French Kiss-Off

How protectionism has hurt French films

(Page 5 of 5)

Furthermore, European film subsidies frequently end up in the pockets of American moviemakers, who set up joint production ventures with European companies. A given film may be nominally European, but much of the capital comes from the American company, which captures much of the subsidy's value. Even the "European" company is often a foreign subsidiary of an American one. One such classic "foreign" film, Last Tango in Paris, was made by United Artists in combination with a French subsidiary and an Italian company. Through suitably complex international arrangements, American producers can collect subsidies from as many as three European governments; these subsidies may cover up to 80 percent of a film's cost. The result is that European taxpayers end up underwriting poorly scripted films they don't want to see, with American companies reaping most of the financial benefits, and all in the name of European culture.

What Quota? Which Art?

The French government does not stipulate that symphony performances represent a certain percentage of native-born composers. In nearly every country in the world, native composers are underrepresented at the expense of the Germans and the Austrians. Yet who complains that cultural diversity is threatened by Germanic specialization and excellence? Cultural or national quotas for symphonies would do little to produce a French equivalent of Beethoven.

Yet the French government requires radio stations for popular music to play at least 40 percent French music. "How could anyone find the idea that two songs out of five should be French excessive?" asked one French official. "Without such measures our culture will be homogenized." To protect diversity, the French even established an official cultural office for native rock 'n' roll, although the project was subsequently abandoned.

Cultural protectionists concentrate on "popular culture," precisely the area where American artists have enjoyed phenomenal successes and where European producers are in greatest need of exposure. French consumers are pointing out an underlying inadequacy in contemporary French culture. The protectionists resent this inadequacy, just as many Americans resent the high culture and supposed snobbishness of the Parisians. In both cases envy and insecurity are at work.

Advocates of cultural protectionism often portray consumer sovereignty as a myth. According to this view, oligopolistic American distributors create demand for their movies through advertising. The sheepish public, in turn, responds passively to whatever is offered.

If this view were correct, supporting European cinema would be easy. The government need not subsidize filmmaking, or even place limits on American film imports. All the government need do is subsidize advertising for native films, or perhaps restrict advertising for American movies. But such policies obviously would not work. It is the European movies that fail to draw customers, not the European advertising campaigns.

When European audiences do not like the content of American products, they have proven remarkably resistant to them, no matter how heavy the marketing. Few American exports to Europe have been supported by as much hype and advance publicity as EuroDisney. One fearful critic called the park "a terrifying step towards world homogenization." Yet when EuroDisney opened, the French didn't like it. French culture has so far survived.

The Other Side of Protectionism

If the United States had embraced cultural protectionism, Hollywood would never have achieved its artistic richness and commercial strength. Just as French filmmakers have borrowed from America, so have the Americans drawn much from Europe. Jean Renoir, for example, made some of his best movies in Hollywood. Last year, Renoir's countryman Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita) followed in his footsteps to direct The Fifth Element. Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch are among many European emigrés who brought enriching ideas and techniques to the United States.

American film technique owes much to French filmmaking. The visual presentation of Schindler's List, for example, would have been inconceivable without Spielberg's knowledge of European cinematography. The best American directors, like their European counterparts, are avid students of film as a cosmopolitan art that transcends national boundaries.

The Americans have drawn more than ideas from the French film market. Hollywood even drew some of its early capital from French products. In 1912, Adolph Zukor paid $35,000 for the rights to the French movie La Reine Elizabeth, an astonishing sum of money at that time. The movie was a huge hit in America, and Zukor used his profits to start Paramount Pictures.

Film finance has become increasingly global. Many so-called Hollywood products are financed from abroad. The Last Emperor and Dances With Wolves, for instance, both relied on British capital. French films are not uncompetitive because they lack the financial resources of Hollywood; rather, they lack financial resources because they are uncompetitive. During the Golden Age of the 1930s, German, English, and American capital flowed into French films.

Today, the European and French markets help support diversity in Hollywood. Some of the most interesting and creative American filmmakers--Woody Allen, for example--rarely produce domestic blockbusters. Their films are financially viable because they receive fan appreciation and critical recognition abroad. By supporting these directors, Europe helps improve Hollywood, benefiting both American and European audiences.

Quotas on American movies hurt independent filmmakers far more than they hurt big commercial directors; if European cinemas can show only a limited number of foreign films, they will cut a new film by Woody Allen or Jim Jarmusch before they cut Titanic. Thus, European quotas make it harder for independents to finance their films. Quotas in even a single country decrease diversity in film markets around the world.

No government can legislate artistic success. Film culture, like all culture, is dynamic. It isn't protection that it needs; it is stimulation. Without it, the form atrophies. If Europeans treat their films as weak, those films will become permanently weak.

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