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Will new French labour laws kill off auteur films?

"Holy Motors" by Leos Carax

A new labour agreement that would raise salaries for film crew members has split France’s cinema community. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at a debate that has pitted French traditions of artistic freedom and workers’ rights against one another.


French cinema can’t seem to steer clear of controversy this year.

First, there was a ferocious debate about the salaries of France’s top stars. Then, Abdellatif Kechiche, director of Cannes 2013 Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, was accused of exploiting his crew members, as well as filming gratuitously long and graphic lesbian sex scenes. And earlier this summer, EU-US trade talks were almost derailed by French demands that their film industry be protected from Hollywood domination.

Now, an impending collective labour agreement that would establish minimum wages and overtime and night pay rates for film technicians has riled many within France’s film community, who say the new regulations would lead to the end of small-budget, “auteur” movie-making in France.

The fight over the agreement has indeed pitted two cherished French values, workers’ rights and artistic freedom, against one another.

Auteur filmmaking being thrown under the bus?

Many of France’s independent producers – backed by established directors like François Ozon (“Young & Beautiful”) and younger rising filmmaking talents like Mia Hansen-Løve (“Goodbye First Love”) and Rebecca Zlotowski (“Dear Prudence”) – are lobbying French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti and Employment Minister Michel Sapin to reconsider the contract before it goes into effect October 1.

The agreement in question, drawn up by France’s big production companies (Gaumont, Pathé, UGC, MK2) and leading film technician unions, imposes higher daily salaries, as well as new rules regarding overtime and overnight work, for a wide range of crew members from cameramen to set designers.

It has been estimated that the contract would result in a 25% increase in crew costs, something that independent producers and filmmakers claim would put them out of business – resulting in a loss of French jobs, greater numbers of French films being shot in foreign countries with more flexible labour laws, and big-budget films monopolising French screens.

The collective agreement, in its current form, stipulates that films with budgets of less than €2.5 million would be exempt from the new regulations.

But several prominent French auteurs, like Pascale Ferran (“Lady Chatterley’s Lover”) and Robert Guédiguian (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”), have called for a looser set of rules altogether that would allow for case-by-case crew salary negotiations.

Martine Marignac, one of the producers of Leos Carax’s eccentric, critically adored odyssey “Holy Motors” (2012), has said that film could never have been made if the new agreement had been in place.

“The crew worked for 20% below accepted rates,” she told British magazine Screen International in March, when debate over the collective contract began. “Crew costs came in at some €250,000. Under the new convention they would have been €350,000.”

‘Panic’ about ‘paying people fairly’

Those in favour of the agreement – including the group that organises the independent Directors’ Fortnight side category at the Cannes Film Festival – have accused the directors who oppose it of behaving like big-business bosses, rather than the politically engaged artists they claim to be.

Independent filmmaker Alain Guiraudie (whose explicit gay sex thriller “Stranger by the Lake” was a Cannes sensation in May) notably broke ranks with many of his colleagues, arguing that economic fairness should come before creative concerns.

In an interview published in weekly culture magazine "Télérama", Guiraudie noted that not being able to make the movie one wants to make because of financial concerns is a reality of filmmaking.

He also accused those protesting the agreement of “panicking at the idea of paying people fairly”.

“Making movies requires more than ideas and enthusiasm,” he said. “Without the work done by the crew, these films wouldn’t get made.”

Many film technicians have expressed their support for the agreement. Whereas now they sometimes have salaries below the minimum wage – including overtime – the new rules will allow them to make a better living, they say.

The collective contract stipulates that film crew members be paid a minimum of 2,000 euros ($2,560) a month for films budgeted under $3.2 million.

Moreover, if a producer wants a technician to work more than 48 hours a week, he or she will need to obtain permission from employment authorities and pay an hourly overtime rate.

Reflecting France’s fierce attachment to both its internationally admired auteur cinema and its tradition of strict employee protection, daily newspaper "Le Monde" published an editorial on Tuesday calling for a compromise.

“It’s not healthy for a whole sector, even an artistic one, to be exempt from respecting people’s rights. An agreement is necessary,” the editorial read. “But if the agreement leads to the disappearance of the riskiest, most fragile, most daring films, it’s French cinema as a whole that will lose out.”

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