France Doesn’t Really Care About the Oscars

Gravity Publicists Awards

Suddenly, I knew how Sandra Bullock's character felt in "Gravity," 9 hours and 5,650 miles away on Hollywood's most important night

I will never take the Oscars for granted again.

In the United States, the Academy Awards show is second only to NFL games when it comes to must-see TV — and within the Hollywood circles I frequented, the Oscars were tops — so finding a social setting in which to watch has never been a problem. Here in Paris, it’s another matter entirely.

The Oscars aired two weeks to the day after my relocation to what many consider the seat of cinephilia, and I spent a good percentage of my adjustment period here polling locals on how or where to watch the show. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with this problem, as U.S. journalists in town for Paris Fashion Week scrambled to find Oscar parties as well (although, as I came to find, most were only interested in the red carpet, which wraps 3½ hours earlier).

But I was in for a rude awakening. This may be Hollywood’s big night, but France doesn’t really care about the Oscars — or the “American Cesars,” as some here condescendingly refer to the yankee show (the Cesars, of course, being where the French Academy confers its own national awards two nights earlier).

Last year, “Amour” competed for several Oscars, which gave some Parisians reason to tune in, and the year before that, “The Artist” won best picture, sparking considerable interest among nationalistic film fans. But this time, the only French nominee was Xavier Legrand’s live-action short film “Avant que de tout perdre,” and cherie, no one was staying up past their bedtime to see if it won (I know, because in my desperation, I sent e-mails to both Legrand and his agent asking whether friends were hosting a viewing party).

Now, before you accuse the French of cultural snobbism — and the charge would not be unfair — you must understand that the Oscars air at 2:30 a.m. Sunday night over here, and the show can only be viewed on pricey pay service Canal Plus. Seeing as how it’s a work night, most people are content to go to bed and discover the winners when they wake up in the morning.

Surely there must be young cineastes — or Americans excited by the Oscars — who were willing to stay up and watch, I figured. But where would they go? Paris abounds with expat bars, many of which host sports games, Super Bowl watching parties and so on throughout the year. But on a Sunday night, nearly all of them close their doors at 2, half an hour before Ellen cracked her first joke. And this particular Sunday, there was an important French soccer match that took precedence.

As my search yielded only dead ends, I tried to imagine the reverse scenario: What if a visiting French film buff approached you in Los Angeles and asked where he could find a Cesar-watching party? Surely, he’d be laughed out of the room. The French can barely be bothered to watch their own national film awards; it’s a stretch to picture them staying up late to see which American movie Hollywood likes most this year. I had the good fortune to be invited to a Cesar viewing hosted by Wild Bunch and Why Not here in Paris last Friday, and I was struck by how different the dynamic is. Those assembled cheered whenever one of the companies’ own films was recognized, but otherwise spent the night in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke mostly ignoring the broadcast.

I ended the evening in passionate conversation with several young Wild Bunch employees about “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but lost nearly all the Cesars’ top prizes to an affable crowd-pleaser called “Me, Myself and Mum.” I asked them about their own Oscar viewing plans, and they swiftly set me straight: I was operating on the assumption that Paris, a place where debate over “Blue” might fuel an hour-long conversation, was a city of cineastes. This much was true. But what I hadn’t considered is that those who take film seriously over here don’t feel the same way toward the Oscars. “It’s kitsch,” one told me.

The thing is, I instantly knew what he meant. The Oscars aren’t so much a celebration of cinema as they are a celebration of Hollywood itself. Certainly the recent wins by “The Artist” and “Argo” illustrate as much. The show is, for all intents and purposes, an American hustle. And the French evidently have other more pressing concerns.

So how did I end up watching the show? The final 24 hours leading up to the broadcast were murder. At one point, I considered hopping on the Eurostar to crash an Oscar party in London, or renting a reasonable-priced hotel room where Canal Plus came standard. I tweeted the American fashion editors who had been quoted in a New York Times story, trying to see whether any had found a solution. I even posted personal ads on dating sites, thinking I might kill two birds with one stone, though in retrospect, I realize that asking to come over to a complete stranger’s place at 2:30 a.m. is not an advisable ice-breaker.

Many stories had been written about how ABC planned to stream the telecast live for the first time this year, though there were so many catches (one had to be a cable subscriber on approved platforms in specific markets), the option was a no-go. I found a wealth of far-from-official websites offering to stream the Oscars for free, but all seemed to be cover jobs for sketchy, likely-illegal subscription services.

And then it occurred to me that maybe the thing that was throwing off my Google investigation was the word “Oscars.” Even if the French don’t watch the show, it’s clear from some of the scripted and reality-show dreck running on the tube here that they have quite an affinity for American TV. How do they watch U.S. shows, I wondered? And that led me to a seemingly legit service called USTVnow, which relays American broadcast signals to expats living abroad in real time (at a quality far better than I was getting from U-verse back in L.A., I might add).

It wasn’t the same watching the show by myself at 2:30 in the morning on my computer screen, but I had Twitter to keep me company, and that made all the difference. Though I’ve certainly multi-tasked live viewing and social-media scanning before (including the past couple Oscar shows), this was the first time I registered the true power of Twitter and how it’s transforming the TV experience. Snark prevails, just as it does in a living room with one’s wittiest friends, but for the first time, it didn’t feel as if the peanut gallery was talking on top of each other, or obscuring the speeches with their one-liners. Paris clearly doesn’t know what it’s missing.

And the award for best tweet of the night? I’ll let you be the judge:

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  1. Cams says:

    Well Peter, my guess you’ll make sure to be in L.A. next year at the same time :p
    Thanks for the Internet tip to watch the show by the way :)
    But hey ? Do NOT TOUCH Guillaume Gallienne allright :p ?? I am serious here…

  2. Nicholas Bertagna says:

    I’m Italian, and while many people here care a little about the Oscars, the majority feels that European festivals give a much more accurate presentation of what “good cinema” is. Of course winning an Oscar is a great honour, but in the film community, it would be much better to win a Palme d’Or or a Golden Lion, or a Golden Bear: they’re usually given to more artsy, introverted films than the Oscars are. I personally would have watched the Oscars but it’s on pay-tv only in Italy too. Also, you have to admit that the Oscars almost always go to very broad-audienced films, with famous cast and director, and it sort of feels like they’re giving credit to a name rather than the single specific effort.

  3. Jacques Strappe says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I lived in Paris a long time ago and always loved the near 24/7 movie theater access to almost any movie, American or otherwise, ever made. Love Paris,love France, love the French—but always hated the perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke generated by nearly everyone

  4. sylvia Rodrigues says:

    As you said “the Oscars air at 2:30 a.m Sunday night” and “the show can only be viewed on pricey pay service Canal Plus”. These are two reasons why “France doesn’t really care about the Oscars”. But maybe it’s also because the Oscars talk about some movies that hasn’t been released yet in France. Maybe because the show lasts 6 hours (3 hours for the Césars), with many ads breaks (no one during the french ceremony). Maybe because you miss all the fun stuff if you are not familiar with the american culture: you have to wait the explanation of the anchormen during TV ads. “Oh, when Ellen said that, or did this, it was related to… It was fun… Yeah”. Too late. May I remind you that most of the french people doesn’t even know who is Ellen DeGeneres.
    But I understand your point of view. You spent your Friday night watching the french ceremony (trying to imitate the Oscars but…hum… Not so funny) with guys from production talking about other guys from production. You didn’t spend the night with french people who love all kind of cinema, sharing popcorn, making lists of nominees, pronostics, talking about the financial situation of the people who work on cinema ( big subject of controverse these days in France!), arguing about movies that shouldn’t be represented but were forgotten. Having a loving thought for those who left us …Sarah Jones, R.I.P.
    Next year, I wish that you will find someone with whom you can fully appreciate the two ceremonies, helping each other to understand our two different cultures.
    One more thing that I really, really love in the Césars : if people’s speech is too long, it is very rare that the mic is cut off! ;-)

  5. GKN says:

    Actually, Peter, I’m an American who’s lived in Paris for years and this is the first year I was unable to watch it – though due to the time difference, I usually just watch the shortened version the next night. Don’t know why it was reserved to paying customers only this year. I’ll try your link next year, and thanks for the tip (especially since the Canal telecast is annoying – thanks to interpreters drowning everyone out though obviously missing most of what is said (or misunderstanding it). I really wish they’d just do a subtitled version the next night, once the translators have been really able to listen, instead of trying to guess.

  6. Zouheir Zerhouni says:

    I’m absolutely agree with Franck D. I’m sorry but this article is silly.
    Moreover a lot of french people are concerned about the Oscars, just have a look on medias and social networks today. And Everyone here will even tell you that we’re really jealous, because we think Cesars suck, that we’re not able to offer a show like the Oscars.
    But yeah, it’s at 2.30 AM on a sunday night, and sorry but we have lifes. Even when we’re dying to know who will win, even if we’re fond of Cinema, even if we’re young dreaming struggling actors like me with star in the eyes, who love celebrations like the Oscars, we will watch the summary the morning afterg . And please Just tell me who in the US watched the Cesars Friday at noon.

    • Peter Debruge says:

      No one in the U.S. watches the Césars, which is a far worse condition than “snobbism” — a sort of isolationist arrogance by Americans to anything other than English-language cinema.

      LE PASSÉ (The Past), L’INCONNU DU LAC (Stranger by the Lake) and LES GARÇONS ET GUILLAUME À TABLE (Me, Myself and Mum) are better than several of the Oscar best picture nominees, but have earned less than $1.5 million in the States. And some — but not me — would argue that LA VIE D’ADÈLE (Blue Is the Warmest Color) belongs in there, too.

      I think Americans stand to benefit more from international cinema than the other way around.

      • elyssa says:

        I’m american, born and raised with a new yorker heart beating for over 25 years now and I couldn’t agree with what you’ve said more. it’s the absolute truth. our lack of originality on both movie and tv (see wiki’s list for british shows turned american and vice versa. such a joke.) screens is horribly saddening. there’s something missing in our films that the french and international communities in general have become masters at creating. perhaps it’s an issue of quality versus quantity or the desire to finally have “arrived” or “made it”. who knows. don’t get me wrong, I am happy that some films have gotten such praise. many of this years best picture nominees (i.e 12 years a slave, dallas buyers club) were stories that needed to be heard and thankfully were not only heard but done surprisingly well. so perhaps the american audiences are growing in the want to see originality, creativeness and truth in their films. but for the most part, the majority of american films still have a long way to go.

  7. Nick says:

    We like the Oscars (I’m a french guy -not from Paris- and I watch the show each year since the early 90s), I don’t think it’s kitsch, it’s always a great hollywood show, “à l’américaine”, but you have your answer in your article : “you must understand that the Oscars air at 2:30 a.m. Sunday night over here, and the show can only be viewed on pricey pay service Canal Plus”. Yes, it’s not free and, above all, we sleep at night. :-)

  8. Frank D. says:

    Why is it being a snob for the French to be uninterested in something that has no bearing on their lives or, to a large degree, their culture? That sounds like the height of American arrogance to me, Peter Debruge.

    • It’s more nuanced than that, Frank. The snobbism, as I see it, comes from not caring about anything that carries a whiff of popular interest, and the same applies to their indifference to the Césars, or a newly opened restaurant the instant that it’s written up in the New York Times. But you read a level of negativity into the designation that wasn’t implied (the same way that the French, I’ve learned, can’t abide the word “intellectual”). We critics, too, are snobs of a sort. :)

      • Frank D. says:

        I don’t agree with your assessment of the French at all. Methinks you need more time in France to truly understand them properly.

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