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Palme d'Or

Is French cinema in decline?

By Adrienne Benassy

With Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest American directors in the world, at the helm of the Cannes Film Festival, one might think that the French would not be honoured as they should be in their own country. Quite the contrary. Six out of twenty films in the competition are French, even more surprising given the profound crisis the French industry is going through. National icon, Gérard Depardieu has fled the country, actors are being paid stratospheric sums and the system of subsidies is floundering as a result of low profitability. All these criticisms have tarnished French cinema's image worldwide. So what should we believe: the amazing Cannes selection as a sign of underlying strength or the complaints and moans of the industry?

Cannes: A Promising selection for French cinema

Cannes Festival 2013
Cannes Festival 2013

The Cannes Festival, contrary to the Golden Globe Awards, has always been the realm of French cinema and Steven Spielberg's presidency this year has not changed historical trends, even though many American movies have made their way to Southern France, including Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby which kicked off the festival. Six great French films are competing for the highly desired Palme d'Or. François Ozon, who did very well in the UK recently with In The House, presents another subversive-wannabe film about a teenage prostitute, Jeune et Jolie. In the same erotic vein, Abdellatif Kechiche shows Léa Seydoux - who has played in the latest Candy Prada advert directed by Wes Anderson - as a blue-haired lesbian in La Vie d'Adèle. And it seems that three is the magic number as Roman Polanski also reveals to the public a sulphurous movie, Venus in Furs, which will further reinforce the image of France as a very libertine culture. However, Epicureanism is not our only “raison d’être”. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi will, let's hope, spill the beans about her sister, the famous model and wife of former French President, Carla Bruni, in her movie, Un château en Italie. After four years without filming, Arnaud Desplechin returns to direction back and films his favourite actor, Matthieu Almaric, in Jimmy Picard. And last but not least, François Arnaud des Pallière plunges us in Medieval France with Michael Kohlhaas. Without a doubt, this selection, bursting in diversity, predicts a bright short-term future for French cinema.

The film industry's upheaval

Gérard Depardieu
Gérard Depardieu

Gérard Depardieu's exile heralded a profound upheaval in the film industry. After France's national star fled the country to escape fiscal pressure and preach the virtues of 'Russian democracy', Vincent Maraval, the head of the giant film distribution company Wild Bunch, published in the centre-left-leaning newspaper, Le Monde, a hard-worded criticism about actors' wages were said to be not only  too high but also financed by public subsidies. 

Unprofitable system

In France, a country where cinema has been an art at the same level as painting or literature since the New Wave, budget issues and profit are considered as vulgar, or at least as going against the creative process. As a result most of the industry today is run at a chronic deficit. 

The film industry is running out of money

Astérix and Obélix: God Save Britannia
Astérix and Obélix: God Save Britannia

In 2012, according to the professional magazine, Le Film Français (The French Film), not a single film managed to recover its budget from box-office revenues. Top of the list, What's in a Name (Le Prénom) did best with a 93.57% profitability rate, followed by De l’autre côté du périph (86.39%) with Omar Sy and Laurent Lafitte, and Les Kaïra (78.67%). If the top 3 films did not manage to earn as much as they spent, the rest of French production was a disaster. La Vérité si je mens! III wasted nearly half of its budget with a profitability rate of 55.91%, followed by Sur la piste du Marsupilami (40.99%), Les Seigneurs (40.24%), Stars 80 (28.35%) and Cloclo (27,95%). Nothing to rejoice about. But worse was Astérix and Obélix in Brittany which pulled out all the stops to end up with 19.28% profitability rate. On the whole, the French box-office has nothing to be proud of and actors do not seem to be paying the price for the woes that  are affecting the rest of the industry. 

Overpaid actors

Danny Boon
Danny Boon

The right-leaning newspaper, Le Figaro, drew up an actors' wages hit parade, at the head of which reigns Danny Boon. He embodies the heart of popular France, always playing in comic blockbusters, but he does not share the people financial difficulties. With 7.5 million euros earned in 2011 he definitely made the most of his hit-movie, Rien à déclarer (Nothing to declare), where he was director, co-producer and actor.Some way behind him comes, François Cluzet, one of Untouchables' main actors who received  3.14 million euros while Vincent Cassel is in third position with 2.51 million euros for his part in Black Swan with Nathalie Portman. 

Top 20 of Best paid male actors in France (2011) - Le Figaro

  1. Danny Boon : 7.5 million euros
  2. François Cluzet : 3.14 million euros
  3. Vincent Cassel : 2.51 million euros
  4. Benoît Poelvoorde : 2.375 million euros
  5. Omar Sy : 2.29 million euros
  6. Kad Merad : 1.850 million euros
  7. Daniel Auteuil : 1.323 million euros
  8. Frank Dubosc : 1.2 million euros
  9. Vincent Lindon : 1.021 million euros
  10. Jamel Debbouze : 1 million euros
  11. Fabrice Lucchini : 967,000 euros
  12. Guillaume Canet : 908,000 euros
  13. Christian Clavier : 880,000 euros
  14. Tomer Sisley : 790,000 euros
  15. Gilles Lellouche : 760,000 euros
  16. Michel Blanc : 675,000 euros
  17. José Garcia : 670,000 euros
  18. ClovisCornillac : 620,000 euros
  19. François Xavier Demaison : 600,000 euros
  20. Eric et Ramzy : 380,000 euros.

Top 20 of Best Paid Actresses in France (2011)

  1. Valérie Lemercier: 1.08 million d'euros
  2. Mélanie Laurent: 1.005 million d'euros
  3.  Florence Foresti: 1 million d'euros
  4.  Karin Viard: 830,000 euros
  5.  Isabelle Huppert: 829,000 euros
  6. Audrey Tautou: 768,410 euros
  7. Cécile de France: 670,000 euros
  8. Sandrine Kiberlain: 651,300 euros
  9. Marion Cotillard: 615,000 euros
  10. Catherine Deneuve: 600,000 euros
  11.  Diane Kruger: 300,000 euros minimum
  12.  Mathilde Seigner: 300,000 euros
  13.  Catherine Frot: 400,000 euros
  14.  Kristin Scott Thomas: 342,000 euros
  15.  Laetitia Casta: 270,000 euros
  16. Bérénice Bejo: 250,000 euros
  17.  Alice Taglioni: 200,000 euros
  18. Sabine Azema: 180,000 euros
  19.  Maiwenn: 170,000 euros minimum
  20. Valérie Donzelli: 115,000 euros

Not all actors are paid with public money

As soon as Vincent Maraval criticised the actors' wages financed by public subsidies, Danny Boon spoke out against a supposed "simplification of reality" and assessed he earned less than he gives to French cinema. Indeed his two latest films distributed 15 millions to the National Centre of Cinematography (CNC). Adding to the controversy, Robert Guédiguian, who directed The Snows of Kilimanjaro, gave a more nuanced picture of the situation: "When we say that actors are rich thanks to public money, it is not true and that builds up myths on a privileged strata of society living on people's taxes. We should not forget that our financing system is quite brilliant, thanks to self-financing and the CNC". However, this "brilliant system", even though it should be disassociated from the star system, is not only loosing money, but is also not fulfilling its primary goal of stimulation  creation outside the mainstream.

« French cinema is not very exciting » Matthieu Kassovitz

Matthieu Kassovitz
Matthieu Kassovitz

Subsidising the film industry was meant to support small art-house films which would not exist otherwise. However today, French cinema does not seem as innovative as it used to be. Matthieu Kassovitz confesses in an interview with The Guardian (18/04/2013), that he no longer feels stimulated by French directors and that France has turned into a "numb" country. Now, most of the films produced are of average quality and budget and he is never  shocked or surprised by any of them. French cinema seems to be losing its cinematic identity, and the misused subsidising system is doing nothing to help. 

Even Michel Hazanavicius, who could be quite positive acknowledging The Artist's international success, is worried about the crisis ahead for French cinema. According to him, everyone in the industry prefers to "maximize profit" before the film is released, "trying to get a maximum of money during the financing process, spending very little during production, underpaying technicians, delocalising, and producing a maximum of films regardless of their quality". The little interest producers have in a film's quality is explained by the reduced risk they are taking. The subsidising system does not force them to pay attention to box-office projections, thus they do not care to the same extent about the potential the scenario offers. But this crisis is not only the result of a misused subsidising system; it is also due to the global crisis that has been hitting France lately. Let's not despair as moments of crisis can trigger bursts in creativity and encourage changes in direction. Let's hope that this year's Cannes selection will inject a new dose of dynamism into the ailing body of French cinema. 


27/11/2013 - writers_reign said :

Matthieu Kassowitz says he is no longer shocked or surprised by French films but WHY should any National cinema shock or surprise first and foremost? Surely the principal aim of film has always been first and foremost to ENTERTAIN and personally, as someone born, raised, and who has lived all my life in England I find French cinema, overall, the finest in the world. France continues to turn out films that are character-led, script-led rather than cgi-led. Even as I write the first two remakes of the great Pagnol trilogy, Marius and Fanny are in the salles with the third, Cesar, due to open in December. I have no doubt that director-actor Daniel Auteuil - who has already directed and starred in Pagnol's The Well-Digger's Daughter - will be citicized for offering the public 'old-fashioned' fare, by which the critcs mean ENTERTAINMENT. All five films written (with son Christopher) and directed by Danielle Thompson in this century have been vastly entertaining, the French Billy Wilder, writer-director Francis Veber seldom fails to Entertain as do other fine writer-directors like Tonie Marshall, Valerie Lemercier, Nicole Garcia, Agnes Jaoui, the late Alain Corneau, to name only a handful. This is not to say that there is no place for films that shock and surprise, of course there is and long may there be but let us not lose sight of cinema's original brief: Entertain.

22/05/2013 - arnottdavies said :

A interesting piece. On section demonstrates someone's complete misunderstanding of film economics. If a film DOES make its production costs through box office sales it has done amazingly well. So much comes through DVD sales and TV rights plus of course any decent accountant can prove that there are NO PROFITS AT ALL hence NO TAX!


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