The French connection: 65-year-old UniFrance promotes a vital film industry worldwide
The French, they are a notoriously movie-centric race. And UniFrance Films, the government’s educational and promotional arm for the native industry, is now celebrating its 65th anniversary and busy as ever fueling the passion for French cinema, not only at home but around the world. With its home base in Paris, the organization was created in 1949 under France’s 1901 law regarding associations and currently maintains three offices abroad in New York, Tokyo and Beijing.
In contrast to the U.S., France’s government has long been hugely supportive of its film industry. It placed UniFrance under the supervision of the government-run CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée), an association of nearly 600 members of France’s industry working as feature or shorts producers, exporters/sales agents and talent agents, directors, actors and writers.
UniFrance, in its educational and promotional drive, has several missions, with a primary but not exclusive goal of reaching theatre screens worldwide. Reflecting the new age of technology-rattled entertainment, Isabelle Giordano, who joined UniFrance president Jean-Paul Salomé as executive director in early September 2013, explains: “We’re primarily focused on promoting French films in cinemas both locally and worldwide, but through the good partnerships we have we also try to facilitate exposure to other platforms by way of sales to places like Hulu or iTunes.”
To achieve its goals, UniFrance embarks on a number of initiatives to bring exposure to French film product and its industry professionals. By way of tireless data gathering, it also informs French and global professionals about how native films perform overseas and who’s producing and distributing what.
Producing events year-round and attending the important ones worldwide to further the exposure of French product and talent is also key to UniFrance’s strategy. In the States, we’re most familiar with the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series with Manhattan’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, a program of about 20 new films already sold or looking for distribution. Additionally, Giordano notes, Les Rendez-Vous de Paris in the French capital brings about 450 foreign buyers to the French capital for a look at the latest film offerings.
This year’s Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous, says Giordano, “had a focus of first and second features, what we’re calling the “nouvelle, nouvelle vague,” a reference to France’s golden Nouvelle Vague era of films in the ’50s and ’60s that put French cinema into history books, onto American art-house screens, and inspired countless foreign filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Volker Schlöndorff and many more, as made clear in UniFrance’s new “65 Reasons to Love French Cinema” unveiled at last month’s Cannes Fest (see below).
Besides New York, the Rendez-Vous program, Giordano explains, also travels to cities like Tokyo, Rome, London and Moscow. “But the programs vary, as Russians don’t appreciate the same films as Americans, who appreciate more diversity and art-house fare. The Russians go more for the comedies.”
Regarding how films are selected for these promotional series (they represent a fraction of the hundreds the country produces annually), Giordano says those in France’s film sales corner do the choosing.
French cinema may be past what many consider its golden age, but Giordano counters with the fact that “we are the world’s second-biggest exporter and this year counted around 50 million viewers for our films outside France.”
As UniFrance covers the world on behalf of French films, China these days is very much in its crosshairs, as evidenced by the strong presence UniFrance assured for French cinema at April’s Beijing International Film Festival. France held the spotlight there with China and helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between France and the People’s Republic of China. Additionally and indicative of UniFrance efforts in such events on behalf of French cinema, there were many sidebars allowing for networking between French and Chinese producers and the countries’ distribution companies. UniFrance also promoted opportunities to shoot in France and the French films available for the territory. Catalogs were handed out and a discussion forum encouraged co-productions between the two countries.
The Beijing event also enabled UniFrance to tout the specific nature of the French system of ensuring a diversity of films on its theatre screens while preserving native productions. At the Fest, UniFrance also reassured its support of the Franco-Chinese Co-Production Agreement and advocated for a stronger presence of French films on Chinese screens.
UniFrance further embraced that relationship at the recent Cannes Fest, where it sponsored a special Franco-Chinese Day. But the French nod wasn’t just to the East. UniFrance also honored producer/distributor Charles Cohen on the occasion of an Order of Merit awarded him. For more than a half-dozen years, his Cohen Media Group has brought many superb French films to the U.S.
UniFrance keeps a watchful eye on every stage in the life of a French film abroad and tracks French films from their sale to their distribution. To this end, the film arm accompanies films annually to about 60 international festivals and markets. Wherever the action happens to be, UniFrance holds events to bring buyers and sellers together and promote its projects, executives and personalities.
The three fundamental objectives of such rigorous promotion are to inform and excite buyers, media and the public. Helping producers and distributors of its films worldwide, UniFrance even gets involved in such nitty-gritty matters as organizing travel logistics for crews, staying in close touch with press, and encouraging releases to go wider.
On the data-gathering and dispersal front, UniFrance now tracks year-round the progress of French features in about 50 countries, whether in theatres or on TV. Follow-up to this oversight includes managing the data, the resulting market analyses and production statistics, and analyses of films sales and distribution of product in the many different countries. Also key, UniFrance tracks all the companies and executives involved in the many deals for its films. UniFrance members and partners have easy access to its economic and statistical studies and much is available to all at unifrance.org.
Asked to compare the U.S.’s MPAA with UniFrance, as both entities promote and protect their respective country’s films, Giordano responds that while the missions are the same, not so the budgets. “Ours is around nine million euros, but it’s much higher for the MPAA.” This discrepancy, however, is not quite so dramatic when the French government’s support and protection of its film industry is taken into account, meaning the subsidies, subventions and, certainly, France’s unusual “cultural exception” (“l’exception culturelle”) policy, all of which have such positive impact on the country’s production, distribution and exhibition.
The cultural exception, deemed “protectionist” but also controversial, came to life in the early ’90s as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations that enabled France to make its “culture” distinct from other commercial products. Thus, “culture” became immune to important rules governing international trade. (The following statistics from Wikipedia suggest the policy’s impact: In France from 2005 to 2011, between 45% and 55% of its film products were American imports, while these latter represented about 60 to 90% in other European markets. Or, just talk to anyone in international distribution at the studios.)
Giordano, unsurprisingly, is all for the “cultural exception” policy that supports French films in France. Also suggesting a problem that plagues small theatre owners in the U.S., she contends that the exception, “by way of regulations, has helped us preserve longer runs in our theatres so that our films play for more than one week. The agreements we have in place often allow for two or three weeks in theatres. We’re making a strong effort [for longer theatre runs].”
Although relatively new to the 65-year-old UniFrance, Giordano came aboard as an author and seasoned journalist in print, TV and radio covering entertainment and politics. Over the past few decades she had her own TV shows on major pay and free TV French platforms like Canal + and Arte, in addition to a prime-time morning radio show on France Inter, a key public radio station. She continues as a regular columnist and in the past nine years has written six books.
On the educational front, UniFrance also produces programs that help deepen the public’s appreciation of French cinema art and history. And “Cinema pour tous,” a program that Giordano founded eight years ago, dovetails perfectly with UniFrance’s considerable efforts on the education front. The aim of this ongoing initiative, which organizes regular screenings and debates for underprivileged people and the young, is to engage these groups that have often been left behind.
What is undeniable is that UniFrance, even at 65, isn’t feeling its years. As a leader in global cinema, France continues to reign as a major film exporter and fifth in the world in theatre attendance. That French films notch about 35% of product screened in its own country is truly exceptional for Europe. (Loyalty may account for much of this, but credit is also due that cultural exception policy.)
Additionally, more than one new French film each day hits theatre screens around the world, and these films yearly attract 65 million theatregoers (an appropriate birthday touch!). And a nice birthday gift, as annual receipts from cinemas abroad amount to about 350 million euros.
On this 65th anniversary occasion, what better and more appropriate way for UniFrance to do a good bit of announcing (bragging, even) and celebrating than at the just-wrapped Cannes Film Festival, where it operated from newly decorated space at the UniFrance Films Pavilion.
There, UniFrance, often in partnership with CNC, hosted professional meetings and interviews and held cocktail receptions for celebrities, buyers and press worldwide. There were dinners and evening events for crew members who worked many of the French films represented at Cannes. But there were anniversary highlights by way of media briefing to present results of a new study UniFrance introduced in association with the OpinionWay agency that surveyed “The Image of French Cinema Around the World” and a special evening reception with L’Oréal Paris at the posh Hotel Martinez.
The study, with a global perspective and emphasis on French product, covers consumer trends, perceptions, the importance of notoriety, types of audiences, film genres, titles, actors and directors.
The OpinionWay Institute study drew from a representative sample of 5,891 foreign viewers over 15 years of age in over 14 countries, examining how foreign audiences perceive French films. Participants were queried about their motivations in going to see French films, where (on what platforms) they view the films, who are the most popular French actors and top favorite films and genres, etc.
Just a few of the many observations from the "OpinionWay Survey for UniFrance Films” include:
• 74% of spectators questioned have a positive view of French films.
• Comedies and romantic comedies are the most popular genres of French films, ahead of dramas, action films, black comedies, historical dramas, and documentaries.
• French films remain the second most highly regarded national cinema industry, after American films, particularly for American and European audiences.
• A film's subject (rated at 60%), its genre (40%), and its cast (38%) are considered the most important factors by spectators, ahead of reviews, box-office success or awards.
• VOD accounts for 3% of viewing media for French films, with Internet downloads (streaming, torrent, etc.) representing 14%.
• 42% of American audiences consider them as intimist films (focused on feelings and relationships), 46% of Russian audiences see them as humorous, and 32% of Polish audiences consider them to be captivating.
The survey also revealed the participants’ favorite French actors and films. Many were cited, but among those at the top were Gérard Depardieu, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Amélie, The Intouchables, Taxi, Amour and The Artist.
The Cannes UniFrance/L’Oréal event featured the sneak-preview screening of the short film “65 raisons d’aimer le cinéma français" (“65 Reasons to Love French Cinema”), produced by UniFrance and Beall Productions. Of course, features at Cannes dominated (noisiest were French-themed films like Welcome to New York, inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, and Grace of Monaco, in addition to Sony Pictures Classics’ Foxcatcher), but UniFrance counterpointed the cacophony with its celebratory short honoring French cinema and the 65-year-old unit that supports it.
What more appropriate place than Cannes for this and what more appropriate a genre, as shorts have always had a special status in France. This mother country has traditionally nurtured shorts (France is home to one of the oldest and most beloved short film festivals, Clermond-Ferrand) and Cannes traditionally awards short films (yes, there’s even a Palme d’Or for shorts). France introduced the filmgoing world to watchable shorts in theatres beginning in the ’50s (those splashy Jean Mineur ads) and French auteurs like François Truffaut, Claude Berri, Jean-Luc Godard and French-adoptee Roman Polanski all got their starts by making critically acclaimed short films. And UniFrance itself loves the genre and sponsors many programs to support shorts and their creators.
Hugely watchable and exhilarating, “65 Reasons” provides a cinematic rush through the joys and peaks of French cinema today and back when (even back briefly to Lumière, who started it all in 1895). It’s a snappy, dazzling 11-minute pile-up of hundreds of famous talking heads (famous stars and directors from around the world commenting on why French films and stars are so important to them) and many nostalgia-inducing clips, all too numerous to mention. Plenty of brief but helpful subtitles and cool animated intertitles keep things jumping and viewers oriented. (The film can be seen here.)
Asked about digital’s impact on UniFrance, Giordano answers, “Yes, the big revolution for us has been digital. We’ve seen small theatres close, as most people are going to the multiplexes. But not a lot of French films are playing [at these bigger venues], so we are doing more lobbying to get more of our films on multiplex screens.”
Looking ahead, Giordano foresees that “more and more, films will be watched at home on TVs and digital screens, and offerings from companies like Netflix, Amazon and Google will grow more. Going to theatres will have less appeal. It’s difficult and I’m not so optimistic.”
In such a climate of change, she believes “[UniFrance’s] challenge is to make going out to theatres more attractive to younger people especially, who are now more into TV series.”
And what about the reality (“perception” is the kinder word) that French films in the U.S. over the years have less appeal compared to the heyday decades ago of the Nouvelle Vague or occasional recent winners like some Luc Besson co-productions, Amélie, La Vie en Rose and The Artist? Giordano cites the many changes that have occurred: “Like most things these days, the film business and viewers are changing. And there are new forms, new platforms, a wider diversity of available content. Just so much change that digital has brought about.”
Is there something that American distributors and exhibitors might do to spur more interest in French films stateside? “There should be a way to convince distributors that buying more French films gives American audiences an alternative to what’s out there. After all, with people like Spielberg, Lucas and Weinstein suggesting that Hollywood is dead, maybe there’s more of a place for us. Right now, there’s so much creativity in TV and not so much in Hollywood. Our cinema is vibrant and we have so many artists. We just have to continue to educate audiences so that the taste for French cinema continues to grow. It’s a matter of both educational and promotional efforts and we’re involved in both.”
If UniFrance provides few answers regarding how to alter the dynamics of what has become for everyone a difficult business, it might teach Americans, especially those calling for government to be less hands-on, that government working efficiently and hand-in-hand with an industry that needs its help can reap big rewards all around.