Film world leaps to defence of French ‘cultural exception’

French cinema heavyweights and their European counterparts have mounted an impassioned defence of the “cultural exception” that subsidises filmmakers to protect them from Hollywood domination. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


The French filmmaking community is on edge this week, as EU ministers discuss a free trade agreement with the US that could find France’s “cultural exception” – the idea that the country’s artists should be protected from international competition through state subsidies – on the chopping block.

The European Commission could choose to recognise French concerns by excluding the audiovisual sector from the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, intended to boost growth and jobs, particularly in debt-ridden Europe.

If not, the French government has warned, France will veto the agreement at next week’s G8 summit.

Meanwhile, the US has made clear its disagreement with the French position, as a top trade official released a statement that taking movies and TV shows out of the trade partnership was not a “helpful” way to begin negotiations.

The French “cultural exception” has allowed the country’s movies, directors, and actors to thrive despite Hollywood’s dominance. Indeed a portion of box office proceeds in France is used to fund French filmmakers, and French TV is required to air a minimum of 40% French-produced content before American programmes can be slotted in.

French star Bérénice Bejo lobbies European officials

In an effort to convince the European Commission to exempt cultural and creative works from being considered “goods” up for trade, several big-name European film industry figures presented a petition to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Among names on the petition, entitled “The Cultural Exception is Not Negotiable” and initiated by Belgian brother filmmaking team Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (whose latest film, “The Kid with a Bike”, was a Cannes prize-winner in 2011), were: Oscar winners Michel Hazanavicius of France (“The Artist”) and Michael Haneke of Austria (“Amour”), Olivier Nakache (director of France’s buddy-movie blockbuster “The Intouchables”), Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (who, along with Lars Von Trier, launched the Dogme movement of radical big-screen realism in the 90s), legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and British filmmakers Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), Mike Leigh (whose last film, “Another Year”, was at Cannes in 2010), and Ken Loach (whose “The Angels' Share” won Cannes’ third-place Jury Prize in 2012).

Reading from a letter written by German director Wim Wenders, French star Bérénice Bejo (who took home the Best Actress prize for Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” at Cannes last month) told the European Parliament: “Culture is not merchandise; you can’t put it in the same category as cars, lamps, or screws and bolts.”

Spielberg and Weinstein praise ‘cultural exception’

In a statement released after the hearing, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that “the total exclusion of the audiovisual sector from negotiations is not necessary” to protect European culture.

“José Manuel Barroso is a dangerous man,” retorted French-Greek director Costa Gavras at a subsequent press conference.

Though European filmmakers and US trade officials may find themselves on opposite sides of this debate, a few Hollywood heavyweights have come to the defence of the French “cultural exception”. During his remarks at the closing ceremony at Cannes last month, jury president Steven Spielberg called the tradition “the best way to support diversity in filmmaking” before announcing a set of prizes for films hailing from France, the US, Japan, China, Mexico, and Iran.

And just days earlier, top Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein showed up at a Cannes press conference held by French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti. “The cultural exception encourages filmmakers to make films about their own culture. We need that more than ever,” he said, noting that some countries are content to copy American films.

Weinstein has made a name for himself by successfully marketing and promoting foreign films for American audiences, most famously snatching up French film “The Artist” and carrying it to Oscar glory.

“The most important thing is to preserve the environment of cultural films,” Weinstein said. “Because it’s good for business, too.”

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