Producer and sales chief slams salaries of France’s top stars, calling for rethink of French film subsidy system and cap on actor wages.

Wild Bunch co-chief Vincent Maraval has sparked a major debate in the French film industry over star wages and the country’s generous film subsidies in an incendiary editorial in Le Monde newspaper over the festive period.

“This year has been a disaster for French cinema,” declared Maraval in an editorial dated Dec 28 and written in response to the recent furore over actor Gérard Depardieu’s decision to renounce his French citizenship over a 75% tax levy on citizens with an annual income of more than $1.3m (€1m).

“All the French films of 2012 billed as important, failed, losing millions of euros,” he explained, citing such titles such as The Dream Team (Les Seigneurs), Astérix, Pamela Rose, Houba! On The Trail Of The Marsupilami, Stars 80, Bowling, Populaire and La Verité Si Je Mens 3.

“While Gérard Depardieu dominates the headlines and ministers fall over themselves to denounce his tax exile two kilometres from the border of the country he no longer ‘feels part of”, nobody is talking about the state of French cinema,” continued Maraval.

The real scandal, he said, was not Depardieu’s decision to quit France over his tax bill but rather the fact France’s film industry no longer turned a profit, amid spiralling production costs ratcheted up by unrealistic actors’ salaries.

”Not one film, except perhaps What’s in a Name? (Le Prénom), can erase what the whole industry knows, but attempts to keep secret: French cinema is based on an increasingly subsidy-based economy. Even the biggest commercial successes lose money,” he wrote.

A number of the cited titles had performed respectably at the box office — such as Houba! On The Trail Of The Marsupilami which attracted six million French spectators – but still lost money, he said.

Reality check

Maraval said it was time to re-appraise production costs and in particular the salaries currently commanded by the country’s top stars.

“Films are too expensive. After the US studios, France holds the record for average production costs: $7.17m (€5.4m), against $4.5m (€3m) for an independent American film,” he wrote.

The producer and sales chief placed much of the blame for these elevated costs on the French star system.

“Dany Boon commands sums which leave Gérard Depardieu behind - $4.5m (€3.5m) for Fly Me To The Moon (Le Plan Parfait), the box office of which isn’t big enough to pay his salary!” he wrote.

“Why is it that well-known French actors – whether it’s Vincent Cassel, Jean Reno, Marion Cotillard, Gad Emaleh, Guillaume Canet, Audrey Tautou, Léa Seydoux – make €500,000 to €2m for a French film, with a market limited to our borders, while, when they shoot an American film, aimed at the international market, they’re happy with €50,000 to €200,000?,” quizzed Maraval.

Comparing the earnings of a series of internationally renowned actors and directors with some of France’s second-tier household names, Maraval continued: “Did you know that Benicio Del Toro made less for Che than Francois-Xavier Demaison in any of the films he’s played in? That Marilou Berry, in the Croisiere, made three times more than Joaquin Phoenix in the next film by James Gray and that Philippe Lioret makes more than Steven Soderbergh and seven times more than James Gray or Darren Aronofsky?”

Alluding back to Depardieu’s recent fall from grace, Maraval continued: “How is Depardieu a bastard (salaud)? The man who plays in Mammuth for free, helping the film to exist and is proposing to do the same thing for (Abel) Ferrara’s DSK. Why is Vincent Cassel, who uses his money and energy to help young filmmakers like Kim Chapiron and Romain Gavras, more guilty than the system.”

Subsidy re-think

Maraval concluded that it was time for the government and France’s National Cinema Centre (CNC) to re-appraise how it meted out the country’s film subsidies to the industry, calling for actor salaries in subsidised films to be capped at $530,000 (€400,000).

“At a time when Francois Hollande wants big industry bosses to cap their salaries, should the cinema world’s top earners continue to earn more than they are worth, thanks to public money and an exceptional and unique finance system?” he wrote.

“Our famous French cinema subsidies only profit a handful of upstarts. But that will never provoke a scandal as noisy as Gérard Depardieu’s fiscal exile. The leftover crumbs silence those whose role it should be to push for an analysis of the situation,” he concluded.