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Published 28 October 2000

The US film industry and French protectionism

Oct.2000: DEBATE between Vincent and Thomas about Richard Pells’ column in the IHT: "Cinéma Vérité - why European reject US culture" and my commentary (other article)

THOMAS:

I have to agree with Pells. There is a long history of bias in Europe toward the American film industry. European students or quasi intellectuals- have this restrictive notion of art vs entertainment. The artists are the Europeans and the entertainers are the Americans. This is a useless division which serves no purpose.European films in general could learn from the massive financial and technological successes of the American industry. The world looks to the Americans for leadership in film. Europe does not speak for the world when it comes to culture. The Americans hold an open market when it comes to film distribution. The same cannot be said for a number of European countries, especially the French. The French have this conservative notion of protecting a mediocre film market. They want to project their ideals of cinema around the universe but when it comes to allowing others in they either shut the door or bobby trap it with attacks concerning a product’s "true essential artistic merit" - as was the case with Schindler’s List. The true conservatism here is not represented by Pells and his illuminating ideas but rather by the commentator who responds simply by turning things upside down like a gunslinger trapped in mud.

VINCENT:

I’m sure you’re teasing me about Pells’ article. If not, then I’m happy to explain why his rhetorical ultra-capitalistic comments on cinema are total bullshit. I don’t think he honestly believes in what he says - he’s just getting the job done for the US studios and the US imperialistic domination of the world. It’s pure propaganda, and any rational mind can easily show it with obvious facts. Instead of commenting on his "illuminating" prose again, I’ll focus on what you have apparently retained from his speech.

1- "the Americans hold an open market when it comes to film distribution": Unless one-way trade can be called "open market", then I don’t see how you can say that. How many French films are imported in the States, compared to the 75% of American films shown on French screens? Oh yes, of course, there’s the language barrier, and Americans, unlike the French, can’t stand either subtitles or dubbing. Pretty convenient. How can you say that "the French shut the door" when our film market is already outstandingly dominated by the American productions? And then how should we call the absence of French films in the USA? Of course, I know that American films are so incredibly superior that there is no reason why the Americans should get bored to death with foreign productions that don’t fit in their formatted taste. And after all, the public has the last word: they go and see the films they want. But why is this basic principle valid to judge that European films are weak and boring, while Polish students should be accused of evil intentions and twisted judgement when they choose NOT to go to an American film? Is the principle of free choice only valid to the advantage of US products? If the Poles didn’t like Schindler’s List, then too bad for Spielberg. He made enough money on the domestic market and in many foreign countries to take the blow of a "relative failure" (compared to his usual numbers) in Poland. For that matter, saying that Schindler’s List was snubbed by the Europeans. It may not have been the box office all-time record - there probably were too many US action movies in the competition at that moment for that - but it worked well enough, and has already been shown at least three times on a French national channel on prime time... Is that not enough for Mr Pells’ hunger of US cultural ascendency? What puts me off in his bogus reasoning is that Pells presents the US film industry as victimized by the European patronizing pro-marxist intellectual bullies when the studios are already the masters of the place and the European cinemas are just trying to survive. He is not ashamed of conjuring up the pathos of the Holocaust to nourish his gross imperialistic propaganda. If Spielberg can’t stand criticism, then he should stop making films. Every week, French critiques torch down French movies; some French producers even complain about their national masochism and the fact they don’t give time for the films to find their audience as in the States. Have you ever compared the number of theatres the least American piece of shit is shown in and the equivalent for a "film d’auteur"? It’s not even David against Goliath - it’s a worm tread on by an elephant. Nobody has ever claimed to kick out the US film industry from France, so Pells, give us a break!

2- "European students - or quasi intellectuals - have this restrictive notion of art vs entertainment." If this means that art can be entertaining, and that entertainments may have some depth, then all right. But if this tends to suggest that all values should be levelled down to the point of rating purely commercial movies and more personal works with the same criteria, then it doesn’t make any sense. If art can be successful and have a commercial value, I don’t see how commerce could be the ruling principle for truly artistic creation.What made Pells write his contribution is the French claim in international trade negotiations for "cultural exception": art and culture cannot be treated like common goods. Is that such an absurd claim? The free market is not that utopian fair place where only the best quality should survive. You know very well that commerce is all about financial power, marketing strategies, image, selling techniques, not necessarily about quality. Art makes you widen and sharpen your insight through intellectual and emotional experiences, while commerce simply aims at your wallet by whatever means. Isn’t all that just obvious stuff?

3- "The artists are the Europeans and the entertainers are the Americans. This is a useless division which serves no purpose." This is really absurd. Europeans are of course very fond of American films, and loads of US directors are extremely highly-rated in France. There is no superiority complex at all. That doesn’t mean that any Hollywood film should be regarded as "artistic". If a film has no depth and no interest because it has just conformed to safe recipes and screening tests, why shouldn’t it be said that it has no artistic value at all?

4- "Europe does not speak for the world when it comes to culture" Should the US do? That’s what is going on now though. And the true problem is that "culture" has now become a gimmick of "the free market" to increase its influence on people’s lives. Northern Americans are so obsessed with getting rid of their European heritage that they fall sometimes into ridiculous caricatures. American Universities can very well decide that Moliere, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, and so many other true artists are outdated forms of Europe-centered culture that should not spoil American minds any more (if it ever did). But they cannot raise anything, and especially not commerce, to the level of genuine culture. I don’t want to let money rule my intellectual and emotional life as if it were an expression of human intelligence or insightful creativity. Is that such an evil sign of European arrogance? I’m sure many Americans DO agree with me though...

5- "The French have this conservative notion of protecting a mediocre film market" Do you mean they should stop producing French films in France and content themselves with US blockbusters (necessarily the top of the "film market")?

6- "they either shut the door or bobby trap it with attacks concerning a product’s "true essential artistic merit" as was the case with Schindler’s List. Can’t critiques express themselves freely about what they think of films? Or should "artistic merit" NOT be a criterion in film criticism? I guess Cameron doesn’t complain about the French reception of "Titanic" (an all-time top-10 hit I guess); a lot of elements in the film can be genuinely criticized though - with true arguments. Everybody doesn’t have to suscribe to those criticisms anyway. The same with Schindler’s List. Should US blockbusters be treated like dictators: they rule the place, but should not be criticized anyhow...

Well, I guess ultra-capitalism, be it French or English or US or Japanese or whatever nationality, has a fancy indeed for absolute power. That’s why we’re entitled to resist.

PLEASE tell me what you think of all these arguments. This is no pro-marxist ideology. All this is basic matter-of-fact observation of reality, unlike Pells’ rhetorical ultra-capitalistic prose.

THOMAS:

Dear Vinny, I knew if I threw a fireball at you you would respond. You have been silent for a long time - a few days, so I was beginning to think about ways to light your fire. The answer was given to me when I took today off from school. I spent some time at your web site reading our contributions over again and your commentary on the Schindler article. It was then that I decided to engage your opinions on American and French film and on entertainment and art - a beautifully stale and elitist thought. A great topic. Of course, I was just being a contrarian who wanted to get your goat. I actually know little about the subject, perhaps nothing. I wanted to fake my way through the response just to see if I could get you to write today plus I love a showdown at the coral atmosphere. It worked. Seriously, I am interested in the topic. And I guess if you minus the American parading tone of my email, some of the rough positions outlined may serve for an exciting debate.


Dear Vinnie, you were right about me teasing you. Give me some time to seriously consider your points. I am not sure what is more fun though. To see you fire away at my sound bites or to seriously debate. Maybe there is a mid point- to debate half seriously and half as a fool. I need to think about this. I will need to reread your prose but after a first read I would have to say your points make partial sense. I promise you though that I will try to come back at you with something interesting. Maybe I will do a little research just to see how open the French market really is.


The catholic Poles did not like Schindler’s list for one reason and one reason alone. High artistic taste has nothing to do with it. The unpleasant memory of their zealous involvement in killing jews during the Holocaust has everything to do with it. Why do you think the Germans felt uneasy about Schindler’s list? —this is just a historical aside not to be confused with any later film points.


Dear Vinnie, I have found a very interesting exposition on French protectionism. I believe it is very well researched. Perhaps you can post it on your web site. Here is the link: http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/frenchtv.htm.

I believe the article essentially supports some of your points. Here are some of the highlights.

1.American film exports total around 3.8 billion a year to France France exports total 288 million a year to America.

2.American films represent 82% of the films shown in Europe

3. 60 percent of European distribution networks are owned by American media groups.

4.Recent Hollywood releases play at one-fourth of France’s 4,500 cinemas

5. 18 million viewers from the five largest European countries tune in each week to see American programs.

6. Many large commercial broadcasters in Europe such as TF1, France’s first privatized channel have more net imports of programming from the United States than from any other country.

7.Dominance in the film industry, both for television and the theater, is based on the economies that flow from the US scale of production and the fact that costs can be recouped in the US domestic market before American programs are exported.

8.Only 2 percent of programs on US screens come from Europe, and these are mainly British programs on minority channels

Now, here are some points that should also be addressed concerning the French public, freedom of choice, quality of programming and French quotas

1. To fend of what it has called "American Cultural Imperialism" or "American Colonization" of French pure culture the French have lobbied the European Union to pass stringent quota directives through Europe. The French are the most agressive at implementing the directives. No more than 40% of films shown in France can be of non-European origin.

My reaction: This quota actually guarantees the wide spread screening of new American releases, particularly blockbusters. The French cinemas will fill up the 40% quota by putting on the screens the blockbusters that will guarantee them a certain rate of return on their investments. Consequently, the more alternative type of US films will not be screened thereby continuing the process identified by the arch conservative Jacqes Chirac when he said he did not want to see European culture sterilized or obliterated by American Culture.

2. French program planners from France’s major television stations say that the quotas are a restriction of not only their professional freedom, but the freedom of the viewing public.

My reaction: Is the whole quota debate spearheaded by cultural intellectuals, bureaucrates, and government planners? Does the public have a say in how they feel about quotas? Do our ivory tower protectionists care about the public? Or is the public for them just a misconceived polling mistake?

3. Since only 40% of films seen in France can be of non-European origin, the amount of programming hours cannot be filled with European programming. As a result, French programmers are forced to either play films over and over again or to show second rate films during prime time.

My reaction: The French quota system has skewered the whole market for programs. A situation has occured where demand exceeds supply. The 27000 television hours on French TV cannot be filled with only French or Non European quality shows. These shows are not produced in Europe in any way to meet the viewing demand of the public.

4. France is the only EU country that requires its stations to purchase programs from other EU nations. Nothing forces EU partners to purchase French programming.

My reaction: This seems to make no sense. Why should the French people participate in a quota system where only France is required to purchase programs from other EU nations? Who is responsible for this system? The French government demands that the industry rollover 15% of its cash to the production of original French works. However when it comes to helping its own industry sell to other markets it fails to do anything. This is the problem of the quota system. It ignores reality for many people involved in the industry.

5. Does France speak for the whole EU? What are the cultural practices of other states? Do the television and film industries in other European countries oppose quotas and restrictions? Are they afraid of losing their culture of having it sterilized as Chirac put it?

Answer: France has imposed its own cultural concerns on members of the Euroepan Union without their consent. The Netherlands, Denmark and Britain are all opposed to the restrictions.

6. The irony of it all. Cultural imperialism and the American film industry’s threat to the French identity developed in the last two decades.Years ago when the annual Deauville festival of American film was begun in France it was supported by many of the French bourgeoisie. At that time French films were of equal caliber to American- made films, and the French welcomed American films; they did not see them as a threat. Paradoxically, the French thought the film festival was a great idea and the Americans were mildly apprehensive. Today, the situation is reversed, former French Cultural Minister Jack Lang urges that the festival be boycotted, and French writers are claiming that the "cultural colonization of France by American films" has reached its saturation level.

My reaction: Isn’t it interesting to learn that the French were the ones who initiated the process their bureacrates are now fighting against.

7. What is it about American films that makes people around the world want to watch them? Is it the values they espouse or the amount of program hours that need to bew filled.

My response: I tend to believe it has to do with the program hours they fill. Think about how many hours of TV available to a person each day. Multiply the answer by the average life spahn. That leaves a lot of hours left to watch Baywatch or whatever may be available to you that optimizes choice and quality or the lack of it. It is not up to governments to tell us what we should or shouldn’t watch.

8. What is next in the French quota debate? Regulating how many non European and French hours of internet time an individual can spend on her computer?

My reaction: Lines of inquiry for our next chat.

VINCENT:

I can understand that US commentators should be vexed by French statements about American cultural imperialism. However, opposing the French to the Americans is a twisted way of tackling the issue of culture. It falsely implies that each people is a homogenous entity thinking the same way and having the same political stand and the same vision of the world. Your argument about the alternative type of US cinema adresses a very relevant question: whoever would look down on "the USA" because they would "lack creativity" or artistry would just be giving in to easy rhetorics and undue self-complacency. I think the US is a land of strong contrasts and outstanding intellectual and creative resources. The core of the problem is not pseudo-national "natures" (even though there are philosophical and historical traditions and backgrounds...) but the absolutistic ambition of an over-confident, oppressive, globalizing ultra-capitalistic system. The US plays a leading role in this system, but every Western nation suscribes to this vision of the world to a certain point, with more or less concern for its destructive side. The French have naturally constructed their own demonic models of globalizing machineries as well - such as the closely-knit network of hypermarkets, which have become as necessary to the population on the one hand as destructive on the other hand. I am no crusader of the Holy Grail of the Marxist Order; I just think that we should not let ultra-capitalism impose its exclusive, mainstream logic, because any global system that is not contained longs for absolutism. If we come back more specifically to the subject of culture and cinema, this logic can easily be spotted in a text that refers for instance to the French commitment to defend "French pure culture". I would have been interested to know who has claimed for "pure" French culture in France apart from far-right weirdos. Using such words corresponds to an intentionally perverse, manipulative presentation of the issue, which sounds totally phoney to anyone who knows France. Before talking of TV (which is related, but different from the film industry...), we were focused on cinema, where at least 60% of the market is American. Is that "pure" French culture? Now, let’s talk more seriously about some points you mentioned:

- "This quota actually guarantees the wide-spread screening of new American releases, particularly blockbusters. (...) Consequently, the more alternative type of US films will not be screened..."

==> What I think: it would probably be the same without the quotas. In fact, each channel has to respect the quotas, so TF1 only screens blockbusters and action movies, while more cultural channels such as Arte and Paris premiere (cable) screen US independent films. That’s the way alternative US films get through all the same.

- "...arch conservative Jacqes Chirac...":

==> Don’t take too seriously what Chirac says. Nobody does here. :-)

- "French program planners from France’s major television stations say that the quotas are a restriction of not only their professional freedom, but the freedom of the viewing public. My reaction: Is the whole quota debate spearheaded by cultural intellectuals, bureaucrates, and government planners?"

==> TF1 programmers do, because it’s a lot easier to import US programs and make easy scores without risk. Ultra-capitalistic owners of TF1 don’t give a damn about anything that is not fast cash. When they have to produce original French programs to fill in the quotas, they break audimat scores though. The "viewing public" loves to see original French programs that the quota system has pushed the channels to produce.

"Why should the French people participate in a quota system where only France is required to purchase programs from other EU nations?"

==> Well isn’t this a good move for more diversity?

- "France has imposed its own cultural concerns on members of the European Union without their consent."

==> A country cannot force a decision on other European countries - it’s strictly impossible. Now there’s no surprise the "cultural exception" should be a French cause: all the other European cinema industries have been shattered by the capitalistic "free-market" system. In Italy for instance, Berlusconi has ruined one of the most wonderful forms of artistic cinema.

- "Isn’t it interesting to learn that the French were the ones who initiated the process their bureaucrates are now fighting against."

Don’t exaggerate the fight against US cinema in France beyond the GATT negotiation rounds. Many French critiques say that US creativity in quality films is more dynamic at the moment than French artistry in home-made works.

- "It is not up to governments to tell us what we should or shouldn’t watch."

==> Don’t worry: they don’t. They just regulate a system which doesn’t simply come down to industrial production. Isn’t that a fair mission for a government?

- "What is next in the French quota debate? Regulating how many non European and French hours of internet time an individual can spend on her computer?"

==> That bad faith again... I’m more concerned by what typically "free-market" companies such as Microsoft have in store for us in terms of net watch and customer surveillance than the French government. By the way, isn’t it the US NSA that developed a global system of e-mail and internet screening and control?