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French film world reels after editorial slamming stars

A French producer’s editorial criticising the country’s movie stars for demanding exorbitant salaries has resulted in finger-pointing and soul-searching within France’s cherished film industry. takes a closer look.


“The Artist” swept last year's Oscars, “The Intouchables” was an international box office smash, movie ticket sales at home are healthy, and leading ladies Marion Cotillard and Emmanuelle Riva (of “Rust and Bone” and “Amour”, respectively) are racking up Best Actress honours abroad.

But instead of breaking out the champagne, France’s film world is in the throes of bitter internal strife.

Seemingly endless rounds of debate and finger-pointing have been set off by an editorial, published in daily newspaper Le Monde on December 28, in which a prominent French producer accuses the country’s movie stars of demanding unreasonably high salaries. The author, Vincent Maraval, co-founder of distribution company Wild Bunch, also calls into question France’s longstanding practice of subsidising filmmakers.

After beloved actor Gérard Depardieu’s announcement that he would turn in his French passport over a proposed 75% tax rate on millionaires, Maraval’s editorial is the latest bombshell to hit what is widely seen as one of France’s proudest and most thriving industries.

Blaming overpaid stars

“This year has been a disaster for French cinema,” Maraval’s editorial proclaims, noting that all the French films of 2012 “billed as important” (including “Astérix et Obélix: Au Service de Sa Majesté” and “La Vérité Si Je Mens 3”, the latest installments in popular franchises) “lost millions of euros”.

According to Maraval, much of the blame for the French film industry’s failure to turn a profit can be attributed to the ballooning salaries of French stars. He singles out Vincent Cassel, Jean Reno, Marion Cotillard, Gad Emaleh, Guillaume Canet, Audrey Tautou, and Léa Seydoux for pocketing up to €2 million ($2.6 million) to headline films that never cross French borders, while accepting as little as €50,000 ($65,000) to appear in American films released all over the world.

Maraval also compares the salaries of French performers who are famous in France, but little known abroad, to those of American stars known world-wide. “Did you know that Marilou Berry, in [mainstream comedy] ‘Croisière’ made three times as much as Joaquin Phoenix in the next film by [US director] James Gray?” he asks.

Because of these salaries, Maraval argues, French film production costs often surpass what the movies make back at the box office.

The solution, Maraval writes, is to reform the entire system of public and private financing that drives the French movie industry, and to put a cap of $530,000 on actors’ salaries in any film that receives subsidies.

“At a time when François Hollande wants industry bosses to cap their salaries, should the film world’s top earners continue to make more than they are worth, thanks to public money and an exceptional and unique finance system?” Maraval wonders in his editorial.

Subsidies: scourge or savior?

In France, a public administrative body called the National Centre for Cinema (CNC) uses roughly 11% of ticket sales at the box office to finance films -- including smaller “auteur” works that would otherwise have a hard time scraping up necessary funding.

But the French government also requires private TV channels to invest in films; in return, the channels can show the movies they sponsor only 10 months after they hit the big screen. Worried about competition from internet downloads, French channels now mainly finance films starring “bankable” actors in order to guarantee good ratings. Aware that they are in high demand, those stars consequently ask for huge salaries.

Nevertheless, Maraval’s call to change those practices has been met with fury by some who view the French film industry as a pillar of French culture.

“Maraval stirred up a hornet’s nest,” said Daniel Chabannes, a distributor at Epicentre Films who is responsible for bringing the movies of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (“The Strange Case of Angelica”), as well as US filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”), to French audiences. “He’s raised some uncomfortable questions.”

Many have argued that Maraval’s comparisons of French and American film industries are misleading. In an editorial also published in Le Monde, Jérôme Clément, former director of the National Centre for Cinema, pointed out that an average American film costs five times as much as a French film.

He also urged “pride in belonging to a system…that has allowed our cinema to avoid the dreary fate of Spanish and Italian cinema”.

If it ain’t broke…

Indeed, France is the rare country to still have a robust domestic movie industry, putting out more than 200 movies per year (compared to 100 in Britain, 600 in the US, and 1,000 in India). “France is the only country in Europe in which nearly half of the films people see are in their own language,” noted Lisa Nesselson, an American film critic based in Paris for more than 20 years. “So the industry is clearly holding its own.”

Meanwhile, prominent French critics like Jean-Michel Frodon (formerly of film magazine Cahiers du Cinema) have also leapt to the defence of the French film industry. In an essay published on, Frodon cited what he called a rich and varied slate of big-screen French offerings in 2012 (films like Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” and Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen”) as evidence of the “decisive virtues” of the French system.

Serge Toubiana, the head of the Cinémathèque Française, also struck a protective note, writing on his blog that “the requirement imposed on public and private TV channels to participate in the financing of films” is part of France’s “cultural exception” -- a lofty term referring to government subsidies for artists. Those subsidies allow French filmmakers to remain productive amid fierce competition from Hollywood.

Chabannes, the distributor, told FRANCE 24 that public financing through the National Centre for Cinema allows, in particular, for “the emergence of younger filmmakers”.

Measuring up against America

But a few voices have welcomed Maraval’s editorial as a much-needed reality check. In an interview with daily newspaper Libération, director Pascale Ferran (“Lady Chatterley”) praised Maraval for “taking up arms against a so-called mass-market cinema…that, in fact, is not at all profitable”.

Filmmaker Betrand Bonello (“House of Pleasures”) went even farther in an interview with Le Monde. “[Maraval] is right when he says French films are too expensive,” he said. “How is it that Americans make amazing movies for €2 million, whereas our equivalent films cost €4 million, and don’t look any better?”

And top producer Marc Missonnier penned his own editorial in Le Monde to back Maraval’s main contention, urging French stars to take pay cuts for smaller or less audience-friendly projects – as “American actors don’t hesitate to do”, he wrote.

Hoping to bring some order to the ongoing and rather unruly public conversation, Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti has announced a series of meetings, starting January 23, to address the way French cinema is financed.

“That will allow everyone to gather around the table and explain how precious this system is,” she said in a televised interview -- before adding that “some improvements could possibly be made”.

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