A look into France’s protected film industry and the hotbed of creativity it has fostered
Widely regarded as the cradle of cinema, France’s history with the moving image began in 1895 when the Lumière brothers showed their first film to an audience in Paris. It is no accident that France’s film industry has grown into the widely respected entity it is today. It has been nurtured into existence, at times cared for, at times fought for, and at times sacrificed for.
To see the beginnings of its industry we must look to the years following the First World War. Shattered by the four-year conflict, both structurally and financially, European countries had to focus their efforts on their economies before their culture. Thus, French cinema, which had been budding since the Lumière brothers first showed L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1895, was put on hold.
Unhindered by these burdens, America’s own film industry grew quickly. It began to export its films to Europe. Seeing this as a threat, the French government responded. Issuing a quota to cinemas in France, for every eight films screened in French cinemas, one of them must be French made. Backing this up, the government granted subsidies to production companies to stimulate growth.
French film blossomed. With guaranteed screens and government subsidies production companies grew up all over France. To meet the display needs of all these new films, a slew of cinemas cropped all over France, in Paris in particular.
However, it wasn’t all roses. In 1929 the French government cut the quota down to 3:1. Hollywood responded by boycotting exports to France and imports of their films. Forced to capitulate after eight months, the French returned to the original 7:1.
Protectionism made France into a greenhouse. By shutting its doors and its windows to foreign markets, and focussing inwards, the French fostered an environment, a hotbed, for creativity. Protected from the outside by legislation, and cared for on the inside by subsidies, the French fought boycotts and sacrificed the mainstream populist foreign cinema in favour of its own home grown crop.
But it isn’t all roses. For all its greats such as Jeunet’s Amelie, Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows, and Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, we don’t see the dross. From a foreign perspective, we only see France’s exports. Its cream of the crop. Largely, these are the films that are submitted for the Oscars, or win at Cannes. But when you foster a domestic industry you must take the good with the bad. We don’t see the likes of Banlieue 13: Ultimatum sweeping the Oscars.
French cinema has, and still does, influence film makers the world over. Its history of protectionism is the single key reason for its modern prominence.