Friday 19 May 2017

Letter from Paris - Jack Vermee reports on the cultural collision between President Emmanuel Macron, Netflix and Cannes

Jack Vermee is a film programmer, writer, editor, educator and musician born in Canada and now living in Paris. He has worked for the Vancouver International Film Festival since 1987, chiefly as editor of and major contributor to the uniquely excellent program book issued by the festival. He currently serves as a programming consultant and associate editor at VIFF.

Emmanuel Macron
As the Cannes festival moves into high gear and the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron campaigns hard to try and win a majority for his En Marche! team in the June National Assembly elections (the latest polls have his party ahead of the right-wing Les Republicains by 32% to 19%), all the cinema/cultural talk has been about Netflix and the renaissance of US “cultural imperialism”.

We all know that the Cannes programming committee’s decision to place two Netflix productions – Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories – in competition has had the French film industry’s official body, the CNC, and the theatrical exhibitors guild, the FNCF, fuming. How could the pre-eminent showcase for the best in world cinema stoop to such a level as to include films made for a streaming service? And, more importantly, how could the festival support a company making films that would never be projected on even a couple of France’s 5,700-plus cinema screens? The strength and influence of the CNC and the FNCF resulted in the festival hastily calling a press conference wherein programming head Thierry Frémaux promised that, beginning next year, only films from companies who have committed to releasing said films in French cinemas will be considered for the competition.

Thierry Frémaux
Netflix, which closed its Paris office last year to avoid paying French corporate taxes, is desperate to avoid one condition of that glorious piece of legislation known as the French Cultural Exception law. We all know how well that law has worked (all of us, that is, except most of my French students) to keep the French film industry vibrant and successful. The recent adjunct to the law, stating that a film must wait three years after its original theatrical release before it can legally be streamed – thereby allowing exhibitors, TV stations and cable operators maximum time to profit from the film – is what Netflix is trying to circumvent by not releasing the two films in question theatrically.

A look at the larger picture suggests that at least some of the anger of the CNC and the FNCF may stem from worry over the future of France’s cinema industry now that a self-described “globalist” and “anti-protectionist” is leading the country. If you looked at the French media blogs operated by film industry individuals and media companies in the run-up to the election, the most common headline you found was this: “The Cultural Exception? Vote Macron and say goodbye to it!” 

I have found only one interview with Macron – on the Culturebox website of the France Info TV news channel – where the president has been asked directly, “Are you in favour of maintaining the French Cultural Exception?” Macron responded by saying that he would never consider culture as a commercial product, and that he saw himself as a “defender of the cultural exception”. He then, however, suggested that he would “adapt” the law to take into account the “new world” we live in, especially the digital world… This equivocation, coupled with the fact that his response was almost wholly focused on the publishing industry, can’t have done much to relieve the growing anxiety in the film world, of which the Cannes/Netflix brouhaha may turn out to be but the tip of the iceberg.

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