x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Filmmaking at the heart of la joie de vivre

In the little French Mediterranean resort of La Londe Les Maures, between Toulon and Saint-Tropez, €7 buys a ticket to see an up-to-date film at the small Forum cinema.

In the little French Mediterranean resort of La Londe Les Maures, between Toulon and Saint-Tropez, €7 (Dh33.5) buys a ticket to see an up-to-date film at the small Forum cinema.

The man who takes payment for entry is also the projectionist and sees people off the premises at the end of the evening.

It is not uncommon for films to be shown with 80 or more of about 90 seats vacant, so the Forum costs money to keep open.

This is where the local council, which owns the cinema, steps in. It hands €20,000 a year to a local federation which puts on the screenings.

"It is the mayor's wish that the people of La Londe should have their own cinema, where they can see recent releases for a modest price after parking free of charge nearby," says a town hall official.

Although the arrangement is technically distinct from the policy of cultural exception that has threatened to delay the start of the EU/US trade talks today, it neatly reflects a national obsession with defending French film and other audiovisual branches of multimedia.

There is direct linkage from the much lower rate of value added tax (7 per cent as opposed to 19.6 on most goods and services) and significant indirect linkage.

Many of the French films screened at the Forum could probably not have been made without the state's insistence on supporting the industry.

The understandingfrance.org website, run by a Franco-American couple, Philippe and Harriet Rochefort, explains that major television channels are required under their licensing terms to allocate 3.2 per cent of their turnover to cinema and 2.5 per cent of this must be for French films.

There are financial incentives for the filmmakers and quotas ensuring television schedules are not swamped by films from overseas.

As a result, say the Rocheforts, France has Europe's strongest film industry, with 22 per cent of all films made, and produces more films than any other countries except India and the United States.

Other sources put the proportion of US film imports at 45 to 55 per cent in the years 2005 to 2011, against 60 to 90 per cent in other European markets.

Audiences may be in long-term decline; France sold only 74 million cinema tickets in 2010 compared with 206 million half a century earlier.

But with more than 5,300 premises showing films, the country is still the world leader for number of cinemas per million inhabitants (89, compared with 56 in the UK, 60 in Germany and 24 in Japan).

If it makes for a robust-sounding national film industry, it is a source of enormous irritation to Hollywood.

And the policy extends to protections for the publishing, TV and radio sectors, in the latter case explaining why stations playing pop music still observe a 40 per cent quota of domestically produced records, and broadcast no more than 40 per cent of non-European material, even though Anglo-American varieties are much more popular.

France's desire to remain a world cultural power is expressed in many ways and crosses traditional party political lines.

The president François Hollande and ministers reacted sharply to criticism of French policy by Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.

Mr Barroso told The New York Times ahead of last month's Group of Eight meeting in Northern Ireland that French threats to block the talks were ill-judged and French criticism of globalisation "reactionary", harming the stated goal of cultural diversity rather than protecting it.

Bloomberg News reported recently that if France's EU share of the film market were to fall to British, Italian and German levels, Hollywood could gain about US$500 million a year in box-office takings.

The French right never loses an opportunity to accuse the socialist president and government of bringing France into disrepute.

But its politicians also fight to defend the interests of French culture and language; the cause had few more determined advocates than a previous centre-right president, Jacques Chirac, an implacable opponent of the increasing dominance of "Anglo-Saxon" culture.

In its assessment of the issue, Bloomberg speculated - before compromise was reached at Brussels - that France would be willing to kill the proposed EU/US transatlantic trade and investment agreement deal rather than sacrifice its jealously guarded cultural protection.

But it advised the United States to regard the French stance as an opportunity of a bargaining tool of its own.

"Instead of being equally obstinate, American negotiators should trade a continued film exception for further European concessions on issues that excite less passion, such as financial regulation and tradable services," said Bloomberg.

"The US has leverage to bargain, but it cannot, of course, prevent the French from being French."