France's Apple ruling bound by the usual red tape

It may be of small comfort to Steve Jobs, but France’s recent ruling against Apple was nothing personal.

By requiring the company to make iTunes and the iPod compatible with rival online music offerings, France was merely exercising the same regulatory rigor it employs on local companies.

Layers of red tape bind every aspect of the Gallic entertainment industry — so much so that it would all surely fall apart without it. And no one bats an eyelid in France.

Take distribution windows. In Hollywood, Bob Iger can wake up one day and decide it might be a good idea to simultaneously release movies theatrically and on DVDs. In France that couldn’t happen.

Windows, like every other aspect of the film industry, are vigorously haggled over by various interest groups before becoming enshrined in the law — until some new factor, such as the arrival of VOD, forces everyone to sit round the table and think again.

They’re fiercely guarded because windows are the bedrock of a film financing system that obliges pay and free TV to invest a percentage of their revenues in French films. Take away the exclusive window, however narrow, and those obligations would no longer be justifiable.

One French reg says broadcasters can’t air movies on a Saturday night — that would stop people going to movie theaters. Another says you can’t advertise movies on television because only distributors with deep pockets — ahem, the majors — could afford the spots, and that isn’t fair.

Mais oui, it’s all very interventionist, but it works.

Last year more than 180 French films were made. So far this year French films have grabbed a 49.3% box office share — yes, French people acting of their own free will pay good money to see them in movie theaters.

No other European country’s local film industry compares.

But how long can it last?

The Centre National de la Cinematographie, which regulates France’s film and TV industries, is perpetually nervous about what moves Brussels may try next to undermine the French system.

More important, structural changes in the industry, brought about by developments such as digitization, are happening so fast and are so unpredictable that they are difficult to take account of. Nothing illustrates that better than the brouhaha over iTunes.

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