French cinema is having a milestone year with Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” and Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” respectively winning Cannes’ Palme d’Or and Venice’s Golden Lion. But away from the awards spotlight, the country’s film and TV groups are at odds with streaming services over how to reform a windowing schedule that will soon expire.

At stake is the distribution of movies financed by studio-backed streaming services, such as Disney and WarnerMedia, as well as a related dispute with Canal Plus, which is leveraging the level of its investment in French movies in order to obtain a reduced four-month window.

The National Film Board (CNC) had given French film and TV orgs, as well as streamers, until July 1 to reach an agreement on new regulations. The initial plan was to set new release windows that would complement the rules established in the local application of the European Union’s radical Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS), which sets local content quotas for streamers across Europe.

The talks have hit a snag, however, as free-to-air channels are pushing for a one-month exclusive window on movies they acquire from banners such as Disney. In practical terms, that means streamers would need to temporarily pull a title from their platforms during the month when the movie airs on French TV.

“Free-to-air channels in France are demanding a window of exclusivity for the biggest American films and if we don’t ask for it, broadcasters will permanently lose access to these movies,” said Manuel Alduy, head of cinema and international development at French public broadcaster France Televisions. Alduy previously worked at Twentieth Century Fox before and after its merger with Disney, and also had a long tenure at Canal Plus Group as head of film.

“We’re in the third wagon, two years after the theatrical release, behind pay TV channels and streamers, and we’re asking for a small window,” underlined Alduy, adding that the idea is to give non-streaming subscribers the chance to enjoy these films on public television.

Disney, however, isn’t on the same page. Several sources say the studio is mulling skipping the theatrical release altogether in France and releasing straight on streaming platform Disney Plus in order to avoid being subjected to the local windowing release schedule.

“It’s a worrying situation,” said Ardavan Safaee, CEO of Pathé, which operates France’s leading cinema circuit. “If some big U.S. movies skip the theatrical release in France it will impact everyone, including the independent French film sector, which benefits from admissions sold for these American blockbusters.”

Indeed, France’s National Film Board collects taxes levied on theatrical admissions, among others, to subsidize the local film business, and ticket sales for U.S. movies account for a large chunk of those funds.

Elsewhere, French exhibitors are also protesting against U.S. studios rolling out their movies day and date domestically because it facilitates piracy around the world, including in France where it’s “already rampant,” according to Eric Marti at Comscore France. The executive added that U.S. studios are also imposing strict conditions on French exhibitors (over the number of screens, for instance) when they release their movies.

The turbulent talks have put the contrast between the U.S. and France in sharp relief, says one industry source close to discussions.

“In the U.S. the maximum window between theaters and SVOD services is 45 days, and other countries around the world are following the same path because American movies represent 70% to 80% of box office in most countries; so how can France isolate itself from the rest of the world?” said the source.

“France is still an exception because U.S. movies represent less than 50% of theatrical admissions, but we can’t afford to lose Disney’s movies — it would be a loss of 50 million admissions per year,” added the source.

However, Nathanael Karmitz, CEO of MK2, which runs a leading arthouse multiplex chain in Paris and Spain, says that between upholding France’s unique system and the threat of American blockbusters disappearing from cinemas, he prefers to bet on the French system. “It allows the diversity of our cinema and the unique positioning of French audiovisual content in the world,” said Karmitz.

Jocelyn Bouyssy, managing director of CGR Cinema, France’s second largest multiplex circuit, is reasonably confident an agreement with Disney and other U.S. studios isn’t too far off. “We’ve seen just recently that Disney is back-tracking on its hybrid strategy; not only have they realized they need theatrical to drive revenues, they also saw it hasn’t been great for their image and relationships with talent such as Scarlett Johansson,” said Jouyssy.

Canal Plus complications

Also stalling discussions are Canal Plus’ demands for a four-month window — rather than the six months proposed in negotiations — for films following the theatrical release.

The pay-TV group is also opposed to having streaming services access movies 12 months following their cinema releases because it would overlap on their window, which runs for nine months. Canal Plus argues that these platforms are investing too little compared with their own contributions, and should be placed at 15 months rather than 12.

Canal Plus is simultaneously negotiating its multi-year investment agreement with French producers, which expires at the end of 2022. The company is threatening to dramatically lower its financial commitment if it doesn’t obtain an advantageous window. If its demands are met, however, it will increase investment substantially.

France Televisions’ Alduy says it’s regrettable that professional orgs have failed to use the momentum of the Cannes Film Festival to reach an agreement.

“If we don’t find a consensus by the end of the year, we’ll end up with a government decree that will set up minimal regulations and won’t take into account diversity and exclusivity criteria,” argues Alduy, adding that it’s in everyone’s best interest to reach an agreement and avoid windows “that aren’t feasible and which are too close to one another.”

Adds Bouyssy: “This situation is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube: One needs to find the right combination that will fit everyone’s respective interest. It’s mind-boggling but not impossible.”