Day 1, Panel 2: Focus France

The second panel of the day addressed Cultural exception and Richard Patry, President of the French Cinema Association, spoke first, with enthusiasm, “There is nothing more magical, pleasurable or addictive than going to see a film in a theatre.” His optimism was palpable even with stark challenges ahead, “The health crisis is over and now we are going through another one, with citizens having less to spend, and they sacrifice what is less essential. But we do our work to make sure they go back to the theatre and we arrange activities around the films. I am not waiting for 2024, in 2023 we will get back to 200 million [admissions].”

Hélène Herschel, General Representative, Fédération Nationale des Editeurs de films agreed but was more cautious with her predictions, “We have gone through an unprecedented crisis, a whole year without income practically and then with health restrictions, we are in a post-crisis situation and the effects are still there. It takes a long time to produce and show a film.”

“I do share those views,” she continued, “We remain optimistic, there is a robust link between French films in the cinema touching people and them coming back. The cinema has fared well, we are confident in terms of durability. There is pleasure in switching off your phone for an hour and a half and being inside a cinema – we believe in that in a major way. There are new things if they stay at home but we are offering alternative forms of entertainment.”

The major challenge Herschel sees is for the industry to invest in marketing and promotion, and in communicating with audiences, “You can’t criticise an audience for not going to see a film they’ve never heard of.”

With just two weeks of the World Cup affecting admissions in November, and the return of both French and American blockbusters – including Avatar: The Way of Water on the horizon – Patry has a real belief in audiences are returning and admissions continuing to rise. Moreover, once we move into 2023 we can start comparing figures with a more relevant base line, using 2022 instead of 2019 as a benchmark.

Marguerite Hitier, Head of Media and Cinema Division for the French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs said the Institut Français is providing tools to their network so that people can fulfil their mission. Their network comprises 67 cinemas, but is not exclusively cinemas, and includes multi discipline spaces. Collaboration has continued to prove invaluable with partner platforms and networks (including Europa Cinemas) helping professionals flesh out the French ecosystem through non-commercial rights, the subtitling of French films and with data analysis.

Jérémie Kessler, Head of European and International Policy Unit, CNC and Richard Patry, President of the French Cinema Association

Co-production is also an important tool in defending core values of cultural diversity and cultural exception. Now, many distributors won’t just buy the films, but will co-produce, which also means retaining the rights. This brings what’s referred to as ‘strategic cultural assets’ into the conversation, and something Jérémie Kessler, Head of European and International Policy Unit at CNC spoke about, identifying four major challenges.

  • 1) the resilience of the industry in the face of the crisis. France is looking at around 165 million admissions in 2022. “We have also learnt to work on the resilience of the industry to respond to challenges. The health crisis hasn’t finished and there may be other crises, so we are just at the beginning according to the IPCC, of many different challenges.” Kessler said.
  • 2) the circulation of work and the visibility of work. The discoverability of European work and how we can ensure it is as visible as possible is paramount. Europa Cinemas ensure the films circulate, and there is a quota of 30% for broadcast films, but, Kessler said, “We have to ensure that the films are known and people are aware of them. To ensure that European films are really seen by the public, education is key – people have to be educated in how to see images.”
  • 3) the singularity of films – to continue to create special, unique European films. Intellectual property rights is an essential issue and European companies need to have this over work made in Europe. “This is a big item on the agenda for today,” Kessler said, “We need to enforce our goals: namely, international diversity. There is more to do to ensure that European films and owners retain the rights and value too.”
  • 4) protecting strategic cultural assets from being acquired by foreign entities. “In the last two years, ever since we’ve been president of the EU, we have noted that there is a risk in terms of some cultural assets. Value has been created by players in the industry,” Kessler continued, “The catalogue of films is something we try to protect in France. The danger is that they are acquired by foreign entities, people outside of Europe, from other continents, which could mean the value disappears. As with catalogues of films, if a company buys it they can divide it up, and deprive the European public of access to it, by only licensing blockbusters and not the films that bring in less money but have great cultural value. We are trying to think about how to protect these cultural assets.”

Patry maintained that stability is key in the face of a shifting landscape. “Let’s stop thinking that being modern is being fast: we can do things slowly,” he said. “I do not believe that windows are an obstacle today. It’s a great system, of course, and the role of platforms may change, so we should be careful, but not necessarily go faster and faster all the time. The present system is based on a certain balance and agreement that platforms can have 12 months if they finance more.”

Hélène Herschel agreed, “There is room for change,” she said. “According to the level of investments, and there is more room than what we think, generally. The agreement does protect theatres. It’s the basis of our work and everyone, every professional will benefit from this, especially TV channels. The film being screened in theatres is more attractive than a film that is not being screened in theatres and people will want to see it again, on television. We have to be aware of secondary markets.” She also indicated that promotion is paramount. “It is important to reach 200 admissions, we will have to work hard for this, as Richard dreams of.”

“It’s a matter of desire,” Patry continued, “We have to desire to leave our home, to go to a theatre, to pay and go through the immersion of seeing a film with other viewers. Our distributors do a great job. As theatres, we have a major role to play in marketing campaigns and theatres are a kind of an addiction: it’s great to see a few minutes of another film, and maybe tomorrow we’ll go back to see that film… The job of an exhibitor is different to twenty or thirty years ago when we’d put posters in our windows and people would come in. Now, we have to be present on social media… we have to know our own public and work with these new tools.”

One concern as a result of this new model for exhibition, Patry suggested, is recruitment. The skills demands in the sector have expanded. “It is a job that needs high competency – in architecture, marketing, animating a debate, writing, welcoming people… and many more things. It is difficult to find people who can do all of this and we have to work evenings and weekends.”

Left to Right: Marguerite Hitier, Head of Media and Cinema Division for the French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, Yoann Ubermulhin, Territory Manager for Austria/Germany, Unifrance, Jérémie Kessler, Head of European and International Policy Unit, CNC

Marguerite Hitier also brought up education, especially important where young audiences are concerned. “We train tomorrow’s audiences,” she said. “South Korea have great success in this – the ministry for education in Korea has done a great job, aimed at diversifying publics and we can do this in France, too.”

Looking at sector successes elsewhere and emulating those models is crucial and Yoann Ubermulhin, Territory Manager for Austria/Germany for Unifrance talked about how France is also a source of inspiration for other countries with cinema evenings and sector wide discussion and collaboration around windows. He also talked about MUBI Go, an initiative from the streamer that encourages audiences to go to the cinema once a week, by including it in their subscription fee.

Investment in marketing is also crucial, especially at a time when government subsidies are coming to an end. The current average figure given for spend on an individual film was 472,000 euros, higher than in previous years. In this, exhibitors and distributors need to join forces and data sharing is important, although Patry was keen to caution on its tendency to homogenise. What sets cinemas apart is their individually crafted experiences.

Other issues include cinemas needing to become greener, more aware and sustainable, replacing and changing technology like projectors and heating/cooling systems to save the environment and energy. The CNC is deeply involved here also with 400 million euros of financing needed to achieve these aims.

The session ended on a positive note with Patry exclaiming, “What covid taught us is to go step by step. We are fortunate that cinema in France is a national treasure and we are lucky that we have the ministry for culture, the CNC, and that there are people to help us move forwards.”

Photographs © Francesco Clerici