French Films Face American `Bulldozer'

ALL around Paris, posters for the ongoing Cannes International Film Festival vie for attention with ads announcing the re-release of "Dances With Wolves" in its original four-hour version.

It must be a maddening coincidence for French moviemakers: Just as France's film industry basks in the spotlight accorded the world's most prestigious film festival, along comes a reminder that even in its own land, French cinema is not king.

Last year Kevin Costner's epic version of the American West topped the list for movie tickets sold in Paris. "Dances With Wolves" and close runner-up "Terminator 2" ran ahead of four other American movies, while the most popular French movie came in at seventh place and attracted less than one-third as many viewers as the popular "Dances With Wolves."

As disappointing as these figures are for French filmmakers, they paint only part of the picture of France's movie industry.

"The French industry is in a difficult state, but the positive signs aren't completely lacking as they are in many European countries," says Nicole Janin-Foucher, a professor of cinema at University of Lyon II. "There are new creators, an occasional big success, and, partly thanks to the state, there is money," she says.

The bleakest news for the French film industry is the near free fall in moviegoing over the last decade. Since 1981, movie theater admissions in France are down by more than one-third. Not only that, but the principal loser is French film: After attracting nearly 110 million French viewers in 1982, French movies sold less than 50 million tickets in France in 1990.

The evolution in French moviegoing during the 1980s has led observers to lament the coming of the "American bulldozer," even though American movies did only a little better in holding their own, rising from about 60 million viewers in 1981 to 70 million in 1990.

"It's true that there has been no huge increase in entries to American films," says Paul Franceschi, a researcher at the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies and author of a report on French cinema in the 1980s. "But with the steep decline in moviegoing in general and for French movies in particular, you end up with a doubling of America's share of the market, from 30 to 60 percent," Mr. Franceschi says.

Yet despite the darkness of the current French climate, it is still better than that of the rest of Europe. In Italy, Germany, and Britain less than 20 percent of movie tickets sold are for national productions. In Spain it's 7 percent. For the European Community as a whole, better than two-thirds of movie ticket sales are for American movies.

French feature-film production also remains relatively strong, with 91 movies in 1991. That total is down from 136 in 1989, but more than one-third of last year's crop came from first-time filmmakers - some of whom have won considerable acclaim.

Says Le Monde film critic Daniele Heymann, "One might say that the [movie] business is going poorly, but the art is going well."

To make up for lost ticket-sale revenue, French filmmakers have learned to turn to other sources. First among these are television rights, which now make up nearly 60 percent of movie revenue. More than just a "buyer" of movies, French TV is also deeply involved in movie production.

Beyond that, a key explanation for French filmmaking's relative health is the importance the government places in perpetuating a national film industry. This translates into government subsidies for moviemaking, assuring French productions a market on national TV.

In 1990, notes Franceschi, government assistance to the industry totaled more than $150 million, not to mention an important collection of tax breaks for film financing.

The government also strictly limits the airing of movies on weekend television (thus helping to maintain weekend moviegoing, when Saturday alone accounts for a quarter of ticket sales) and by enforcing quotas for French and European movies on TV. In the past, such measures led critics to fault the government for perpetuating a haughty, egotistical film industry disdainful of the very public it produced for.

But the French industry has rekindled an interest in responding to the public, says Ms. Janin-Foucher. In part, the shift is the result of such major successes as 1990's "Cyrano de Bergerac," which prove that a French sense of artistic quality and popularity can go together, she says.

In addition, a realization that survival cannot come from the government alone has led to pressure for more audience-pleasing movies that can be successfully marketed to television stations in Francophone regions around the world.

France is also the last European country to possess integrated companies - called "majors" here, as in the US - that are involved in the industry from production to distribution and on to television and videotape sales.

The concentration and growing importance of two of these companies, Gaumont and UGC, has led to mounting protest from critics who say an emphasis on bigness will choke off creativity and new talent.

But the government, determined to see France develop its place in an increasingly globalized industry, has merely reminded critics that subsidies exist for independent work.

Officials beginning with Culture Minister Jack Lang on down now realize that having such "majors" is central to guaranteeing French cinema's ultimate survival.

"When I look ahead I'm quite optimistic about the country's creativity and the steady arrival of new acting and technical talent to take the baton," says Janin-Foucher.

What worries her, however, are the young French who make up the bulk of today's and tomorrow's filmgoers and who have grown up preferring American films.

"Are they going to continue having eyes only for American cinema, or as they grow older will they change and learn to appreciate something else?" she asks.

"The answer to that will be decisive for French cinema."

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