The French government passed a temporary measure on Friday (March 20) softening France’s strict media chronology as part of a larger emergency bill aimed at tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout.
The main aim of the bill was to give the French authorities greater power to restrict movement and gatherings as the country battles to slow the spread of Covid-19, but it also included a number of measures aimed at protecting jobs and supporting the economy.
France’s exhibitors and distributors have been hard hit by the outbreak following the government’s decision on March 14 to shut all non-essential public spaces including some 2,000 cinema theatres in the country encompassing nearly 6,000 screens.
Some 60 feature films were in cinemas at the time. Around a dozen of these titles had only been in theatres for four days – including How To Be A Good Wife, A Son and Vivarium – when the decision was announced. Other titles left high and dry include French biopic De Gaulle, Onward and The Invisible Man.
Article 21 of the emergency bill gives unprecedented powers to France’s National Cinema Centre (CNC) to unilaterally shorten the windows for films that were on release as the cinemas shut. Changes of this magnitude are usually the fruit of long negotiations with the various stakeholders in France’s film and TV sectors.
The measure was voted in on the same day that Europe’s International Union of Cinemas (UNIC) put out a statement warning against the long-term implications of breaking the theatrical window for short-term gain.
France’s media chronology law currently stipulates a four-month VoD window for films with more than 100,000 admissions, equivalent to a box-office gross of around $700,000, and a three-month window for films which drew fewer than 100,000 spectators.
The country’s exhibitors have been critical of the measure, fearing it could ultimately undermine the media window laws that underpin their theatrical business at a time when they are already feeling vulnerable due to the shutdown of their theatres.
The National Federation of French Cinema (FNCF) lobbied against the move ahead of the vote but then put out a more conciliatory statement on Friday acknowledging that France was facing exceptional challenges and saying it had received assurances from CNC chief Dominique Boutonnat that the derogation would be applied on a case-by-case basis.
”If everything possible must be done today to fight the epidemic and its consequences, the FNCF would like to begin constructive discussions as soon as possible with all the distributor organisations and the CNC, under the auspices of the minister of culture Franck Reister, on how we envisage reopening the cinemas,” read the statement.
More surprisingly, the distributors at whom the measure is aimed were also mixed in their response. Many said they still hoped to get most their impacted films into cinemas.
Pyramide Distribution CEO Eric Lagesse welcomed the measure. “Article 21 is important for films which were on release when the cinemas shut. It means we’ll be able to put our films Back Home, Made In Bangladesh and You Will Die At 20 online immediately without having to wait three months,” he said.
Lagesse has other plans, however, for Hadrien La Vapeur and Corto Vaclav’s documentary Kongo about a Congolese healer which had just been released on one screen in Paris on March 11.
“It saw its career cut down just as it was taking off,” he said. “We will re-release it in the same cinema, Les 3 Luxembourg, which is up for it. It was only out on one copy in Paris, with 23 copies across France. It’s an atypical, timeless film which I am sure we can revive.”
Pyramide had also been gearing up for four releases in the coming two months, kicking off with Gregory Magne’s Perfumes on March 25 and then followed by César Diaz’s Our Mothers (April 8), Marion Laine’s Into The World (April 22) and Yalda, A Night Of Forgiveness (May 6).
“For the other films that we were due to release like Perfumes, there is no question that they will only go out on VoD. These films will be released in cinemas in 2020,” he said.
Le Pacte president Jean Labadie said the measure was “a good decision in a time of crisis” but he warned against it being enshrined in law. “Legislating on it now in a rush and panic would be idiotic and dangerous,” he said.
Rather than modifying the media chronology laws, he added, it would have made more sense for the government to set in a motion “a real strategy to fight piracy”.
“What we need today is to be able to count on our video revenues to make up for the losses in the cinemas, but we don’t have a DVD market anymore and our VoD market it all but dead,” he said.
Le Pacte had been on the verge of releasing Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio and Jean-Paul Salome’s Mama Weed, starring Isabelle Huppert, on March 18 and 25 respectively, but pulled both titles before the cinema closure was announced.
The company has also since pulled The Perfect Candidate, which was due out on April 8, as well as later releases Mother, Gogo and Heros Don’t Die.
In the UK, Modern Films took the decision to release The Perfect Candidate on digital platforms after plans to release it on 30 screens on March 27 were scuppered by the voluntary closure of cinemas, which has since become compulsory.
Labadie said he had no such plans for Le Pacte’s films as yet. “We’ll redate them,” he said. “We need to be able to get back to work soon, particularly for Pinocchio.”
An added complication for family film Pinocchio was when would Disney redate Mulan, which has also been pulled.
“We don’t want to redate twice,” said Labadie.
He acknowledged that Le Pacte might be eventually forced to consider digital options if the lockdown continued for a long time and there was “a jam” of films in the summer, or even September.
Sarah Chazelle and Etienne Ollagnier at Paris-based distributor Jour2Fête said they would not be seeking to release Tunisian family drama A Son earlier on VoD.
“Our plan is to re-release it as soon as the theatres reopen,” they said. “It’s an important film in our eyes and deserves to refind its place in cinemas before living on other platforms.”
They acknowledged that the government measure could be of benefit to some films but emphasised their support for the media chronology law, describing it as the “very heart” of France’s film finance system.
They also suggested that films going on to a quicker VoD release could struggle to find audiences at a time when “other operators were supplying their films for free”.
Pay-TV giant Canal Plus announced earlier in the week that it was making its channels free-to-air during the lockdown.
But this gesture of goodwill quickly landed the pay-TV giant in hot water after free-to-air broadcasters protested it was encroaching on their media window by showing films for which they held the free-to-air rights.
”As soon as it started sharing its service for free, it was showing films without respect for the chronology. They’re showing films that were not theirs to diffuse free-to-air,” explained Pascal Rogard, head of France’s Society of Authors and Composers of Dramatic Works (SACD).
Canal Plus was forced to halt the offer as of March 21 after it received a notice from France’s Audiovisual Council ordering it to stop the operation after the latter received complaints from free-to-air channels M6 and TF1.
Even in these testing times France’s media chronology laws remain sacrosanct for much of the country’s film and TV world.