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By Mikael Colville-Andersen:

History of Hollywood Dramaturgy -
The long road to the modern screenplay

Screenwriting by Numbers
A Screenwriter's Checklist.

European Film & American Movies
The evolution of two distinct worlds.

Writing a Logline
A short guide to that all important log line.

Other Articles:

Mogens Rukov
The Dogma Doctor from Denmark.

'Il Postino'
The Disneynisation of classic works.

Creating Characters
A guideline to creating excellent characters.

Check Out Our Screenwriter Interviews:

Budd Schulberg
Paul Schrader
Richard Price
David Newman
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Jean-Claude Carriere
Sergio Donati

European Cinema & American Movies
Defining the evolution of two worlds
by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Within a broad definition, European film and American film appear to be worlds apart. Indeed, most European films are labelled as ART films in America and only reach a limited audience in the larger metropolitan areas.

Even in Europe, Hollywood dominates the cinema scene. On average, 80% of all films shown in cinemas across Europe are products of the Hollywood factory system. Even in countries like France, with large film industries, American films continue to dominate.
The reason for this is no secret. Hollywood excels at entertaining. Throughout the years it has developed a detailed dramaturgical structure which, by and large, is successful in it s storytelling. In the words of Samuel Goldwyn:

"Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union."

And therein lies the difference. Where and American film may start with a man on run from the mafia, a European film may start with a single mother who has just been kicked out into the street. From those two log lines, it is clear that the latter film just may contain a message or reflection on society.

To understand the evolution of these two directions in filmmaking, one has to look back to the invention of cinema. When Thomas Edison and W K L Dickson invented the Kinetophone (aka Edison Kinetophonograph)the dawn of a new art form was introduced. If it had remained in America, film would have developed in a completely different direction. For some, the thought of this is frightening.

However, Louis Lumière saw a demonstration of this apparatus in Paris, in 1894 and he went to work on improving the concept and inventing the Cinématographe. The evolution of the new art form now had a place in Europe.

The European view of the creation of the moving picture was profound. On a continent with a rich history and an ancient art heritage, the Cinématographe heralded a new era. It was yet another way to record the European experience. The people who first got their hands on the cameras and equipment went right out and starting creating. The most influential man in the early days of cinema was Georges Mélies. Most fledgling filmmakers were artists of one kind or another, and they regarded the new technology as equal to or better than the existing art forms.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Edison started out by displaying his new invention as a novelty. People lined up and paid money to look in the peephole of his machine. In Paris, cafés were converted into the first cinemas, complete with audiences.

The energy and enthusiasm inherent in the growing America of that time is directly responsible for the development of entertaining cinema. With little self-history of its own to record and without the heavy burden of centuries of art history to answer to, America set out to bring this new invention to the people. Once Edison revised his invention and made it possible to show the films to an audience, several entrepreneurs jumped on the bandwagon. There was money in this new invention and they wanted a piece of it. Companies were formed from one day to the next and they competed with each other in drawing paying audiences. Novelties were a dime a dozen in those heady days, and each film had to be just a bit more sensational than the next. The movies spread out across the land, mostly as novelties at carnival and town fairs. Pure entertainment. Such was the enthusiasm of the New World.

Back in Europe, it was the artistic circles who influenced the development of the art form. Audiences flocked to see the new technology and to be entertained, but the responsibility to centuries of history had to be served. Hardships and feelings and emotions had to be recorded. The working classes were gaining rights and dignity and these issues were recorded on film. The audiences identified with the images on the screens.

"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls." - Ingmar Bergman

In America, given the whole fantastic atmosphere present at the turn of the century, things had to be sensational. Americans were told that anything was possible and they wanted to see that on film. Europeans wanted to see characters like those in their literature - characters who struggled against the odds.

After the initial thrill wore off, filmmakers in Europe went to work on evolving the art form. Georges Mélies and his contemporaries started playing with the camera, devising trick shots and the like. It was treated like any other art form - like finding new directions in art or literature.

D W Griffith also made outstanding contributions to story-telling through the use of camera techniques. Cross clipping, parallel action, inter-cutting, close-ups, etc. There is no doubt that he is one of the most influential people in cinema history. The point is that his company, Biograph, encouraged him in the interest of increasing their audiences. Selling tickets.

Throughout the century, Europe has come to regard cinema as an art form, even to this day. If you surf the net in Europe, film is usually listed under Art & Culture. In America, it is listed under entertainment.

Most of the important movements in cinema as art have come out of Europe. Neo-realism, the Nouvelle Vague and, more recently, Dogma 95. Europeans continue to push cinema forward as an art form.

We can thank both sides of the Atlantic for outstanding contributions to cinema. I dread to think what cinema would be like without the influence of Hollywood. The clear-cut structure that moves the plot along is vital to the further evolution of cinema. There are those who joke that Hollywood makes just one film a year, with 80 different titles, but there are so many American films that have left their marks on us.

On the other side of the coin, or the Atlantic, it is equally important to remember that cinema is ART. And like all art, it must be analysed and criticised and twisted and formed.

There are many challenges in store for the future of European cinema - as both art and entertainment, but that contains enough for an article of it's own.

© Mikael Colville-Andersen 2006-2011