France is committed to keeping cinema alive. What would it take for the US to follow suit?
15 years ago I went to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time and spent two intense weeks consumed by cinema. It was a chaotic experience dominated by exhaustion and attempts to stay awake and consume as many films as possible. After a dizzying ride through screenings from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to No Country for Old Men and Secret Sunshine, I had a hard time processing the world outside of dark, crowded spaces. And I couldn’t wait to return.
When I got home, my euphoria gave way to frustration and envy. Cannes rolled out the red carpet for writers and treated cinema as fine art; Even in New York, movies felt like a much smaller part of the cultural equation. What gives? The answer, of course, depends on the money. It helps to have a government that invests massive resources in the arts, as France does, and Cannes reflects the equation of cinema as a civic duty. The result is a national effort to save the movies that is more impactful than anything Hollywood is doing.
I’m not the only one noticing the contrast. On the red carpet this year, an official festival reporter asked Andie MacDowell what she loves about Cannes. “There’s a very specific perspective in film,” she said, “a more artistic perspective than we see films in America. It’s a different creative way to explore art and cinema.”
This does not mean that the investment is guaranteed. The festival’s timing came at an awkward point this year when the French presidential election took place, which luckily ended in the re-election of Emmanuel Macron rather than his terrifying far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. (During her campaign, Le Pen said she would prioritize the preservation of France’s national heritage over other cultural initiatives.) The electoral drama in France is not over yet: General elections will be held in the country on June 12 to determine which of the political Parties in the country are the most powerful. Historically, the country’s newly elected president tends to get his way. Still, the world knows these showdowns are not to be taken for granted; If Macron loses, his party’s cultural priorities could also suffer.
The President appointed his new culture minister just last week and Cannes was her first assignment. I was a few rows away from Rima Abdul-Malak at the Croisette Theater when the artistic director of Directors’ Fortnight singled her out from the audience as she settled in for The Dam, a Sudan-set feature film by the Paris-based Lebanese artist Ali Cheri . Abdul-Malak previously worked as a cultural attaché in New York and was an adviser to Macron during his first term; At 43, she brings a breath of fresh air to his cabinet and the potential to accelerate his investments in cinema. She will also be tasked with electing a new head of the CNC, the government funding agency that pours millions of euros into film projects each year and provides half of Cannes’ budget.
If Le Pen’s party captured Parliament next month, it would be much more difficult for Macron to prioritize cultural initiatives on his own terms, including Cannes. That doesn’t necessarily mean the festival would lose resources immediately, but it’s a reminder that this enviable ecosystem at home remains fragile. And if you’re interested in film, you want Cannes – and France’s extraordinary film culture – to thrive. The festival’s trickle-down effects can be felt around the world. It doesn’t necessarily have the power to boost the art house market, but it does create enough noise and energy around the idea of cinema that many of the countries in attendance feel compelled to bring some measure of that take home.
It’s entirely possible that Top Gun: Maverick would have done well at the box office without its tumultuous start at Cannes, but Tom Cruise’s arrival at the festival showed clear solidarity with his investment in theatrical potential. Paramount spends massive marketing dollars, but that’s nothing compared to the heavy lifting being done by French taxpayers’ money. Arte France brought 33 projects to the festival this year and pulled many future projects out of the market. You could almost smell the money blowing off the yachts at the pier.
Those funds go to projects far bolder than strapping Tom Cruise to a jet. These include Lea Mysius’ extraordinary biracial, time-traveling, coming-of-age thriller “The Five Devils” to Albert Serra’s dreamlike musings on colonialism “Pacifiction” and “Forever Young”, a touching look at the theater company of the 80s, which is directed by her Patrice Chereau. The range of cinema supported by France is like Cannes itself: it pleads for the survival of the art form.
I marvel at this type of investment every year. When I mentioned it to a prominent French actor at an event a few nights ago, he giggled and said it sounded like I wanted to move there. (It was the cinephile equivalent of “if you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”) I don’t; I want some of the infrastructure needed to support the films to be brought back to my own country, unlikely as that may be.
America has so many staggering problems that nagging about a lack of support for the arts may seem frivolous to some. But storytelling can of course change the world, or at least enlighten it. In its ability to create jobs, it is an economic necessity with lasting value for society.
But Hollywood treats movies and television under the guise of the dreaded C-word, which has no place in Cannes. You know the one, and so does Martin Scorsese, who takes him on stage whenever he gets the mic. “Cinema is devalued by contents‘ he wrote in an essay for Harper’s Magazine last year, condemning the use of the word as ‘a business term for any moving image: a David Lean film, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a Serial Episode.” This homogenization “has created a situation where everything is presented to the viewer on an equal footing,” he added, “which sounds democratic, but it isn’t.”
There’s no point dreaming of an ideal world where the National Endowment for the Arts would suddenly fund film productions across the United States. Earlier this year, the French government announced an investment of 1.3 billion euros in French productions; the CNC supported them all. Hollywood studios support their own projects for other reasons.
What America needs is greater private investment in the entire ecosystem for cinema itself. Companies planning their next big steps, from BRON to A24, should start thinking bigger than individual grants and production resources.
Companies with the capacity to spend big need to close the sustainability gap. You might consider some of the shortcomings of the current market, some of which I’ve covered over the past few months, including a lack of first-look deals for aspiring filmmakers and a lack of reliable financial backing for the regional festival circuit.
Arthouses (and Art House Convergence, for that matter) need a pipeline to sustain the only potential for daring exhibitions left in the country. You need comprehensive infrastructure solutions instead of piecemeal investments. It’s so much more than throwing money around; Companies that really want movies to survive need to think in terms of hard metrics solutions that do more than make them feel good.
If there’s no real progress to be made on that front – well, at least we have Cannes. For now.
Do you have any ideas for larger economic support systems that could help film culture survive in the US, or bring more empowerment like Cannes across the Atlantic? Give me your ideas and I’ll pick up the phone to see how viable they are in an upcoming column: firstname.lastname@example.org
Speaking of which, one takeaway from this year’s Cannes was that my story about the dire state the programming profession is in has motivated people in the field and made them ready to see more progress. More next week.
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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/france-government-saves-movies-cannes-1234729168/ France’s government saves the films better than Hollywood