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in Filmmaking
on May 14, 2007

The long-running French film journal Cahiers du Cinema recently launched an online English-language edition. In the current issue there’s a provocative article by the editors entitled “12 Objectives for Cinema in France” that I’ve been meaning to comment on. Written before Sarkozy’s victory — a prospect Cahiers clearly considered when drafting the article — the piece is interesting for what it says to some of us American fans of French cinema as well as for its implications on our own American indie film.

(For more on the possible repercussions of Sarko’s win and what his promised “break with the past” means, check out Doug Ireland’s blog posting on the subject.)

But first, a quick primer on French films and their funding.

Young American indie directors often look at the films they see coming out of France — which, if they’re seen in the U.S., are usually “auteur” films by veteran directors — and imagine that the country is populated by a hearty band of cineastes who actually prefer such defiantly non-Hollywood cinema. But in France, the truth is more complicated. A film by a celebrated French director featured here in the pages of Film Comment or Filmmaker may in fact attract more viewers in its three week run at the Quad than in what is many times a one-week run in the city of Paris. And, in fact, if these same young U.S. directors were French, rather than blessing the system that allows them to make the personal films they want to make, they’d be complaining about how this so-called “French system” — the latticework of bureaucratic granting organizations and funding mechanisms — repeatedly finances the old guard and is resistant to the promotion of new voices and new forms of filmmaking.

Cahiers — a publication certainly not antagonistic to the old guard — explains further:

No, everything [in the French film industry] is not very well. As the surveys in Cahiers point out month after month, the problems lie predominantly with aberrations in the support measures that make up our rightly famous “French film system” — aberrations that have ended up reversing the effects they originally intended.

These measures were supposed to help originate singular projects, to favor a variety of unique artistic initiatives, and supply them with the necessary means of production. What they actually breed is the serialized production of pre-formatted films — including under the devalued moniker “cinéma d’auteur” — and fatter paychecks for professionals that have stopped taking risks, artistically and financially.

Of course, when considering how to improve the artistic health of its film industry, France has a lot to work with. A percentage of box-office receipts and, now, internet revenues go back to a fund supporting new cinema; films in the French language are eligible for production support; and European productions are privileged by TV buyers. It’s not like the U.S. where the vagaries of private investment and the logic of the marketplace are the sole determining factors of what gets made. Still, some of Cahiers‘s comments are worth thinking about. They’re clearly impractical in the U.S…. but what if they weren’t?

For example, the second recommendation: “Resisting the formatting of film projects by support procedures”:

The decisions for selective support, like financing by television networks, are made by commissions whose choices are increasingly based on a set of predetermined rules to which projects have to adhere. The ideology of the “well-balanced script” has been an alarming factor in this uniformization, including of supposedly “auteur” projects, in the name of a “professionalism” that goes against the unforeseen, against the adventurous creativity that is the very reason for the existence of selective support in the first place.

And here’s number ten: “Respecting the activities of amateurs and enthusiasts”:

Thanks to digital technology, everyone now has access to the tools of cinema. The vast majority of these users neither are nor ever will be filmmakers, just as owning a pen does not automatically make someone a writer. However, the use of these tools, whether for amateur, professional, or recreational purposes, and whether for personal use or aimed at small groups, creates a personal bond with cinema as a means of expression. This intimate bond is an important breeding ground for more discerning viewers with a closer affinity with cinema.

Here’s one (“Providing encouragement for all auxiliary forms of cinema”) that I, the editor of a magazine, like:

In addition to theaters, conservation, education, and amateur activities, it is essential to support other initiatives that form, enrich, and deepen the bond between films and their audiences…. DVD is another very important means of support, on the condition that releases are put together with a certain degree of ambition. Book publishing and the activities of film critics both in magazines and other media (Internet included) are indispensable in providing a multitude of viewpoints, expanding the ways in which we view films, and the ways in which they view us. Festivals, obviously and wholeheartedly, but also associations like cine-clubs in their many shapes and forms, should be considered, including on the level of funding, as contributing to sustaining cinema as an art form.

And then there’s this one, “Limiting the number of prints per film,” clearly unimplementable in the U.S. and also, most likely, France. But what if it could be?

The fact that some films are released with 600, 800 or even 1000 prints makes a mockery of any attempt at an effective cultural policy. It saturates theaters and monopolizes the attention of the mass media, thereby denying access to other films and forcing them into token releases. This in turn creates a rapid turnover for those films that do not have the means to attract widespread attention and which therefore need time to find their audiences. It will be very difficult to fight this overexposure and this will require a lot of effort from politicians and lawmakers. But it is imperative and should be a priority in any film policy.

In the end, though, what grabbed me about this article was not any of the specific recommendations but simply the intent implicit in the piece’s title: “12 Objectives for Cinema in France.” (Italics added.) There’s a lot of talk in the American indie scene about problems of production and distribution, about the tyranny of the blockbuster over the small personal story… but if we as American independents could play the role of culture czars for a moment, what we would do?

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