Saturday, October 22, 2005

Le panique Attaq

I can’t understand the widespread distain in this country for the French approach to culture. Especially from lefties.

We Brits tend to delude ourselves into beleiving that we’re roundheaded free-traders in the film / TV markets. If you listen to the middlebrow consensus on this, you’d think that we don’t do cultural protectionism in this country - and that we don’t need to. The consensus appears to be that, unlike the Frogs, we don’t have snobby cultural policement picking winners and shovelling massive subsidies into flicks!

Well, wrong on every count. We subsidise our audiovisual industries more than the French. We do it by applying cultural standards - not ones that are dominated by market values.

And why shouldn't we? We could stop it, of course. If you’d be prepared to put up with the consequences.

What bothers the French is that the US has a huge comparative advantage in film-making. In a market that involves high levels of risk and enormous investment, a prosperous country with a large single-language domestic market and receptive foreign markets open to a bit of lucrative dumping, the US is always going to enjoy massive advantages. In many ways American-English is the lingua franca of film-making. Even stridently ‘local’ non-American films adopt many of the narratives, characterisations and structures of American films.

So when the world wants to watch a new film, it first checks the in-tray for anything American.

Should this bother us? I’d say so. I’d have no objection, for instance to (scrabbling for an example) importing all of my rice from Asia. Or all of my coffee from Kenya and Columbia. But the idea of importing all of my culture - or all of my TV and film at any rate - from one country? Well, I’ve countless objections to that. But I’ll restrict myself to one basic Marxist one: No-one should let another social group have a monopoly on interesting work.

The reason that we think that the French are barmy about subsidies is because we don’t see the consequences of not doing the same. We have an effective and popular public service broadcaster in the UK. The last time I looked (I went over this in detail about five years ago) the BBC provides more investment for dramatic productions than the entire European film and TV industries put together. This includes France.

As a result, we have a constant stream of popular high-quality TV production. The majority of TV content in the UK is originated in the UK with British investment. It’s written and produced for British audiences.

The French didn’t have the foresight to establish a public service broadcaster as good as ours. In the dim-and-distant, it became a political football, and the only area that receives any subsidy to match our TV production is their Film industry. It benefits from an investment quota from Canal Plus (at least I think it still does) and a bit of box-office protectionism with it’s European film quota.

So if you go to the flicks in France, you can enjoy a reasonable selection of European-originated films to go with the usual diet of US blockbusters.

And what would happen to TV if our crafty little subsidies were removed?

Go and pick up your local cinema guide. Look through the review section first and see if there are any British (or any other non-US) films with good reviews. OK? Now find them in the listings. Are they on at the local multiplex?

Usually not.

Where then? Well, there are a couple of screenings at that coffee-and-carrot-cake place on the other side of town...... for a few days only.

I routinely miss films that I want to watch because they are on for such a short window (as they call it in the trade). My local multiplex with about a dozen screens regularly shows American crap across all of their auditoria because of the marketing muscle that anyone who is dumping comodities has - and way that distributors throw their weight around.

And unless something major has changed since the last time I did the sums, around 98% of films shown in British cinemas are of US origin. Read that figure again: 98% of films in British cinemas are American.

Everytime I use this argument in conversation, people don’t beleive it at first. Then they check it out and they’re astonished. Why it isn’t a major public policy issue is a mystery to me.

And if English wasn’t your first language, wouldn’t you be particularly glad about your subsidies?

(Note; the Wallace and Grommit film probably makes this an unusually bad week to make this argument. But over time, it's fairly insignificant.)


Eric said...

Yes, but do we need defending from America culture?

I for one, would not welcome being denied the US film industry and being forced to watch countless rubbish UK films. (Sex lives of the Potato Men anybody?")

Paulie said...

I think you'd have to be a bit paranoid to believe that you will ever be denied US films Eric.

And I understand that the British film industry currently have no plans to force you to watch their films.

The fact is that the audiovisual markets are remarkably rigged in the US's favour. Non-US producers DO need defending against US producers.

British films that are critically acclaimed can't get screened in British cinemas.