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French film fee fiasco

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The past two years have been among the most triumphant in the history of French cinema, yet also among the most disastrous.

The silent movie The Artist swept the boards at the Oscars last February, and Les Intouchables – a joyous, comic movie about physical disability – broke all French box-office records in 2011. French cinema ticket sales may have dropped 6 percent last year from a 2011 peak, but they remained historically high.

Above all, France is one of the few countries in the world that still boasts a domestic movie industry, making thrillers, comedies, epics and cartoons. And yet, even the most successful French films fail – all but one of the 10 highest-grossing French films lost money last year.

Top French actors – some scarcely known outside their own country – exploit the state-protected and publicly subsidised movie industry to claim gargantuan, Hollywood-size fees – e2 million (R22.4m) or more. As a result, French movie stars have become rich but French movies are often poor.

These are not the observations of a Francophobic Hollywood film executive. They are the iconoclastic arguments of one of France’s most successful film producers, Vincent Maraval of the Wild Bunch company.

An article by Maraval created an epic row in France this week.

The French movie industry is one of the “untouchables” of French life – the crown jewel of French exceptionalism, living proof that state interference and creativity can go hand in hand.

Maraval’s article was intended partly as a defence of Gerard Depardieu, who has been lambasted by the government for seeking tax exile in Belgium. “The real scandal is elsewhere,” he wrote. “French actors are rich on public money… How is it that a well-known French actor can earn up to two million for a French movie but, if they act in an American film, they get e200 000?”

Maraval’s comments have generated howls of protest. He has been accused, among other things, of being a “bad loser” after betting his company’s money on a series of films that failed to break even last year (including Asterix & Obelix: On Her Majesty’s Service).

He has also been accused of trying to distract attention from the “affaire Depardieu” because “le grand Gerard” has agreed to play Dominique Strauss-Kahn for a cut-price fee in a movie Wild Bunch is trying to finance, about the scandal that erupted around the former head of the International Monetary Fund when he was accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel employee last year.

But his article has also been welcomed by other movie executives, directors and critics as an overdue assault on the perverse system of public support for French cinema. A large part of it comes from TV companies that are obliged by law to invest in films. The films can then be premiered on the small screens 10 months after the big screen.

French TV companies, obsessed by internet competition, will now only sponsor films which feature “bankable names” that supposedly ensure high audience figures.

As a result, French TV has created a kind of movie “star system” reminiscent of the worst excesses of Hollywood in the 1930s.

There are about 30 “bankable” acting names in France. Many are scarcely known in the rest of the world (Thierry Lhermitte, anyone? Edouard Baer?) They have become overexposed, appearing in mediocre films with predictable scripts and no foreign sales prospects. But they know they are “bankable names” and can demand huge fees. As a result, the cost of high-profile French movies has become so exorbitant that even those that achieve modest-to-high box office figures cannot turn a profit.

Thus one of the best-paid movie actors in the world is the moderately talented but internationally uncelebrated Dany Boon, a stand-up comedian who broke French box-office records with his movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis in 2008. Despite a series of mediocre films since then, he is earning E10m for a new comedy, L’Hypercondriaque, which is in production this year.

Last year, he branched out into romantic comedy. He was paid E3.5m to make Le Plan Parfait.

Maraval said the movie was such a flop that it did not earn enough to pay Boon’s fee.

“Maraval has put his finger on a real problem,” a veteran French film producer said. “In the past 20 years, the ‘above the line’ cost of films in France (fees guaranteed to stars, producers and directors) has risen from 15-20 percent to 35-40 percent of the total cost of films.”

The director Bertrand Bonello agrees. “Maraval is right to say French movies are too costly. The Americans can make funny films for two million, while ours cost four million and you can’t see on screen where the money has gone.”

Other French movie insiders say Maraval has a point, but ruins his argument by making unfair generalisations. It is untrue, they say, to suggest that “French actors are rich on public money”. Only 5 percent, at most, of the cost of big-budget French movies is from state subsidies. The rest comes from TV companies and private investment.

France makes more than 200 movies a year, compared with Hollywood’s 600, about 1 000 in India and just over 100 in Britain. The public subsidy for film-making and distribution in France amounts to e700m, raised from an 11 percent tax on movie tickets and taxes on DVDs.

In theory, this cash is supposed to fund adventurous, creative movies, which symbolise, and preserve, a separate French cultural identity.

Maraval says would-be block-busters would be better if they were subjected to market discipline. But most of the public subsidy goes to run-of-the mill films that are neither adventurous nor commercial. Occasionally, the system throws up a gem. As for the rest, the French view seems to be: it may be rubbish but at least it’s our own rubbish.

Meanwhile, an avalanche of angry mockery from “fellow Russians” has greeted a laudatory letter fromDepardieu thanking President Vladimir Putin for making him a Russian citizen.

“Haven’t we got enough alcoholics?” asked “Sparky” on the blog Echo Moskvy. “Abandoning his country for cash… He’s a real Russian,” said another.

Leading human rights activists said they would “never forgive” Depardieu for saying in his letter that “Russia is a great democracy”.

If Depardieu does move he could be joined by film star-turned-animal activist Brigitte Bardot, who has threatened she will move east if two French circus elephants with tuberculosis are destroyed in compliance with a court order.

Of the top 10 French-made movies at the French box office last year, only one – Le Prénom, a theatre comedy remade for the screen – is expected to make a profit. Most of the others are unlikely to have much of a career outside France. In France they attracted biggish audiences, but not enough to cover their costs.

The top 10 French films in France last year were:

• Sur la Piste du Marsupilami (5 300 000 tickets sold)

• La Vérité si je Mens (4 600 000)

• Astérix et Obélix au Service de sa Majesté (3 700 000)

• Le Prénom (3 300 000)

• Taken 2 (2 900 000)

• Les seigneurs (2 700 000)

• Les infidèles (2 300 000)

• De Rouille et D’os (1 900 000)

• Stars 80 (1 800 000)

• Un Bonheur n’Arrive Jamais Seul (1 800 000)

The Asterix movie franchise was supposed to rediscover its magic potion last year with Asterix On Her Majesty’s Service (set in Britain).

It was moderately funny and starred every French movie star you’ve ever heard of (Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve) and some you’ve never heard of (Boon, Baer).

It has done moderately well at the box office. The 3 700 000 tickets sold make it the third-highest grossing French film of last year. But the cost of the movie was so exorbitant – E51m – that it seems doomed to financial failure. Why did it cost so much? Because it starred a legion of French stars. – The Independent

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