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"Co-production" is a broad term that may apply to any form of co-financing or financial, creative, and technical collaboration involved in the production of a film. Co-productions have been notable at various points throughout cinema history and have proven to be a crucial means of feature film production in the world. European countries especially have used co-production as a strategy for making films with relatively high budgets and greater access to more markets, but there is no nation that does not now engage in co-production of one sort or another. Co-productions thus represent a dominant trend in film production that is increasingly global in orientation—to the detriment, some argue, of nationally or locally relevant cinematic traditions and cultures.

Manjunath Pendakur has usefully identified four categories of co-production: (1) public- and private-sector co-productions in a given country; (2) public- and private-sector co-productions of different countries; (3) private capital from different countries; and (4) treaty co-productions (1990). While co-productions, then, need not involve the participation of more than one country, the majority of films made under this rubric are understood to do so; in this sense, most films that are considered co-productions are in fact international co-productions. While the factors that have given rise to this type of filmmaking are varied, the presence of Hollywood cinema—as a threat and competitor, or as a facilitator and mutually beneficial collaborator—is a common thread that weaves its way through the history of and debates concerning co-productions.


Co-productions arose as a means to enhance collaboration between countries with small, struggling, or ambitious production industries so as to pool resources and compete in an international market with Hollywood cinema. The so-called Film Europe movement in the latter half of the 1920s was the first concerted effort in this regard. By guaranteeing to import each other's films, European film industries could expect higher box-office revenues, which could then be used to increase the production budgets of their films and potentially compete with American films. The German producer Erich Pommer (1889–1966) was at the forefront of the Film Europe movement. As head of Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), the single strongest film firm in Europe, Pommer encouraged the production of big-budget films (e.g. Die Nibelungen [Siegfried/Kriemhild's Revenge, 1924], Tartüff [Tartuffe, 1926], Metropolis [1927]), but Germany's market was too limited to recoup the high production costs. His negotiations in 1924 with one of the major French distributors yielded the first bilateral film import deal between two European countries. Over the next four years others followed, and the European film industries, with Germany, France, and Great Britain at the forefront, built the base for a cooperative continental market that slowly reduced the number of American imports and replaced them with European product.

The coming of sound to Europe in 1929 cut Film Europe short, but it also made possible the first wave of international co-productions. National import quotas or bans on foreign-language films in several countries marked sound films from the beginning as a potential threat to national culture and a problem for both the European and American film industries. The latter found it necessary to produce films adapted to national markets in order to satisfy the requirement for films in other languages as well as to avoid import quotas, and it did so by producing multiple language versions, or MLVs. In 1930 American studios began to invest heavily in the European film industry to make MLVs, either by importing Europeans (or, in the case of the Latin American markets, Latin Americans) to Hollywood or by setting up production centers in Europe. The building by Paramount of a studio complex in Joinville near Paris is the most famous of these, in 1930 and 1931 turning out a total of 150 films in as many as 14 languages. Quickly, all the major American studios established similar facilities in Paris, London, and Berlin. The first MLV—Atlantic (Titanic: Disaster in the Atlantic in the United States)—was not, however, Hollywood produced, but European, a 1929 Anglo-German co-production directed by E. A. Dupont (1891–1956) in English and German at Elstree in England. European MLVs continued to be made throughout the early 1930s (Die Dreigroschenoper/L'Opéra de quat'sous [The Threepenny Opera, 1930] and Der Kongreß tanzt/Le Congrèss'amuse [The Congress Dances, 1931] most notably), though the vast majority were produced under the auspices of Hollywood studios. While MLV production was dropped in the mid-1930s for the cheaper solutions of dubbing or subtitling, it is noteworthy as the first concerted period of international co-production in cinema history.


The next major period of co-productions extended from the end of the 1940s to the mid-1970s. With the direct assistance of the US government, Hollywood corporations formed the Motion Picture Export Association of America (MPEAA) in September 1945 to expand markets and lobby for international free trade of American films. A series of agreements between the United States and the western European nations at first allowed for the almost unchecked flow of American films onto the screens of a reconstructing Europe. But protests by many national film industries brought about a wave of protectionist legislation in the form of quota and subsidy systems, as well as the limiting of American earnings that could be removed from certain countries. Hollywood responded by making "runaway productions": films shot abroad on cheaper locations with cheaper crews and facilities, financed with the large revenues earned by American exports but blocked from removal. Many of the elaborate and expensive epics of this period—Quo Vadis? (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1964)—are examples of this mode of international production, which continues to this day (especially in Australia and Canada, though without the frozen earnings factor).

American firms also established studio subsidiaries in almost every western European territory so as to be eligible for government subsidies, with the bulk of American overseas participation in the European film industry in the 1960s centered in Great Britain, Italy, and France. These and other European countries inaugurated treaty co-productions as a means for facing the Hollywood threat head-on. On the one hand, the threat was perceived as cultural, and so several European governments sought to protect national cinematic expression through subsidies for quality or artistic films. On the other hand, the threat was economic, so other subsidies were created to support the more commercial side of filmmaking. Co-production treaties between nations were thus established as a means for maintaining standards of financing and participation for each nation's film industry (in order to qualify for state subsidies) while at the same time allowing for increased resources and budgets available for film production (in order to expand potential markets). The treaties specified how the financing would be handled, the nations and original languages in which the films were shot, and the percentage of actors and technical crew that must come from each participating nation. Treaty co-productions quickly became common practice in Europe beginning in the 1950s, though the tension between the cultural and commercial needs they were created to serve has continued to bedevil their existence.

The first treaty was signed in October 1949 by France and Italy, and it marks the beginning of a trend in Franco-Italo co-production that hit its stride in the late 1950s and peaked in the early- to mid-1960s. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, bilateral and trilateral co-production treaties proliferated among more and more national partners, extending beyond Europe to include Canada, Latin America, and North Africa. The films produced in this manner were broadly of three types: art films, genre films, and quality entertainment films. They constituted a sliding scale as regards budgets and identifiable national characteristics, though all allowed for financing increases of between one-and-one-half and three times those of national productions. One key factor for commercial success involved finding formulae with the widest potential appeal across national borders, and the most lucrative European co-productions in the 1950s were those in the costume melodrama and comedy genres. In the 1960s films were made across a range of cycles, including pepla (muscleman mythological epics), "spaghetti westerns," "swashbuckler" movies, sex comedies, horror films, and spy thrillers.

The rise of art cinema in this period highlights the contradictions inherent in the co-production treaty strategy. Whereas European "quality" filmmaking represented the attempt to fight Hollywood cinema on its own terms (big budgets, star-studded casts, elaborate sets and costumes), art cinema proceeded from the opposite direction, and one connected to long-standing anti-American sentiment: that the strength of European culture lies in its specific national artistic cultures. While usually considered as exceptional examples of auteurist films that represent their respective national new waves, a high proportion of European art films in this period were in fact international co-productions: L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961); La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night, François Truffaut, 1973); all of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni's (b. 1912) tetralogy starring Monica Vitti (1960–1964); all of Federico Fellini's (1920–1993) films from La Strada (The road, 1954) through Satyricon (Fellini Satyricon, 1969); all of Luchino Visconti's (1906–1976) films from 1967 on; and most of the 1960s films directed by Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), Vittorio De Sica (1902–1974), and Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1940), among many others. Some art film co-productions at times acknowledge their status as such, and Godard is particularly noteworthy in this respect—his 1963 film Le Mépris (Contempt) takes as its subject the making of an Anglo-Italo-French co-production, which it itself is.

Several prominent film actors were in perpetual migration across national borders to make co-productions of all sorts: Burt Lancaster and Charles Bronson of the United States; Dirk Bogarde and Terence Stamp of Great Britain; Anita Ekberg and Britt Ekland of Sweden; Klaus Kinski and Elke Sommer of Germany; Oskar Werner and Romy Schneider of Austria; Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale of Italy; and Catherine Deneuve, Alain Delon, and Gérard Depardieu of France. Their personal filmographies are one register of the degree to which co-productions became so important to international filmmaking in the postwar era. Another, more direct, register is the national filmographies of the nations that established co-production treaties in this period, though these are contradictory and often difficult to decipher. Of the major film-producing European nations—Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and West Germany—all but Great Britain engaged consistently in treaty co-productions after 1950, and all made more co-productions in given years in the mid-1960s than wholly national productions. France's co-productions between 1960 and 1972 exceeded completely French films by as a much as one-third.

As for Great Britain, its high production figures obscure the degree to which US investment underwrote the nation's cinematic output in the 1960s, making it difficult to define any part of the film industry as British rather than Anglo-American. One of the key films of the era, Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the first of a three-picture deal the famed Italian director made with the Hollywood studio. Blow-Up is considered by film scholar Peter Lev to be an example of the many "Euro-American art films" made from the early 1960s on that combine American and European approaches to filmmaking in terms of film form, budgeting, finance, and language. Such hybrid films evidence the balancing act engaged by the international film industries in a postwar market characterized by increased competition and innovation. International co-productions thus represent in this period, as they had in the interwar era and continue to do so today, a series of complex actions and reactions to Hollywood's global ambitions.


The basic strategies for co-productions have changed little in more recent decades; what has changed are the increasingly complicated subsidy and funding structures initiated and drawn upon and the scale of international players now engaged in the business. A decline in treaty co-productions in the 1970s was due not to deliberate strategy but to the intrusion of television onto the scene. In the 1980s television became an important financier of co-productions, both nationally and internationally. Since then, several broadcasters have consistently been involved in co-financing short and feature films, especially Channel 4, the BBC, and FilmFour in Britain; RAI in Italy; Antenne 2 and Canal Plus in France; ADR and ZDF in Germany; and the combined PBS stations in the United States. Co-production with cable television companies is on the increase in the United States, where HBO is an especially important partner. Among European broadcasters, the Franco-German cultural channel ARTE has co-produced since 1990 more than two hundred films, many of which have involved the participation of several countries. (Dancer in the Dark [Lars von Trier, 2000] currently holds the record of eleven nations.)

The co-financing model has proven an increasingly attractive option, as it bypasses the various laws or bilateral legal frameworks that historically have often rendered treaty co-productions of more than two countries difficult to navigate. Treaties ensure that the resulting product qualifies as "domestic," a category crucial for assuring that co-produced material is eligible for government financing or investor tax credits in terms of national policies. Canada, one of the most proficient co-producers, has more than fifty-five co-production treaties worldwide. The United States, by comparison, has no treaties whatsoever, but works collaboratively with several countries (especially Canada) to make films and television programs through equity partnerships and other forms of private-sector financing. Part of the problem with treaties is that they tend to be one-to-one. Eurimages, established in 1989 by the Council of Europe, tackled the problem head-on by offering funding to its member states for multilateral co-productions, thus eliminating the cumbersome negotiation of several bilateral agreements. The European Convention on Cinematographic Co-production was ratified in 1992 to simplify existing co-production treaties, but producers did not rush to sign it because Eurimages already allowed for multilateral co-production funding without needing to meet the terms for "European elements" outlined by the Convention. Still, the Convention serves the needs of smaller European countries lacking bilateral agreements with larger nations, including territories of the former Eastern Bloc. Whether through co-financing or co-production, most European films made today involve the participation of more than one nation.

The same holds true for the African film industries, whose output is much smaller than that of Europe but nevertheless demonstrates consistent co-production and co-financing of feature films since the 1970s within not only Africa itself but also nations and funding agencies worldwide, especially France, Germany, and Switzerland from the 1980s on. The extensive cinemas of Asia are equally engaged in this practice of filmmaking. Hong Kong and the Philippines were early starters. Hong Kong has co-produced with Taiwan since the 1960s, and it sparked a kung fu craze in the early 1970s through co-production deals with American producers. The Philippines promoted Filipino locations for foreign producers (usually American) to make inexpensive action and exploitation films in the 1970s, as well as more spectacular Vietnam War films such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986). In India, the National Film Development Corporation was organized in 1980 to develop "quality cinema," becoming involved in the international co-production of features such as Gandhi (1982) and Salaam Bombay! (1988). And co-productions with mainland China, many of them brokered by the China Film Co-production Corporation, became particularly attractive for Hong Kong and Taiwan producers in the 1990s (and American ones in the 2000s) because of the country's natural resources, acting talents, and inexpensive manpower—the Oscar®-winning The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987) being an early example. A scan of the award-winning films of major international film festivals since 1990 reveals not only an extremely high proportion of co-productions—between 60 percent and 70 percent—but also a remarkable geographic range of national partnerships. Even though the Academy Awards® continues to categorize its nominees for Best Foreign Language Film as deriving from one nation, most of the winners since 1990 have in fact been co-productions—Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) most obviously (although attributed to Taiwan only by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the film in fact represents co-financing and production interests of this country as well as those of Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the United States).

Despite their ubiquity, co-productions continue to be a cause of concern for many in the film industry, particularly in Europe. The category of the "Euro-film," whose mixing of performers from various countries and cultural traditions often yields a so-called "Europudding"—that is, an international co-production that lacks any distinctive national or aesthetic qualities—has sparked considerable debate in recent decades and encapsulates contemporary fears of American cultural and economic imperialism and of the erosion of national cultures in the wake of globalization. "Every film must declare its nationality and its own cultural identity," pronounced French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (b. 1941) in 1982 (quoted in Elsaesser, p. 321), and the crisis that marked the 1993 Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), during which film and audiovisual material were eventually excepted from its terms, demonstrates that the tensions that initiated co-productions in the first place have not gone away but, rather, have become magnified. Partnership with international capital through co-financing may lead to blockbusters that reach millions of people worldwide, but they may also come at a heavy price. Although The Fifth Element (Le Cinquième élément, Luc Besson, 1997), for example, was produced by a French firm (Gaumont), its language, stars, and co-financing are those of Hollywood, and its status as a French film thereby negligible. A fact and a necessity in contemporary filmmaking, co-production remains a practice wherein the benefits and the losses require equal consideration.

SEE ALSO National Cinema


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Finney, Angus. The State of European Cinema: A New Dose of Reality. London: Cassell, 1996.

Guback, Thomas H. The International Film Industry: Western Europe and America since 1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Higson, Andrew, and Richard Maltby, eds. "Film Europe" and "Film America": Cinema, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1999.

Hill, John, Martin Mcloone, and Paul Hainsworth, eds. Border Crossing: Film in Ireland, Britain, and Europe. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies in Association with the University of Ulster and the British Film Institute, 1994.

Jäckel, Anne. European Film Industries. London: British Film Institute, 2003.

Lev, Peter. The Euro-American Cinema. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Moran, Albert, ed. Film Policy: International, National and Regional Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Pendakur, Manjunath. Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Vincendeau, Ginette. "Hollywood Babel: The Coming of Sound and the Multiple Language Version." Screen 29, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 24–39.

Mark Betz