Gaul Goal: Infopike Toll

While European and American companies were making development and distribution deals last week at the Milia publishing and new media market in Cannes, French culture minister Jacques Toubon was trying to put guard posts along the international borders of the infopike.

In a bid to reinforce Gallic cultural hegemony, Toubon said France will try to impose the same kind of regulations on multimedia production and distribution for which it is infamous in the TV and film worlds.

“The battle for programming is already engaged,” he said. “Multimedia will insert itself in French cultural policy.”

Toubon emphasized the need for French developers to create original content for the domestic market. “If we don’t manufacture the programs ourselves we will be consuming those of other countries,” he warned without directly naming U.S. developers.

As with the quota-driven film and television industries here, the French culture ministry, charged with the upkeep of France’s worldwide audiovisual influence, will probably target multimedia producers with an eye toward linguistic content and nationalized financial backing.

Toubon was probably responding to calls from the French film industry to limit American access to the “autoroute de l’information.” Last month a convention of French screenwriters, directors, actors and producers, including Jean-Jacques Beineix, Louis Malle and Gerard Depardieu, called for an infopike ban on American films and said “services transmitted on these autoroutes” should finance French and European film production.

Toubon said the multimedia sector will benefit from government subsidies like its cinema and television counterparts, though he gave no details of how developers will either receive or qualify for such aid.

American developer Michael Wilson, head of Paris-based M Media, heard Toubon’s speech and believes the European multimedia market will be dominated by English-lingo product unless steps are taken by European governments.

“Toubon said the the Americans have a record of working with the French, but that’s not true. All the American developers are creating titles in English, with very few creating in multiple languages. If they use another language, it’s usually Spanish. Americans are looking at the immediate market in the U.S. and not looking ahead to the global market,” Wilson says.

At Milia, however, some American companies, such as Virgin Sound & Vision, sought to develop titles with European partners from the preproduction stage. According to Sound & Vision CEO Tom Turpin, that approach, which accounts for country-by-country tastes, is preferable to the mere substitution of foreign-language text for English.

Voyager is following a similar strategy. Its CD-ROM “Circus,” co-produced with French publishing giant Matra-Hachette, was released in English in December; the French version is due out this month.

Any other approach, says Wilson, will damage the U.S. multimedia industry in the long run. “It creates bad will if the Americans release product here only in English and take over the entire distribution. If there are financial hurdles to convert the product, the Europeans and Americans can work together, but if the Europeans are putting up money for projects, they should insist on releasing in six or seven languages from the start. It costs a lot less that way – the costs of redoing it at a secondary stage are much greater than at the initial stage,” he says.

Canal Plus’ new media topper Alain Le Diberder agrees that joint development with American companies benefits both sides, but he doesn’t believe strict government regulation is necessary.

“We don’t need protection; we need to cooperate with (foreign) developers because we want to sell in the United States, Japan and Canada. We went to CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas for that very purpose.”

Le Diberder added that with the increased difficulty in policing digital borders, the government will have more luck trying to control the market rather than the product’s content.

Philippe Guttieres-Lasry, president of Paris-based group E.M.M.E. Associated Studios, which has entered into a marketing and distribution alliance with Seattle’s Medio Multimedia, says European developers are in a difficult position. “I understand the concern Europeans may have of seeing their culture wiped out by the flow of American goods and communications, and we should definitely resist this.

“But the point is not just to oppose the U.S.,” he continues. “It’s to protect our great cultural heritage here. American culture and ideas are dominant around the world, but we need to preserve our ideas. It’s more difficult than just announcing that we don’t want any American products.”

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