Les acteurs français sont trop payes! (French actors are paid too much)

Thus ran the headline in the French daily newspaper Le Monde on 29 December above a photograph of Gerard Depardieu.

Yet this was not an article about the larger than life French actor, his drunken antics on a scooter, his move to a dreary village in Belgium to avoid the new 75% tax on earnings above €1m.  Nor was it about him in a fit of pique at the French government, tearing up his French passport and accepting President Putin’s invitation to settle in an inhospitable part of Russia (followed by his decision to fail to appear to answer the ‘drunk-in-charge- of-a-scooter’ charge which may result in him being detained in France on a criminal charge).  No, this piece was not about ‘pathetic’ film stars –the French PM’s description of Depardieu.   Instead the article suggested that French cinema is in crisis and it has little or nothing to do with Depardieu.

The author of the think-piece is Vincent Maraval, founder and director of Wild Bunch the successful film distribution company which counts The Artist (Oscar winner Best picture 2012) and Angel’s Share (Jury Prize, Cannes 2012) as two of its recent successes.   So a man who is a key part of the film industry in France and globally and who, when he speaks, is listened to.   Although he subsequently rejected the title given to his article by Le Monde’s sub-editors, his thesis is, nevertheless, that French movies cost too much and this can be put down to the level of fees paid to the ‘talent’.   He blames the financial structure of the film industry in France for the problem and has attacked the process of film finance which has underpinned not only a treasure of French culture but also an industry with lots of jobs.   This is of interest not only to France but also to those who look on the French film-funding model with envy.

First, his thesis.  Put simply, French films cost too much.  According to Maraval, the French movie costs on average €5.4 million.  Only US studios produce movies are more costly.  The average US independent movie costs €3 m.

The recent success of movies such as The Artist and Amour—reaching as they do a global audience- masks the fact that most French films have a limited market beyond France.  At home, French video sales are collapsing , TV  audiences for French films are in terminal decline in the face of reality TV, and cinema attendances stagnating.  There is, according to Maraval, a mismatch between reach of a movie and its cost. He cites the recent Asterix film (Astérix et Obélix : au service de Sa Majesté) which attracted a cinema audience of 4 million – perfectly respectable until he points out that it cost €60 million – equivalent to the cost of a Tim Burton US studio  movie.

Maraval’s argument is that the cost is down almost entirely to the fees paid to artists.  Again he makes comparisons: French actors appearing in American movies are paid a lot less for these movies than they are for appearing in French ones.   Well known names like Vincent Cassel, Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillad can command fees of between € 0.5-2m for a French film, but are happy with a fee of between €50-200K for an American one which has a global reach.

So why is this happening?  Maraval puts this problem down to the way in which French movies are financed and the availability of state funding.  This ’state funding’ comes via the CNC (Centre national du cinema) which in turn receives funding directly from government with its film investment coming principally from a level on ticket prices (10.7%) and also a levy on French broadcasters—both free to air and subscription channels.   Maraval’s point is that there is no link between the popularity or earning potential of a movie and its cost.

The reaction to this piece has been vociferous and in those news-lite days between Christmas and New Year, there were several headlines criticising Maraval’s attack on individuals and accusing him of putting the government support at risk at a time when Hollande’s presidency is struggling with economic problems and sinking poll ratings.  Effectively, it is argued, Maraval has given the politicians and excuse to cut funding to film.  Leaping to the defence of the film industry, however, is the Minister of Culture,  Aurélie Filippetti and there is talk of a ministerial summit on the funding of the French film industry later this month.

What relevance is all this beyond France? Since the original article was published, the French movie has yet again broken though the ‘foreign film’ barrier at the Oscars with Amour (co-pro with Austria) nominated for five Oscars. Whatever Maravel says, from where we sit, the French film sector continues to produce movies in French about French stories, with French talent and money a few of which become global hits, or are translated into globally recognised films—the rest being shown primarily in France and shaping French culture and ideas.  Is there a problem?  That’s for the French to decide.

In terms of the UK film industry  — and film-making in Scotland—the lesson from France is that commitment from the government and the industry does deliver cultural and economic rewards.  However intervention in the market place with public money does not always guarantee quality (assuming quality means movies which enjoy critical, audience or financial success) and supporting innovation and experimentation should be just that—support for the new and not the enhancing of fees for those who already enjoy great success.