On the eve of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in Paris, Melanie Goodfellow examines why the French film industry looks set for a challenging 2014.

Barely two years ago, the French cinema industry was riding high: record audiences, record exports and seven Oscars for The Artist. French film was not only cool, it was also very, very successful.

But as the industry’s main players gather for the Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris (Jan 10-20), the mood will be gloomy: 2013 was tough at home and abroad, 2014 threatens to be even tougher.

Some wonder how Europe’s most powerful film industry will emerge from the perfect storm of recession at home, the disruptive force of technology and threats to what was once viewed as the one of the most successful film financing systems in the world.

“The mood across the industry is very tense and nervous at the moment, whatever the sector - whether it be production, distribution or exhibition,” says producer Marc Missonnier, co-founder of Fidelité Films, the Paris-based production house behind Asterix and Obélix in Britain, On My Way and the upcoming Nicholas on Holiday. “There is no doubt that French cinema is in crisis. There’s a sort of paralysis across the industry as people wait to see how it plays out.”

Sliding box office

Box office data for 2013 out earlier this month showed the French share of the domestic market had fallen 6.9 percentage points to 33.3% in 2013, its lowest level since the 1990s.

This amounted to 18 million fewer admissions for local films over the year.

Poor performances over the year by a series of big budget star vehicles, such as The Volcano, featuring the usually bankable Dany Boon [pictured], and Turning Tide starring Intouchables co-lead Francois Cluzet, had already lowered morale and backed-up claims that film budgets were out of sync with market potential.

Internationally, French films generated roughly 42 million spectators worldwide in 2013, against 144 million in 2012 and 74 million in 2011, according to data from French export agency Unifrance.

The 2012 vintage was exceptionally strong, enriched by Europacorp’s Taken 2, Les Intouchables, and The Artist as well as arthouse fare such as Rust and Bone.

But even prior to the annual box office data, there were already signs the industry was in trouble.

In 2012 a record 279 films were greenlit. That is expected to be considerably lower in 2013 and 2014, top industry sources say. Data for last year will not be clear until later on this year.

The number of titles due to screen or be promo-reeled at the Rendez-vous is level with 2013, but there are fewer premieres and new projects.

Wild Bunch, which announced a dozen new French films prior to the meeting last year including the Palme d’Or-winning Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, will only roll out one new title, focusing instead on works previously unveiled at Cannes, Venice, Toronto and the AFM like A Promise and Tonerre as well as showing promo-reels for already announced pictures such as Nicholas on Holiday and thriller Colt 45.

Wild Bunch co-chief Vincent Maraval says the company has pulled back on its investment in French cinema. “We’ve slowed down on French cinema because its economy does not make sense anymore. We will come back if it adapts itself to the market and stops ignoring it,” he commented.

Pathé, which laid off nine key staff last year, also appears to be taking a more cautious approach, according to one senior industry source. It did not respond to requests for information about its plans for local productions.

It will premiere two new films at the Rendez-vous this year - Riad Sattouf’s Jacky in the Kingdom and Lisa Azuelos’ Quantum Love.

Independent distributors, who have been hardest hit by the box office slump, are also changing tactics, calling for lower MGs, producing themselves or abandoning French film altogether.

In another sign times are hard, MK2 shut its distribution department last year and handed its slate over to Diaphana to service.

“France cinema is a still a powerful force at home and internationally but producers have let costs get out of hand and ask for too much… there needs to be some sort of re-alignment, said Eric Lagesse, head of Pyramide Distribution.

“People forget that beyond the MGs we also finance the release and when a film doesn’t work we’re the ones picking up the bill,” he added. “I still pre-buy French films but I work with producers with fair and realistic expectations, who make films for a reasonable budget.”

The other drawback with buying French films is that because of the complex way they are financed distributors sometimes end up with a smaller share of the profits, he notes. Distributors in France traditionally do not get ancillary rights on local films.

“That’s why international titles can sometimes be more attractive…we control more of the pie,” said Lagesse, whose non-French titles include The Selfish Giant.

In another sign that production levels have already fallen, Manuel Alduy, director of cinema at pay TV operator Canal Plus, said he was having a hard time finding suitable French projects to pre-buy in his current investment cycle.

“We pre-bought more French films in 2013 than in 2012 but for 2014, the number of projects we’ve received to date is lower than normal and as a result we’ve haven’t taken much on as yet,” he told Screen.

Changing times

The current malaise is not due, however, to one bad year at the box office. Like the silent movie star at the heart of The Artist, who hits hard times with the event of the talkies and the 1929 Stock Market Crash, the industry appears to be reeling as the entire industrial panorama undergoes deep change.

“There are multiple factors at play,” said Fidelité’s Missonnier, who is also president of the APC producers group.

“The broadcasters have less money to invest, DVD sales are down and the VoD market has softened too following changes to piracy legislation.”

Alongside this, measures introduced by the government of President Francois Hollande are angering some parts of the industry.

They include a new collective labour agreement for crew that will push production costs up and a €150m levy on the National Cinema Centre (CNC) budget to cut public debt.

A deal between the Ministry of Culture and exhibitors to lower cinema tariffs to €4 for under-14s has also angered independent distributors who will lose out on revenues.

There is also uncertainty over the sustainability of France’s complex financing system, which obliges companies diffusing audio-visual or cinematic fare to re-invest in new content.

Long envied throughout Europe as the engine behind sustainable production, the system has come under attack from politicians on both sides of the political divide as well as a number of populist media publications.

Few doubt it will survive the political onslaught but its biggest challenge will be how to adapt in an era of global distribution players, such as Netflix or Apple’s iTunes.

Headquartered way beyond France’s borders, they have little interest in funding local fare.

Netflix has thus far shunned France due its strict media chronology laws. These stipulate a 36-month window between a film’s theatrical release and its availability on an SVOD service.

But pressure is building to soften the tight rules that govern where a film can be shown and when.

Netflix sent a delegation to Paris in the autumn and Digital Economy Minister Fleur Pellerin was expected to meet CEO Reed Hastings at the Consumer Electronics Show (Jan 7-10) in Las Vegas.

“I am not against Netflix coming to France,” Missonnier said.

“It would be a good thing as long the company was subject to the same legislation as local players. But at the moment global operators don’t seen open to this.”

In the backdrop, local TV chains, such as TF1 and M6, have been lobbying for a lowering of their obligations.

Alongside this, Canal Plus’ role as French cinema’s key financier is also under pressure as the chain loses subscribers to growing competition, particularly from Al Jazeera-backed sports channel BeIN, which has snapped up exclusive French rights to a number of key football leagues in 2012 and recently branched into tennis, picking up Wimbledon as well a number of ATP events in November.

“It’s easy to caricature or criticise France’s film financing system and of course we need to constantly monitor and corrects its excesses but it’s also absolutely necessary if France wants to have a decent film industry… what’s important now is that it adapts, if it doesn’t, the system risks imploding,” added Missonnier

“We’re clearly at a key moment for our industry. We’re in a period of transition from, what I would call, a traditional model of financing and distribution to a model where we can see we’ll have to make and distribute films differently, producing less expensively.” 

“But we can’t make these changes overnight. It remains to be seen whether this transition will take place gently or brutally… and I have the feeling that in the last few months, things seem to be accelerating.”