour channel many have called a French Fox News.

Vincent Bollore

Vincent Bollore

Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

The Bolloré outlets have found success by focusing on the far-right issues espoused by Le Pen and the National Rally, particularly crime and immigration, arguably normalizing and amplifying her political message.

CNews has become notorious for disregarding France’s public broadcasting rules. CNews and its sister channel C8, are to date, the only French channels to have been fined by Arcom, France’s media regulator, for offenses including for inciting racial hatred after a CNews commentator branded child migrants “thieves, murderers and rapists.”

Bolloré’s takeover of Canal+ was followed by a wave of resignations and high-profile firings of some of the channel’s more left-wing and critical journalists and the cancellation of its more progressive news and comedy shows. The acquisition of CNews (previously iTélé) and national newspaper Journal du dimanche, were proceeded by staff walkouts and mass layoffs.

The fear among many of France’s industry progressives is that Bolloré’s empire and a new, National Rally-led government could transform the country’s national media, shifting it far to the right. At the very least, RN leaders are unlikely to question Bolloré’s accumulation of assets. Since 2022, the mogul has twice appeared before parliamentary committees investigating the unprecedented concentration of media power his company represents.

There is still hope among French moderates that collaboration efforts by Marcon’s centrists and the French left will succeed in keeping the National Rally from power, at least for now. But whatever happens, says Antoine Le Bos, the French industry should look at the elections as an opportunity.

“Times of crisis for creators can be times of awakening,” he says, noting how the right-wing shift in Poland gave rise to “an exceptional” period for progressive cinema in the country. “We have no choice anyway, we have to work with whatever government we get, play judo with whatever life throws at us…But in this time of crisis can awaken in the creative community the desire to fight, to fight to repair what has been broken.”

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