«There’s radical change in the air.»

In 2003 Christine Dollhofer devised the Crossing Europe festival, and she spent the next 18 years searching the continent in all directions to compile a hand-picked programme which would bring home to audiences all the facets of European identity. Maintaining an overview – right across Europe, right through all the positions in the processes of creation and distribution, with reference to urgent social themes as well as constantly changing visual habits – will also characterise her new task as head of the Vienna Film Fund. A conversation with Christine Dollhofer about ideas, priorities and challenges.
You embark upon your position as Director of the Vienna Film Fund just as a year in film comes to an end which, despite the difficult underlying conditions, can be regarded with some satisfaction: one only needs to think of the success of Great Freedom, Hinterland, Welcome to Siegheilkirchen and the coproduction Quo vadis, Aida?. In terms of strengths, resources and potential what are you looking forward to encouraging in the coming years?
It’s extremely gratifying that at the end of this year we can look back on numerous productions which not only received invitations to A festivals but subsequently also enjoyed enormous festival exposure, secured worldwide sales and thus found audiences in a wide variety of territories. I hope this success story can be continued. We have an incredibly vibrant film scene with fantastic filmmakers, an efficient infrastructure, along with a well-designed funding system by European standards – which must of course remain flexible so it can react to new developments. I’m thinking of the long-expected tax incentive scheme, just to mention one example.
How would you describe the strengths of Vienna as a film production location to an international partner who expressed interest in making a film in the city? Where should the city be better supported in terms of its competitive edge?
It will be of great importance for Austrian and Viennese companies to seek partnerships and become active in coproduction markets and various industry events in order to participate in international projects. As a corollary, structural conditions must be established in Vienna and Austria as a whole with respect to issues such as: what is the service infrastructure like? Which financial incentives are there, and at what levels? It’s clear that we lag behind other countries in certain areas. In nearby countries there are tax incentive schemes, and in Eastern Europe in particular production costs are lower due to lower wage bills. Countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania are very strongly aligned towards service productions, with personnel as well as structure. Vienna has considerable advantages in terms of fantastic locations, great creative potential and top-class postproduction facilities, and with the HQ7 facility there are additional opportunities for studio productions. In the immediate future the city of Vienna should also offer tax incentives for international productions. The most important thing is to work in both directions: actively searching for partners in ventures outside the country while at the same time creating incentives which will bring partners to Austria. There is a huge hunger for stories. With both streaming providers and cinema it’s very clear that regionally-anchored stories can be hugely attractive.
You headed an international festival with a strong European focus for almost 20 years. It seems likely that your activities at the helm of this large regional film fund will also be characterised by an international perspective. How would you imagine the Viennese film industry could be encouraged to establish stronger international networking throughout the entire chain of production?
I’m well aware of the complexities and responsibilities inherent in a producer’s job, and how much manpower and womanpower it requires to get a project up and running. To promote international distribution on top of that is extremely intensive in terms of time and work, of course. At the same time, I’m convinced that these are investments for the future which may not immediately be crucial for a current project but will matter for future ones. One very specific task I perceive is to strengthen minority coproductions and stimulate networking there. But networking activities can also be supported by attracting relevant conferences to Vienna, organising professional training and participation in markets. It might be possible to organise things on a joint basis and to combine well-established events in Austria such as Diagonale and Viennale with industrial events, thus supporting them. I feel that the crucial point is the interaction of all players. Austria is a small market, but it has many strengths: we have great talent, creativity, eccentricity and individuality, while we also have a lot of well-qualified companies in the sectors of production and postproduction.
Support for minority coproductions places the focus on the early phase of the film process. Let’s shift attention to exploitation. The pandemic has placed cinemas in an even more fragile position. Do you feel that supporting international film releases is an option for strengthening cinemas?
Switzerland, which is no longer part of the Creative Europe programme, compensates for this by proactively supporting distribution companies which place Swiss films in cinemas. Austria is part of the Creative Europe/Media family, which means that European distributors of Austrian films can seek distribution subsidies through this program. This is primarily relevant to arthouse mainstream, since a minimum number of countries have to be on board in order to access these funds. Cinematic exploitation has become extremely complicated. And one point that shouldn’t be forgotten is that festivals have become a separate and very relevant market for world sales. Along with screening fees and handling charges, that is a considerable sum which should not be underestimated. The most important thing now is to strengthen cinemas, so they remain a place of social encounters and collective film-watching for us.

 Platforms are conquering the territory of the cinemas and occupying a broad window in film exploitation. How can and should funding institutions position themselves in relation to the dynamic of the streaming services?
Funding providers are essentially pleased when cinematic productions are also bought by streamers. After all, these are films made with the help of public subsidies and not commissioned productions. I think it’s necessary for state authorities to require revenue from the streamers that can flow back into the film industry. The legal framework for this has not yet been formulated in Austria the way it has for example in France and Switzerland. Some work still needs to be done in order to establish this legal situation. In general, every form of exploitation is to be welcomed. The important thing is that films which are produced for the cinema should also have cinematic exploitation, and the window stipulated for that is long enough. In Austria I would think it a huge mistake for the cinema window to be shortened while productions are in receipt of public subsidies. Cinemas need exclusivity. The question is whether that should apply to all formats or whether it’s possible to find individual solutions in association with the owners of the rights.
At the moment there are two social themes which dominate public discourse and are guiding thoughts in new directions: where do you plan to position yourself in terms of gender equality and green producing?
These are some major subjects affecting the whole of society. In terms of gender equality there are structural disadvantages at all levels, not only in the film sector. But I think the film industry is playing a pioneering role here, to send social signals about more justice and diversity. Since the regulations applied so far have only achieved limited progress, I think it’s very good that next year a model is to be tested to explore how, whether and in which form existing mechanisms can be implemented and bring about changes. The very fact that we are discussing such matters and communicating them externally as aims of funding will lead to changes in people’s heads. The target is that the current gender imbalance of 75:25 will be modified step-by-step up to the end of 2024 to achieve a female share of 50%.
Green filming is a target we are working on. The Austrian Film Institute is already a step ahead here. From 2022 it will be obligatory there to provide a green Closing Report. This measure is intended initially to stimulate a process of increasing awareness and will subsequently be binding too. Above all, it must be clear that we are not talking about green washing: merely shifting from plastic to wooden cutlery. There is a far-reaching agenda: where is the energy coming from? What does the mobility look like? How do people behave on the set? It will become tricky in coproductions, for the TV sector as well, when countries work together where standards and regulations about green filming are different.
To what extent will people pull together internationally on these two themes?
We know that the Scandinavian countries are far ahead of us in terms of gender equality, because they have been implementing very well-functioning models for years now. There are also many broadcasters, and above all streamers, who have clear guidelines on diversity. There is a great deal of movement with these issues right now. In the new EU programme Creative Europe Media, which will run until 2027, both subjects are defined as central aims. All countries are called upon to implement incentives and measures. With coproductions a lot of thought must be given to the question of how the situation can be harmonised. In terms of pan-European carbon dioxide calculations too, the problem is that energy is generated differently in each country, which means it is evaluated differently. It was interesting that the top A festivals came under considerable pressure because so few female directors were represented in competition. And change has only been affected as a result of constant lobbying, such as the FC Gloria Austria and international women’s networks. I think public discourse and processes can achieve a great deal here. Festivals, platforms and content providers are increasingly in search of films which comply with standards of gender equality and diversity. And it will also be clear in the festival works of Austrian Films that festivals are actively looking for work by women to promote balance and gender programming actively. In my festival work it was always very important to me to implement this without a big fanfare. You can feel there’s radical change in the air.
Discussing the prospects for the future is also an occasion to express hopes. What are the impulses, projects and ideas that you would like to see defining your time as Director of the Vienna Film Fund?
I wouldn’t like to overestimate the potential impact of my position. I see my main task as building on the successes which have been achieved. It’s not really a question of me or my personal taste; instead, it’s about the opportunities to develop the entire industry. The important thing is that we assert our place on the international stage, and I know that all the players only want to achieve the best, with commitment and passion. Nobody goes to see an Austrian film for patriotic reasons; they go because it seems promising in terms of the subject matter, the film form or positive reviews. If we are to be patriotic then let’s be patriotic Europeans, pleased that we have created a film landscape in the great European family which is marked by individuality, multiple languages and multiple forms, and that we can facilitate mutual exchange of regional stories which function beyond borders. I would like to see us docking more closely with neighbouring countries and not only operating within the German-language area but keeping our eye on the whole picture. If that ends up with statistics revealing coproductions not only with Germany and Switzerland but with seven other countries, that would be great.
Vienna is a world city in the centre of Europe with many communities who only enjoy a small degree of representation and are far from being anchored in the industry proportionately. Bringing more diversity here would be a further aim for me.
Interview: Karin Schiefer

November 2021