Galled Gauls stall showbiz economy

PARIS — The hottest filmmakers in France right now have signed a petition calling for civil disobedience in the face of a bias immigration law.

The hottest rap group faces the prospect of going to jail for insulting the police over the same matter.

And the hottest pic poster (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”) wound up in court this month after being attacked by religious groups and right wingers.

Nowadays, the Gallic rallying cry of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” is being whispered, not shouted.

With the economy in a slump, unemployment rising and the far-right National Front party gaining support, something of a social malaise has gripped the Gauls. The words on most people’s lips these days are ca va mal.

The malaise is occasionally punctuated by outbursts, especially from the local artistic community. As for non-French entertainment execs, who even in the best of times have to struggle to do business with the Gallic community, they say things are more difficult now than ever. Many are pulling up stakes and moving to more hospitable shores.

So while neighboring London and Dublin appear vibrant, the French capital has temporarily lost the flair that provided the New Wave auteurs of the ’50s and ’60s, the Nouvelle Cuisine of the ’70s, and the in-your-face architecture of the ’80s.

“I think we are in a period of incredible low or no risk. People are hesitant to launch new projects or try out new ideas,” opined Charles Gassot, head of the hot indie production company Telema — one of the few film production outfits that is putting itself on the line on a regular basis. “Having said that, I’d encourage outsiders to invest here on the grounds that nothing challenging is going on.”

The only problem with such investment, as almost any employer will tell you, is that it is a tad on the expensive side. To support its social security system, France requires employers to pay a whopping 45% on top of monthly salaries.

“When the economy is going well, that’s a lot to absorb, but in a depression like we have today, that translates into a virtual no-hire situation,” lamented a senior exec at private web TF1.

Financial pressure

There is considerable pressure for companies to put cash into their coffers. Take U.S. television producer Omnisphere Prods. It has had a Paris office for the past four years, designed to develop projects for the French and international markets.

So far, no product has hit the French screens, and it’s uncertain for how much longer Omnisphere will keep its Gallic base, given the expenses involved.

Omnisphere’s predicament is by no means unique. There are plenty of other non-French companies and individuals who have found it hard to break into the system, particularly when that system is facing a financial low and middle management is running scared.

Robert Lovenheim, veteran producer of some 35 U.S. telefilms and miniseries, arrived in Paris two years ago “with the idea of using the French capital as a bridge between the Hollywood experience I have and Europe.”

Lovenheim is still mad about the French capital, “but when it comes to doing business, it’s very much an insiders’ game. I really think that it’s part of the French character to feel more comfortable with their own.

“On the business side, the British and Germans are far more open to new ideas. As for taking messages and returning calls, I’m not totally sure that the concept figures in the French office manual.”

Beyond the borders

Even companies who are willing to think beyond France’s borders have found that life is not easy.

On paper, France has what is known as a financial co-production treaty with the U.K. — amongst countries. This allows film producers to invest in Brit projects without having to wrack up the artistic or technical points required in a normal co-production. The deal is meant to be equal, with the British sending co-production investment into France.

The trouble is, there are currently more Gallic producers keen to test the Anglo-Saxon film market than the other way around and the system has virtually ground to a halt.

The Centre Nationale de la Cinematographie (CNC), which does much to help — some say protect — the national film industry, insists the reciprocity clause is respected.

London is hot

This has partially contributed to a handful of companies setting up shop in London. Among them, the Bridge, a joint venture between Sony and T.O.C. Films, bringing together Studio Canal Plus and Telema. Both were created in 1996.

“I think that if you want to put together a company interested in producing films for more than the French market then you settle on London,” opined Telema’s Gassot.

On the domestic front, however, France’s financial woes have somewhat surprisingly led to something of a boom for the entertainment industry.

Cinemas and legit theaters are packed. Ticket sales at the box office hit 135 million last year, 4% up on 1995 and tipped to continue climbing. At 131, the number of films with French coin in them has returned to the levels of the early ’90s after almost three years of decline, and hardly a year goes by without a Gallic comedy hitting payday at theaters.

“I think that people are returning to the cinema because they want to escape from their day-to-day woes,” a veteran producer noted. “That’s also why the stock of contemporary comedies has proved so popular. People don’t want to see films about problems, they’re living them every day.”

Among the problems to have grabbed the attention of the French entertainment industry recently is the rise of the far-right National Front party. It was in NF-controlled Toulon that rap group NTM copped a six-month prison sentence in November for launching a verbal attack on the police during a concert.

The sentence, which is suspended while NTM appeals, shocked many who argued that the group, which puts into words much of the discontent that exists in French suburbs, was reflecting Gallic social problems rather than creating them.

Artists take to the streets

Earlier this month, the industry stopped shaking its head and took to the streets as thesps and helmers joined a 100,000-strong Paris march against draconian new immigration laws. Part of the law required the French to declare the arrival and departure of non-French visitors. That clause has been shelved.

In what reads like a who’s who of the French film industry, the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Cedric Klapisch, Bertrand Tavernier, Jeanne Moreau, Marin Karmitz, Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil were among thousands of names to sign a petition calling for civil disobedience in the face of the proposed law.

The National Front, with its “France for the French” theme, is just the clearest sign of a country that has become increasingly introspective as jobs have become scarce and money scarcer.

Even the French admit that faced with the challenges of the digital revolution and the Internet, companies and their management have gone on the defensive.

“What we are seeing is too many groups attacking each other rather than getting on with developing their own businesses within France and internationally,” sighed Canal Plus chairman Pierre Lescure.

“It’s as though the companies simply want to defend their position by blocking others rather than using their energy to expand in what should be an exciting time.”

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