Paris finally opens door to American filmmakers

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A ruling that French films can also be American has provoked a blockbuster of a row in the French film industry, with a script that is part war-movie, part-comedy.

A ruling that French films can also be American has provoked a blockbuster of a row in the French film industry, with a script that is part war-movie, part-comedy.

The Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, decided films made with American money qualify for French state subsidies, so long as they are made in French and partly in France. He was trying to sort out the tangled spools of national pride, commercial jealousies and fear of Hollywood domination resulting from two, seemingly absurd, subsidy decisions last year.

In the first decision, a court decided there should be no subsidy for the movie Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, a First World War romance directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou.

The film was made in France, in French, from a French novel, almost entirely with French actors and technicians. But the judges ruled it ineligible for a share of the €500m (£343m) annual cinema subsidy fund because it had been co-produced and financed by a French subsidiary of Warner Brothers.

In the second decision, a French subsidy was granted to Oliver Stone's Alexander, made in North Africa, in English, mostly with British, Irish and American actors and technicians. That was because the French company, Pathé, co-produced the film and because Oliver Stone is half-French and has a French passport.

M. Jeunet, director of Un Long Dimanche, was so incensed he has taken to calling Stone, "Olivier Caillou". Caillou is the French word for pebble or stone.

M. Donnedieu de Vabres has ruled there should be a change in the law governing film subsidies. Legally, non-European producers - chiefly Hollywood studios - are banned from receiving French public money. The Culture Minister has decided this should be scrapped, so long as the film is made in French and partly shot or edited in France.

Part of the French movie industry, representing medium-sized production companies and many technicians, has reacted with relief. Another part - representing the largest companies, small, independent ones and left-wing technicians' unions - has responded with fury.

They say the subsidy system, subject of a blistering row at the world trade talks in 1994, was intended to defend France's exception culturelle (cultural individuality). Hollywood should not be allowed to feed on a subsidy system which it has consistently tried to destroy.

Other figures in the French movie industry say any system which denies a French label to Un Long Dimanche and attributes one to Alexander is crazy and unworkable. If US studios put money into French films made in France, why should anyone object?

Behind the row lies the difficulty of operating a system of national subsidies in an increasingly international industry. The large French movie production companies muddy the waters by occasionally making thrillers in English for a more global audience.

Under M. Donnedieu de Vabres' proposed rules, French companies could make subsidised movies in English but American companies could make subsidised films only in French.

Despite its many anomalies, the French movie subsidy system is the envy of other European countries and it works, broadly speaking. The French made 203 films last year, twice as many as the next biggest European film maker, Italy. Of all cinema tickets sold in France, two in five were for French-made films and almost half for American films.

The subsidies allocated by the Centre National du Cinéma (CNC) come partly from a tax on all cinema tickets and partly from a levy on French commercial TV companies.

Hollywood studios have long complained that the seat "tax" should not be charged on tickets for US-made films. They appear to have found another way of getting their money-back: co-financing French movies.