Foreign language films pulled from the shelves

Jurg Hartmann, proprietor of English Films in Zurich

A new law on the distribution of videos and DVDs in Switzerland has sharply reduced the availability of foreign language films.

This content was published on September 18, 2002 - 15:59

The law forbids Swiss retailers from selling imported films unless the copyright holder has given express permission.

The legislation is a particular blow to businesses such as English Films in Zurich, which traditionally ordered its stock from the United States or Canada.

"I couldn't believe it when I first heard about this law," said Jurg Hartmann, proprietor of English Films. "But I went to a lawyer and he told me it was true."

Cultural diversity undermined

The new federal law on film production and film culture came into force on August 1, and although its primary intention was to support film production and promote cultural diversity, an amendment included at the last minute seems to have had the opposite effect.

Under the amendment, the import for sale and rental of foreign films in Switzerland is forbidden without the clear consent of the owner.

The move was supported by Swiss cinema proprietors, and video and DVD distributors, who claimed that media retailers were importing copies of Hollywood blockbusters from the United States before they had finished their cinema run in Switzerland, and at a price cheaper than that charged by the Swiss distributors.

Ironically though, the law still permits individual consumers to import any film they like from foreign suppliers, such as the online retailer, Amazon.

The amendment was passed without any debate by the Swiss Senate. Senate leader Anton Cottier is also president of the Swiss Cinema Association, Pro Cinema, and critics of the law have suggested a conflict of interest.

Empty shelves

The effects of the legislation have been dramatic; right across Switzerland film and video shops have removed foreign films from their shelves. Even the old classics like Alfred Hitchcock, James Bond, or children's Disney films, have disappeared from the market.

Jurg Hartmann is particularly upset because he specialises not in Hollywood blockbusters, but in older films and art house movies.

"We have all the old Billy Wilder films," he told swissinfo. "Ingmar Bergmann, Federico Fellini, Shakespeare and so on, and all in the original versions, not dubbed into German. I'm just not going to find a Swiss distributor with the rights for those films."

Until now, however, Hartmann bought all his films from the United States and Canada, whether they were available through Swiss distributors or not. He admits the North American distributors charge less for their videos and DVDs than their Swiss counterparts, but says that for him this is not the main issue.

"I pay royalties on every copy of a film I buy," he pointed out. "And I think the owner of a film is happy to get the royalties whether I pay them in the United States or Switzerland.

For me the big question is where can I get the type of films I stock" he continued. "The Swiss distributors are mainly interested in stocking blockbusters, often dubbed into German - that's not what my customers want."

No sympathy

But Hartmann's concerns, and those of other similar businesses across Switzerland, have fallen on deaf ears at Switzerland's Federal Office for Culture, where Marc Wehrlin, head of the film section, supports the new law.

"If these retailers have taken their stock off their shelves it means the films were grey imports or parallel imports," Wehrlin told swissinfo. "So they have no right to sell them in Switzerland. Remember that someone in Switzerland has paid the rights to distribute these films, and they should be the ones to benefit from resale and rental."

Wehrlin claims Hartmann shouldn't worry about finding a supplier for the kinds of films he stocks.

"Give it a few months," Wehrlin said, "and if there really is a market for such films in Switzerland they will be back on the shelves."

Competition concern

However there is concern at Switzerland's Competition Commission over the effects of the new law.

Officials at the Commission are keen to relax Switzerland's traditionally strict prohibition of parallel imports, which prevents Swiss retailers from buying their stock from the cheapest possible supplier (see related story).

But it's unlikely any softening of the new film law will come in time to help Jurg Hartmann, whose takings are already down 50 per cent.

"A lot of my clients are schools and clubs," he explained, "and they are frightened the police will come if they buy a film from me and show it."

But Hartmann, unlike other film and video retailers in Switzerland, has stubbornly refused to take his stock off the shelves.

"I'd have to close down if I did that," he said, "so I'm carrying on as normal."

"I'll go to court if I have to... I think I've got a good case."

"Anyway," he continued, "I'm 54 now, I wouldn't find another job if I gave up this business, so I might as well try and keep it. I've got nothing to lose by fighting for it."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

Switzerland's new law on film production was originally designed to promote diversity in the audio-visual arts.
Around 20 per cent of all DVDs and videos in Switzerland are not expressly licensed for the Swiss market.
Swiss retailers are now forbidden from importing foreign films for sale and rental in Switzerland unless they have the express permission of the copyright holder.
Individual consumers in Switzerland may still order whatever films they please, from whatever retailer they please.

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In compliance with the JTI standards

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