Opening credits: French film is on a roll

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

In a small seaside town in France, the world’s first movie theatre is empty and peeling, but the imminent rescue of the Eden mirrors the renewed popularity of French cinema, both home and abroad, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC

THE SMALL Mediterranean town of La Ciotat is known for three things. Its renowned shipyard made it a maritime hub for centuries. The modern game of pétanque was invented here. And it’s the birthplace of the cinema. Remnants of the shipyard survive, and old men still throw boules in shady squares, but the town seems happily unmoved by its starring role in the history of film. Facing the seafront is the faded facade of the Eden, the theatre where the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière projected their first efforts with a newly designed cinématographein 1895. The place has been closed for 30 years – the paint is peeling and the rails of the balcony are a rusty orange. It’s so low-key that only the most determined anoraks would spot it.

The Eden won’t be anonymous for long. After decades of campaigning by enthusiasts in the town, the local authorities and the French culture ministry have pledged €5 million to restore the cinema to its former glory. It is scheduled to be reopened by Martin Scorcese (aficionados will have noticed a nod to La Ciotat in his latest film, Hugo) early next year, when nearby Marseilles has its turn as European Capital of Culture.

“The invention of moving pictures marked the whole of the 20th century, and it continues today on television, computers and mobile phones,” says Michel Cornille, president of the local association that lobbied for the reopening. “It’s a major step for civilisation. Knowing that the first cinema was in La Ciotat, we can’t act as if the Eden didn’t exist.”

The rebirth of the Eden is one of at least 15 projects under way around France involving the restoration or reopening of historic or architecturally important cinemas. Their timing, it seems, couldn’t be better. After years of anxious self-interrogation, French cinema is thriving – and it has taken the surprise success of a silent black-and-white film to alert the world to its state of good health. In Los Angeles last Sunday, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, set in the dying days of silent film, won three awards at the Golden Globes. Its fine run continued on Tuesday with 12 nominations for the Baftas, setting itself up nicely as Oscar season approaches.

“To make a silent black-and-white film today, you need to be pretty brave,” says Laurent Cotillon, editor of Le Film Français, an industry magazine based in Paris. “And maybe have some money to lose. I’m glad that audacity like that can pay off. It’s good news.”

The sense of optimism coursing through French film these days owes a lot to another, more significant piece of good news, which is that the country’s cinemas sold more tickets last year than they had for almost half a century. In a year when box-office receipts were down in many developed markets – sales in the US were the lowest for 16 years – 215.6 million cinema tickets were sold in France (whose population is 65 million), the highest number since 1966. Cornille suggests a link to the economic crisis: when money is short, people turn to films because they are cheaper than concerts or plays. Perhaps the explanation is even more straightforward, Cotillon remarks. “The most important factor is the films. There’s no miracle to getting people into the cinema. Make good films. We were lucky to have had an exceptional vintage in 2011.”

The huge box-office takings were driven by the unexpected success of the comedy Intouchables, which led the pack with a stunning 15.7 million admissions by the end of 2011 and has become one of the most successful French films in a decade.

Based on a true story, it stars François Cluzet as a wealthy quadriplegic who hires a young black man from the suburbs, played by Omar Sy, to care for him. The film has performed strongly in its first overseas forays, and despite an early Variety review that accused it of racism, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax has bought an option for a US remake.

After Intouchables, the box office was boosted by strong showings for Rien à Déclarer, a comedy on relations between the French and the Belgians; the latest Harry Potter; and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin.

In France, long queues outside cinemas on a Wednesday – the day new films are released – are a boost not just for cinema owners but, in a very direct way, for the whole industry. Under a law put in place after the war, a percentage of the price paid for every cinema ticket is given to a public agency called the Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée (CNC), which then distributes those funds – its budget for this year is €705 million – to independent distributors, small cinemas and other arms of the domestic industry. Recent hits notwithstanding, parts of the French film industry are struggling – Cotillon says fewer foreign pictures are being shot here because of attractive tax incentives in many European states, while 200 jobs are under threat at the big postproduction company Quinta Industries – but the CNC’s largesse is one of the reasons the French are among the world’s most prolific and vibrant film-makers.

Distributors in France struggle to compete with the limitless marketing budgets of the big Hollywood houses, but their films travel well. About 65 million tickets were sold for French movies overseas last year, and successes such as The Artisthelp burnish the industry’s global image.

Specialists try to predict what will catch foreigners’ imaginations, but it’s a futile effort, says Régine Hatchondo, director general of UniFrance Films, which promotes the industry overseas. “We always have plenty of intelligent explanations afterwards, but it’s very difficult to know how the public in the US, Italy or Russia will react to a film. That’s the magic of cinema. We never know.”

In anglophone markets, however, they come up against an obstacle faced by distributors in most countries: English-speakers’ resistance to subtitles. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that it took a silent homage to Hollywood mythology to seduce American and British awards committees this week. Are Anglophones just lazy? “Subtitles are an obstacle, but I think it’s more habit than laziness,” Hatchondo replies. “You can’t enjoy a subtitled film unless you’re used to the pleasure of listening to voices.”

A key part of the French state’s support for cinema is spending on education. Each year, five or six films – they could range from Clint Eastwood’s latest offering or a documentary to an Iranian animation or a new French film – are selected for the school curriculum. Teachers are provided with DVDs, background material and learning tools, and class time is put aside for discussion and critical analysis of each film.

Hatchondo believes the emphasis on education may explain France’s enduring love for the form, and for the willingness of audiences to look beyond the blockbusters. Appreciating art is learned, not given, she says, and it usually begins at a young age. “In countries where cinema is doing well, the public’s relationship with film is based on entertainment but also on the idea of questioning. If there were a world government for culture, I think nearly the entire budget would have to be spent on children’s education – learning how to read a book even if it’s difficult, learning how to appreciate a major painting, learning how to appreciate a film where you might set out thinking, I’ll be bored.

“A child who grows up with cinema will need it all his life. In France, people feel a need to watch films.”

'Art et essai' The tax designation that feeds a creative industry

After the second World War, one of the concessions sought by the US during negotiations on foreign assistance for France was that American films be given free access to French cinemas. Paris agreed – it had little choice – but protests from domestic film producers led to an agreement in 1948 that a 10 per cent tax would be placed on all film tickets and that the money generated would be used to help the industry.

That became the basis of the system still in place today, which brings in hundreds of millions of euro in revenue that is distributed among producers, independent distributors and art et essai cinemas.

About half of the 2,100 cinemas in France qualify for the art et essai designation, which means they promote independent film. Grants range from €1,500 to €50,000 a year. Facing pressure from the large chains, many small regional cinemas depend on the subsidy to stay open and to show varied films.

The debate in France over the growing market share of American films has continued since the market was opened up in the 1940s. One of the notable features of 2011, when French cinemas had their best year in almost half a century, was that the sales spike was driven by indigenous films. Their share of the domestic market rose to 42 per cent last year, compared with 36 per cent in 2010, while American films accounted for 46 per cent.