A very French affair

It isn’t often that I listen to a radio programme more than once out of choice, but BBC Radio 4’s wonderful programme about the Femme Fatal was well worth the extra hour. Presented by Kathleen Turner, Femme Fatales is a must-listen not only for students of film culture but for anyone who loves cinema’s greatest genre, named by the French back in the forties, Film Noir. What I especially like about cinema on radio is that it is image-free. You only have the sound-track to furnish your memory and imagination as to the delights on screen, and in this programme the sound track does not disappoint.

This French connection segues perfectly into the annual culture fest and media craziness that is the Cannes Film Festival. This year the festival kicked off with the all-important Cannes scandal that is meant to shock, enrage and stimulate debate. It was the inclusion of a Netflix movie that – shock, horror, was not going to have a cinema release in France. Booed by the assembled luvvie masses, the poor projectionist added further to the outrage to Bong Joo Ho’s, Okja, by setting the wrong frame size for the digital projector. This was one of two films that Netflix had in competition, and by all accounts was actually quite good.

Fellow streaming service, Amazon, plays a sharper political game in France by having sometimes limited screenings of its films, either through other festivals or at selected cinemas, thus avoiding French outrage, or in the case of last year’s Oscar-winner, Manchester by the Sea, full blown theatrical distribution.

So, why all the fuss? France continues to apply a three-year hold back on all theatrical films from being aired on French TV. This too applies to streaming services, although savvy French viewers can always access streaming services outside of France through the wonders of the Internet. This hold back existed globally in varying degrees when television began to make inroads into cinema audiences in the fifties. Film producers and distributors wanted to protect their intellectual property and make their profits from the box-office. Sales to television were always a bit of bunce and not a vital part of the income stream. In the UK, this was a legal requirement and the hold-back was two years.

Over time, this hold-back became more tenuous. The advent of VHS and home video through both purchase and rental allowed distributors to shorten the hold-back to a matter of months, but it has been the digital revolution that has made the hold-back obsolete. Today, distributors like Carlton will premiere a film in the cinema and have it available for streaming or to buy on DVD on the same day. For a very long time revenues and profits in the distribution of films was driven by DVD sales, more even than television. Even on films costing hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market, (often a marketing budget can be the same as the production budget), share of net box-office takings rarely puts the film into profit. VHS and then DVD sales and rentals were where the profits lay. Indeed, many films only wanted a theatrical release to give the film some credibility in the market place. The producers always knew that their profit lay beyond the silver screen. Straight to video became the mantra of the majority of films produced in Hollywood and most here in the UK too.

Where a theatre showing has been essential to films is if they want to be entered into festival competition. To be eligible for an Oscar a film has to have had at least a week in a cinema somewhere. So, producers without a distribution deal will use what little muscle they have to secure a notional theatrical release to qualify as ‘proper films’. (My quotes).

Now Netflix has become the great disruptor and the cultural dividing lines have been clearly marked at Cannes. Utterly ridiculous in my view. It is a matter of choice. Frankly, if anyone who loves cinema thinks they are as well off seeing a beautifully produced and crafted film on some poxy little screen – or even a large and fancy 4k modern television set and that the experience gets anywhere close to going to the movies, then I beg to disagree. I will always chose to see a film in a cinema against on the telly, or worse still a tablet or a smart-phone. But that is me. Maybe that is why I won’t be rushing to watch the next Netflix block-buster at home but will select to see new films that have a slot at my local flea-pit instead.

And as for the French and their three-year hold back? One can only hope that this antiquated, backward-looking and faux-protectionist rule will get the future it deserves and be binned. French cinema deserves better. There will always be a place for films on the giant screen. Millions of us choose this option every week, and for those who prefer their entertainment to be at home, they have the Internet to quench that thirst.


Also published on Medium.

2 Comments

  1. stephanie dhubert 20 June 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Being French and living in the USA, I can understand why they are wary. I don’t say things don’t need to change – but with these new major actors like Netflix and Amazon, it is also safe to take some time to observe and look for the best way it can be done, rather than rushing and taking decisions immediately.

    The French cultural fragile ecosystem has a lot of rules but also some precious advantages and achievment. Maybe I am wrong because I know nothing about the movie industry. What is prompting my answer is that because of all these annoying rules we have in France, you still find in 2017 bookshops everywhere, some music shops too and movie theatres everywhere where you can watch new and old movies too. The offer is really rich (even if they really have something immediate to do about stop dubbing all movies and start subtitling…)

    In the USA in most places, it is not the case at all. I live in Chicago, the third biggest city, and there is very few theatre, and no choice at all in what they are screening, it is shockingly poor. So yes, people watch movie on TV, it is a vicious circle ; and I am the first one to be happy about how fast they release the movies for streaming here, because with 2 kids, I am not going to the movie theater as I used to, and it is hard anyway to find the movies I want to see. It is easier to stay home. I bought a huge screen and a projector to compensate but it still not the same experience. Plus depending on streaming platform, the editorial choice is less interesting than being curious about the personal tastes of theaters’ programator teams.

    So my question is, do you really think that changing completely these rules would not affect the theatres, whose role is crucial as it impacts too what is going to be the offer?

    I apologize in advance if I misunderstood the issues at stake.

    Reply
  2. Adam Alexander 20 June 2017 at 4:25 pm

    Hi Stephanie. Your comments are entirely relevant. One of the things that sets France apart from the Anglo-Saxon attitude to creative endeavour and control is Roi d’auteur. Legally, French directors retain absolute editorial control and this has been crucial in underscoring the unique voice of independent French cinema certainly over the last 60 years. It might be necessary within the unique environment of French distribution that hold-back remains but it is becoming more of an anachronism with a globalised digital distribution paradigm. As a Francofile I take much pleasure in the benefits and joys of engaging with the arts in France. Trips to Paris would not be so much fun if, on rainy afternoons I couldn’t shelter in an old flea-pit to see a Hollywood classic in black and white probably featuring Bogart. However, I was once accused of being the Prince of Darkness by the French media for taking editorial control away from a French director on a TV series called Eutopia. (Check it out!). Fortunately for me the guy had signed an English contract!!

    Reply

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