French Dubbers Flex Their Muscle Through Strike Demands

France's viewers miss out on `Scarlett' and other American shows

Meeting in a stone-cold hall as Paris's first snows began to fall Jan. 6, French dubbers had a choice to make: Keep the old building's rattling heating system blasting or turn it off so they could hear each other's voices. The dubbers chose to be heard.

And heard they have been. Their 10-week strike all but shut down some 22 French dubbing studios, sent popular American television series into early reruns, and left French viewers alone among their European counterparts not knowing whether Rhett ever returned to Scarlett. The American-made sequel to ``Gone With the Wind'' just missed its French dubbing as the strike kicked in Oct. 18.

The dubbers agreed to suspend their strike to have a better ``climate for mediation.'' On Jan. 18, mediator Simone Rozes takes up a key issue in the strike: whether dubbers have a claim to the status of ``interpretive artist'' and, hence, intellectual property rights and a percentage of the earnings each time their work is used. Dubbers now receive a one-time payment for their work.

``Anyone who writes dubbing dialogue gets author's rights,'' says Jimmy Shuman, spokesman for the French Syndicate of Performing Artists. ``Why not the one who says it?''

``We're anticipating an explosion of pipelines to use dubbed material: new cable stations, the Internet, multimedia, satellites, CD-Roms, video cassettes,'' he adds. ``The concept of a [one-time] buyout is fundamentally unjust. You can't tell in advance what will be good. Artists should be remunerated [based on] a work's effective commercial life.''

At the outset of the strike, dubbing-studio executives predicted that many French studios would not survive a prolonged strike. So far, while there have been layoffs of technicians, secretaries, and maintenance workers, no studio has declared bankruptcy.

``It's still too early to assess the impact of this strike,'' says Jacques Orth, president of the Association of Dubbing Companies. ``The money studios used to pay staff came from work completed months earlier. There may still be failures. The key will be how the studios make it through January and February.''

Dubbing-studio technicians did not join in the strike but endured the effects of an 80-percent drop in activity. In an open letter to dubbers last month, technicians complained that the strike had taken them hostage, rather than confronting the real decisionmakers -- the television stations, distribution companies, and foreign producers, especially American producers, who would pay the residuals.

The American producers, who are the major foreign suppliers of feature films and television series, have been the most elusive participants in this drama.

``And what did the Americans say?'' was a frequent question from the floor as strike leaders gave dubbers an account of the first day of mediation last week. The strike leaders didn't know. Nor did negotiators for the dubbing studios.

``I only know them through their lawyers,'' Mr. Orth says. ``They appear to have no opinion. But I'm sure they do. They've told us that some American films were dubbed in Canada to avoid the French strike, but they won't tell us which ones.''

According to French import law, all foreign films made outside the European Union can be shown in France only if they have been dubbed in France. Major American film productions slipped through this restriction. Kenneth Branagh's ``Frankenstein,'' for example, was financed by Columbia TriStar, but it was admitted into France because its director is Irish. Woody Allen's ``Bullets Over Broadway'' was dubbed in France but by Belgian dubbers.

``The adaptation for `Frankenstein' was also made in France,'' says a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America. ``The film was dubbed using Belgian actors but the art director came from Paris.''

The dubbers are not eager to contest the decision of the French National Center of Cinematography to admit these films - or to test this French law in a European court. ``We haven't tested it because we're afraid it wouldn't hold up,'' Mr. Schuman says.

American films are claiming an ever-larger proportion of the French market. In 1972, American films attracted 28 percent of the French audience; by 1992, that figure increased to 58.2 percent, according to the National Center of Cinematography.

Television programming was also hit by the dubbers' strike.

Canal Jimmy, one of the successful new French television stations, has 800,000 subscribers. Its most popular show is ``Dream On'' followed by ``Seinfeld.''

``The strike caused enormous difficulties for us,'' says Richard Maroko, who handles acquisitions for Canal Jimmy. ``We were blocked for three or four months, had to stop series and do reruns.''

A French proposal to strengthen European Union quotas on television programming was blocked last week by EU trade commissioner Sir Leon Brittan.

Both Germany and Britain have opposed quotas, but the issue promises to be a hot one when the new commission takes office Jan. 18.

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