Saving the French Fall

By S Preet Kaur

My career was not going the way I wanted. My show on television "Voisine Voisine" (1988) did not enjoy high viewership. In fact it was called the worst. The money was not coming. At the same time I had a family to support. My baby cried through the nights while I tried to write the scripts for show. Frustration had no bounds,” recalls French film director and scriptwriter Laurent Chouchan. “What kept me going was my passion. I also had a little money coming from the society of authors, SICD, financed by French Government and I used to sell furniture during the weekends to meet the ends. But it was the toughest phase of my career.”

For many like Laurent Chouchan, the help comes from the government of France that follows a protectionist policy towards films and TV. The French spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing film production, extend interest-free loans to designated filmmakers, and have placed quotas not only on imports but on television time. The general tasks of the Ministry of Culture and Communication includes safeguarding, protecting and developing cultural heritage in all its forms, including films. If there is a need of protection then what is the possible threat?

The task of the Ministry of Culture and Communication is to make the major cultural works of humanity, and particularly of France, accessible to as many people as possible. Created as long back as in1946 CNC, Centre National de la Cinématographie ,is a public administrative organization under French Cultural Ministry and was set up as a separate and financially independent entity. The funds available in support of films by the government amounted to €528.5 million in 2008 .CNC is aimed at promotion of film and television for distribution to all audiences and also for preservation and development of the film heritage. But the reason has basis somewhere else.

More than 4,300 films were released in 2002 in France. U.S. films accounted for 51.7% of the titles released but constituted 72.1% of total sales, while French films accounted for 32% of titles released but only 20.5% of total sales. It is in France, where American movies hold nearly 60 percent of the market. According to CNC reports (2004) the burgeoning French video and DVD film market is dominated by U.S. Films with 77 U.S. movies on the list of the 100 top-selling films. In top ten grossing movies of France since 1945, six movies are of USA and only three are French movies. Funny it is , but country also had a Minister for Rock 'n' Roll in the 1980s to help France compete against the Anglo-Saxons (unsuccessfully).

During the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks (1994) , American negotiators promised to remove many trade barriers against European goods, but in return they wanted Europeans--especially the remove the special taxes and quotas for American movies. The French refused. The French government even promised to veto any GATT agreement that did not preserve its protectionist policies toward film. The French won the GATT battle.

This stands true for most of Europe. Across the European Union around 1.6 bn Euros is spent on national film support each year. Most European nations, say that their native film industry is suffering. The EU is tasked with encouraging its member countries to cooperate in conserving and safeguarding cultural heritage of European significance – including cinema(Article 151(2) of the Treaty establishing the European Communities).When asked in what specific ways does the European Union help the growing artists (strugglers) in the Film Industry of various countries, the spokesperson for Information Society and Media, European Commission , Martin Selmayer says , “The ‘Media’ program of the European Union supports training in these fields: Media Continuous training scheme supports the creation of pan-European training networks to help professionals in the audiovisual industry enhance their competence in the international market. Secondly , Media Initial training scheme aims to encourage exchanges and cooperation between film / audiovisual schools and universities and the audiovisual industry.”

According to the European Parliament, “Cinematography is a fragile medium, which therefore requires positive action from the Public authorities to ensure its prevention.” For the Union, two issues are of vital importance – state aid and protection of culture .This refers not only to the production and showing of films but also to collection, cataloguing, preservation and restoration of cinematographic works. So does this protectionism help the industry. “Well the performances of the movies have improved in the new millennium. We had excellent movies being produced like La Mome that won Oscars Best Performance by an actress in a leading role , Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis / Welcome to the Sticks makes it the most successful French production in history and Amélie which was nominated for five Academy Awards.” says David Owen , a young movie goer in Paris.

TOP 10   MOVIES  SINCE  1945  in France

( in million)
Titanic 1998 USA 20.63
Welcome To The Sticks 2008 France 20.36
Don’t Look Now, We are Being Shot At 1966 France /UK 17.27
Gone With The Wind 1950 USA 16.72
Once Upon a Time in the West 1969 Italy 14.86
The Jungle Book 1968 US 14.70
101 Dalmatians 1961 USA 14.68
Asterix and Obelix :Mission
2002 France 14.39
The Ten Commandments 1958 USA 14.70
Ben Hur 1960 USA 13.85

According to CNC the result of protectionism has been positive. In annual reports it boasts that in 2008, movie theaters sold 189.71 million admission tickets, 6.7% more than the previous year. This was one of the highest attendance levels of the past 25 years. In 2008, French films sold more tickets than American films (86.14 million), which was the largest number of tickets sold since 1984. The average revenue per ticket increased by six cents to €6.01. It was also a record year for French films abroad.

But the numbers and performances have to be seen in reference to the following points. "Television without Frontiers" directive and quotas implemented by the French Government limit the number of American films shown in French theaters and on French Television. The EU Broadcast Directive was passed in October 1989 in an effort to protect and promote the European cultural identity.

The directive requires that EU member-states reserve a majority (51 percent) of entertainment broadcast transmission time for programs of European origin. And though in 2008, Welcome to The Sticks was number one at the box office and the biggest French success since 1945, it did not beat the all-time record set by Titanic (20.63 million tickets). Moreover, according to CNC, seven American films and one British film filled out the list of the ten most successful films of 2008.

If the state has so much power over the film industry, does the creativity get affected. Go further and the opinion varies. “Well, in a way, yes. One starts making movies for oneself and not for the audiences in particular since the funding comes easily. Moreover, the state will fund the project if it is interested. But there are always options to work independently. If one boasts of improving performances, they should also be shown how they try to stop competition coming from other countries.” points out says a film director Sarah Levy.

“I guess this culture protectionism is sort of insecurity and arrogance being mixed. We cannot accept that movies from other countries do well here, especially English movies from the US . Even if we have French movies doing good , it is usually comedies or tragedies . We are still lagging behind when it comes to Sci-Fi’s, thrillers drama and hence people look towards Hollywood. It is the movie goers who have to decide what they want to see. Funding is ok but quotas are not,” says Naike Desquesness, a student at Sciences Po.

For Laurent Chouchan the journey has been satisfying. He says it is difficult to make a choice. “Well, every system has its pros and cons. CNC helps ypu with money before and after the film. Despite being unsuccessful during the starting of my career, I somehow managed financially with help of the government. But then again the flip side. The fund goes to only specific kind of movies. One has to let people decide what they want to see. If they want to see more American movies so be it. Movies that I made never had money of the government.”

So finally what is the right thing to do? Is the creativity getting affected somewhere. Try to find an answer and you will be lost in statistics and arguments. Sources- 1 European Commission European Cultural portal http://ec.europa.eu/culture/portal/sites/members/france_en.htm 2 CNC www.cnc.fr 3 http://www1.american.edu/ted/frenchtv.htm (stats and quotes as of 2010).