How bloated film stars ate French cinema

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John Lichfield on the Gallic screen actors whose exorbitant wage demands are crushing a national treasure

The last two years have been amongst the most triumphant in the history of the French cinema, yet they have also amongst the most disastrous.

The silent movie The Artist swept the board at the Oscars last February, and Les Intouchables – a joyous, comic movie about physical disability – broke all French box-office records in 2011. French cinema ticket sales may have dropped 6 per cent last year from a 2011 peak, but they remained historically high. And above all, France is one of the few countries in the world which still boasts a broad, domestic movie industry making thrillers and comedies, epics and cartoons.

And yet, even the most successful French films fail; all but one of the 10 highest-grossing French films lost money last year.

Top French actors – some scarcely known outside their own country – exploit the oddities of a state-protected and publicly subsidised movie industry to claim gargantuan, Hollywood-size fees (€2m or more). As a result, French movie stars have become rich but French movies are often poor.

These are not the sour observations of a Francophobic Hollywood film executive. They are the iconoclastic arguments of one of France’s most successful film producers, Vincent Maraval of the Wild Bunch company.

Mr Maraval’s comments in an article in Le Monde and an interview with GQ magazine have created an epic row in France this week. The French movie industry is one of the “untouchables” of French life: the crown jewel of French exceptionalism; a living proof that state interference and creativity can go hand in hand.

Mr Maraval’s article was intended partly as a defence of Gérard Depardieu, who has been lambasted by the government for seeking tax exile in Belgium. “The real scandal is elsewhere,” he wrote. “French actors are rich on public money and a system which is supposed to protect our cultural differences… How is it that a well-known French actor can earn up to €2m for a French movie but, if they act in an American film, they get €200,000?”

Mr Maraval’s comments have generated howls of protest. He has been accused, inter alia, of being a “bad loser” after betting his company’s money on a series of films which failed to break even in 2012 (including Asterix On Her Majesty’s Service). He has been accused of trying to distract attention from the “affaire Depardieu” because “le grand Gérard” has agreed to play Dominique Strauss-Kahn for a cut-price fee in a movie that Wild Bunch is trying to finance about the scandal which erupted around the former head of the International Monetary Fund when he was accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel employee last year.

On the other hand, Mr Maraval’s article has been welcomed by other movie executives, directors and critics as an overdue assault on the cumbersome and perverse system of public support for French cinema. A large part of the support comes from TV companies, which are obliged by law to invest in films. In recompense, the films can premier on the small screens 10 months after the big screen.

French TV companies, obsessed by competition from the internet. will now only sponsor films which feature the “bankable names” which supposedly ensure high audience figures.

As a result, French TV has created a kind of movie “star system” reminiscent of the worst excesses of Hollywood in the 1930s. There are about 30 “bankable” acting names in France. Many are scarcely known in the rest of the world (Thierry Lhermitte, anyone? Edouard Baer?) They have become an over-exposed repertory company appearing in mediocre films with predictable scripts and no foreign sales prospects. But they know they are “bankable names” and can demand huge fees. As a result, the cost of high-profile French movies has become so exorbitant that even those which achieve modest-to-high box-office figures cannot turn a profit.

Thus one of the best-paid movie actors in the world is now the moderately talented but internationally uncelebrated Dany Boon, a stand-up comedian who broke French box-office records with his movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis in 2008. Despite a series of mediocre films since then, he is earning €10m for a new comedy film, L’Hypercondriaque, which is in production this year.

In 2012, he branched out into romantic comedy. He was paid €3.5m to make Le Plan Parfait. According to Mr Maraval, the movie was such a flop that it did not earn enough money to pay Mr Boon’s fee.

“[Maraval] has put his finger on a real problem,” said one veteran French movie producer. “In the last 20 years, the ‘above the line’ cost of films in France [fees guaranteed to stars, producers and directors] has risen from 15-20 per cent to 35-40 per cent of the total cost of a movie.”

The director Bertrand Bonello agrees. “Maraval is right to say French movies are too costly. How is it the Americans can make funny films for €2m, while ours cost €4m and you can’t see on screen where the money has gone?”

Other French movie insiders say that, although Mr Maraval has a point, he ruins his argument by making unfair generalisations. It is untrue, they say, to suggest that “French actors are rich on public money”. Only 5 per cent, at most, of the cost of the big-budget French movies comes from state subsidies. The rest comes from the TV companies and private investment.

France makes over 200 movies a year, compared to 600 in Hollywood and about 1,000 in India. Just over 100 films are made in Britain annually.  The public subsidy to movie-making and distribution in France amounts to €700m, raised from an 11 per cent tax on movie tickets and taxes on DVDs.

In theory, this cash is supposed to fund adventurous, creative movies, which symbolise, and preserve, a separate French cultural identity. According to Mr Maraval, too much goes on would-be blockbusters which would be better if they were subjected to market discipline. This is not so. Most of the public subsidy goes to run-of-the mill movies which are neither especially adventurous nor especially commercial. Occasionally, the system throws up a gem. As for the rest, the French view seems to be: it may be rubbish but at least it’s our own rubbish.

France’s top 10 films star vehicles

Of the top 10 French-made movies at the French box office last year, only one – Le Prénom, a theatre comedy remade for the screen – is expected to make a profit. Most of the others are unlikely to have much of a career outside France. Within France, they attracted biggish audiences but not enough to cover their costs.

The top 10 French films in France in 2012 were:

1. Sur la piste du marsupilami (5,300,000 tickets sold)

2. La vérité si je mens (4,600,000)

3. Astérix et Obélix au service de sa majesté (3,700,000)

4. Le prénom (3,300,000)

5. Taken 2 (2,900,000)

6. Les seigneurs (2,700,000)

7. Les infidèles (2,30,000)

8. De rouille et d’os (1,900,000) 

9. Stars 80 (1,800,000) 

10. Un bonheur n’arrive jamais seul (1,800,000)

The Asterix movies were once a centre of French cinematic resistance to foreign domination. After a disappointing third movie in 2008 (Asterix at the Olympic Games), the franchise was supposed to rediscover its magic potion last year with Asterix on Her Majesty’s Service (set in Britain).

This was a moderately funny movie starring every French movie star that you ever heard of (Gérard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve) and some that you never heard of (Dany Boon, Edouard Baer). It has done moderately well at the box office. The 3,700,000 tickets sold so far make it the third-highest grossing French film of 2012.

But the cost of the movie was so exorbitant – €51m – that it already seems doomed to financial failure.   

Why did the fourth Asterix cost so much? The cost was inflated by the presence of a legion of French stars.

New comrades welcome Gerard to Moscow

An avalanche of angry mockery from “fellow Russians” today greeted a laudatory letter from the Gérard Depardieu thanking President Vladimir Putin for making him a Russian citizen, writes John Lichfield. “Haven’t we got enough alcoholics?” asked “Sparky” on the blog Echo Moskvy. 

“Abandoning his country for cash… He’s a real Russian,” said another.

Leading human rights activists said they would “never forgive” Mr Depardieu for saying in his letter that “Russia is a great democracy.” If he does relocate he could be joined by Brigitte Bardot, who has also threatened to move east. The film-star-turned-animal-activist says she too will emigrate if two French circus elephants with tuberculosis are destroyed in compliance with a court order.

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