French Postwar Cultural and Film Policy Overview
French Postwar Cultural and Film Policy Overview
This article provides a brief overview of French Post Second World War Film Policy. It is a small section of my overall project which is to provide a synoptic overview of the history of European cinema in the major European industrial countries. It skims over the background political developments of this period as well. As this blog develops there will be the capacity to zoom into to resources and articles on individual films / movements / directors and to zoom out to gain an overview of developments at a synoptic level.
After the liberation of France in 1944 Charles de Gaulle (above) the leader of the Free French becomes leader of the provisional government. This is replaced by the Fourth Republic in 1946.
Finally, in October 1944, Roosevelt and Churchill recognised the French Committee of National Liberation as the provisional government of France and de Gaulle as its leader. De Gaulle curtly responded, 'The French government is happy to be called by its name'. De Gaulle had won and, in the process, inflicted on the American President his greatest personal defeat of the Second World War. (BBC The Allies at War)
French Cultural and Film Policy
French cultural policy has historically been strongly centralised and interventionist. From 1960-1993 France has been Europe’s leading film-making country which Graham[i] attributes to three interrelated factors; the cultural policy environment[ii], interacting with a large pool of talent and a receptive public[iii]. The argument here is that the latter conditions are dependent upon the cultural policy framework for without this structuring feature local talent would be attracted either abroad or to other industries such as television which would provide a more secure income.
The construction of a receptive audience is more complex requiring considerable sociological research to provide more substantial reasons for the existence of particular audiences. The Cannes film festival was founded in 1946 primarily as a showcase for French films functioning as the tip of a lively film festival culture. The role of cultural policy and planning initiatives in ensuring that these festivals are financially sound is beyond the brief of this work. When Cannes was started Venice was the prime festival venue in Venice, but, over a period of years Cannes managed to reach the position it still holds today has as the premier European film festival.
An important aspect of the development of French cinema is in the highly ambiguous relationship which exists betwen France and the USA. In hindsight it can be seen that French cinema has acted synechdocally, as a part signifying the greater whole, for this relationship which is also coming to terms with their own post-colonial past and issues of modernisation. While it is hard to evaluate there is also the issue of French national identity and repairing national pride. France’s international reputation regarding cinema had come to be built on what has developed as an 'auteurist-industrial' mode of production.
Film as an Assertion of National Identity
The cultural strands of auterism existed before the war, however Nazi and Vichy controls had limited this aspect of French cinema which was an important source of cultural pride amongst the intellectual elites. In the wider cultural sphere the Second World War saw the global pre-eminence of France in the field of fine arts almost entirelydisappear . Modern art and modern artists moved to the USA,
France's Position in a Changing World
French troops in Algeria 1954
The French relationship with America was not just in the realm of arts and cinema. The history of the 20th century itself is the story of America coming to reach hegemony as a power with a global reach which has never been seen before. This was at the expense of the European empires of which France was one. France had always been been behind in the empire-building stakes. Prior to the rise of America Britain had held pride of place. During the 20th century France has been invaded twice and rescued largely by the Americans. It had failed to modernise prior to WW II which can be seen as partially being responsible for its defeat. This was taken on board as a primary task by de Gaulle’s provisional government 1944-45 and then the post-war Fourth Republic[iv]. Women - whose position in society is a powerful indicator of the rate of progress of a state - didn’t have the vote until after the war for example.
Vietnamese soldiers hoist a victory flag at the battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
France had been largely marginalised in the establishment of post-war Europe, primarily conducted between Stalin and Roosevelt then Truman with Churchill having some say. The French empire started collapsing around it immediately afterwards. The huge defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese nationalists at DienBien Phu in 1954 led to the establishing of an independent Vietnam organised into northern and southern zones. Morocco and Tunisia were also awarded their autonomy by 1956. This was the year in which the 1954 revolt in Algeria had turned into war. 1956 was also the year in which both Britain and France had become involved in the Suez crisis, an incident which politically sealed their fates as leading players on the world geo-political scene and effectively marked the end of European imperial ambitions. The hostility of the United States towards this adventurist action led to ignominious withdrawal and governmental crisies in both countries. The routes taken by France and Britain were quite different. France eventually installed General de Gaulle (08 / 01 / 59) as an archetypal strong leader in 1958 with the ability to change the constitution approved by referendum. [de Gaulle biography]
De Gaulle becomes President of France January 1959 (Above)
From the end of the war a tension between France and the USA emerged around cinema. The trade agreements established between France and the USA included film export quotas as part of the agreement for delivering Marshall Aid. Marshall Aid was the funds which the USA made available to help fund post-war reconstruction in Europe and thus stabilise the region conditional upon providing support for liberal democratic politics. These quotas were to prove a symbolically important bone of contention. The history of protectionist measures instituted by the French to ensure the survival of their own film industry go back to 1928 the Herriot Decree introducing a quota system. Following this a ceiling was created of 150 American films per year in 1936. In 1952 this was lowered to 110. In May 1946 the Blum-Byrnes agreement was established which stipulated that that French films must be screened for at least four out of every thirteen weeks - equivalent to slightly less than one third of available screen time.
This created a strong negative reaction amongst the French film industry who felt extremly threatened by the immediate post-war ‘swamping’ - or massive popular demand depending on your point of view! - of French screens with American output. Arguably this represented huge pent-up supply and demand. The French film industry which had been largely unchallenged during the occupation started a defensive mobilisation at the end of 1947 and early in 1948. As a result there was a demonstration from all parts of the industry in Paris of approximately 10,000 people. This accompanied a vigorous publicity and lobbying campaign. As a result of the pressure the quota was renegotiated giving French films a minimum of well over 40 % of available screen time, five weeks out of twelve.
Of course read through eyes which are not driven by self-interest or nationalist hubris it could be argued that the French general public much preferred the output of Hollywood, its narratives and its content. Hollywood for millions of ordinary people across Europe signified progress and liberal democracy firing idealism and hope at a time of reconstruction and revelations about the horrors and deep traumas of war in general and the Holocaust in particular.
The First Plan of the post-war republic between 1947-1950 incorporated concerns about cinema and proposed to reduce taxes on the cinema, build studio capacity, to modernise and rebuild cinema theatres and establish a specialist body to co-ordinate cinema. As a result as early as 1946 the Centre National de la Cinematographie ( CNC ) was established. In 1947 it took over responsibility for the film festival at Cannes. In 1948 the loi d’aide was set up. This didn’t provide any subsidies but ensured that a proportion of profits from the industry were reinvested in the industry.
Financial assistance was also offered to producers in proportion to receipts of the last film they had made. This policy was an attempt to ensure continuing financial support for the creation of new French films. The policy was moderately successful and during the 1950’s it provided approximately 17% of the total investment in film production in France. This system was reliant upon high attendance figures to be successful. However many of the films failed to receive critical acclaim and audiences began to decline partly due to the mediocrity of the products. As a result the French parliament in 1953 set up a development aid fund which was designed to promote higher quality and innovation. Projects were to be: “French and of a kind to serve the cause of cinema or to open new perspectives in the art of cinematography”[v]. Speakers in the National Assembly also argued for the importance of education over pure profits. This position was clearly a conflation of aesthetics and national identity. This added selective aid to that of automatic aid designated in 1948 thus making available funds for low-cost independent film-makers also coincided with much lighter and more effective cinema technologies made production cheaper and location shooting possible.
Postwar French cultural Policy & the Links to Vichy France
Whilst the aesthetic nationalist traditions can be traced to 1918, the industrial cultural policy framework influencing present day France has its origins in Petain’s Vichy collaborationist government. A new ruling body for the industry was established in Paris the Committee for the Organization of the Cinematographic Industries (COIC). The regulations they introduced laid the basis for a more stable financial structure, policies to boost short film production, establishing controls oer box-office receipts and establishing a new film school IDHEC (Now Femis).
The convergence of political and financial support alongside technological innovation provided the basis for the emergence of the ‘New Wave’ in 1958 coincided with the recent installation of the Gaullist regime which was concerned with protectionist ideas particularly in relation to cultural concerns and considered Hollywood as threatening to dilute the culture, as it was increasing its market share of cinema takings. Government aid to the industry came through establishing the avance sur recettes (which still exists) system. This advance on potential takings acted as a form of subsidy to those films which didn’t become profitable and acted as a soft loan for those films which did move into profits as some of the profits was used to pay back the advance. Acting as a form of underwriting this enabled many people to become directors for the first time stimulating production.
The inception of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) [Sample chapter available here!] allowed space for critics and policy-makers to support cinema in the form of the ‘art film’. As a cinema for audiences with considerable cultural capital and those concerned with increasing their cultural capital and the financial means to do this, French government policy enabled indigenous cinema to compete against Hollywood at a time when TV was beginning to erode the mass-audience base of cinema. On average between 30-40 films a year received the avance, which represented approximately a quarter of the production.
Francois Truffauts 400 Blows (1959) was the film which announced the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague only months after de Gaulle came to power.
Falling Box Office Receipts and Audience
In common with cinema in general there was a continuous steep decline in cinema-going dropping from around 400 million attendances in 1959 to around 180 million by 1969. The context had moved from a crisis of production to one based upon exhibition, a crisis which was general in western countries at this time largely because of the impact of TV. French cultural policy had to adapt to the changing circumstances and in 1967 the first step to try and halt the decline was put into place by allowing exhibitors to benefit from the development funds through the Fonds de soutien. This helped to modernise cinemas but benefited larger chains rather than smaller independents leading to rationalisation and concentration, a process which happened amongst the distributors thus reducing the numbers of films available. This could be seen as bad for consumers by limiting choice but it signalled a clear problem of supply outstripping demand.
Furthermore there is the issue of the viewing experience! The rapid improvements in TV technologies and the failure to re-invest in making cinema an attractive outing was a failure to adapt to newer audience requirements. Consequently from some consumer points of view consolidation of exhibition space was beneficial to consumers. The financial support for exhibitors helped to establish multiplexes in the larger towns and cities. This reflected an international tendency to make widespread releases of films in order to increase the speed of receipts on a given film thus amortising the costs of production quickly.
Alongside the specific help given to exhibitors the relaxation of censorship after 1968 which was general across the west encouraged both the production and exhibition of sex films and it wasn’t until 1976 that a law was passed preventing sex-films from benefiting from government support. At the same time new taxes were instituted on the production and exhibition of these films. The intention was to reign in the pornography market back to the approximate 10% of market share which had always sustained it.
Throughout the period of the 1960s through the 1970s TV ownership blossomed as it had done over the rest of Europe. As disposable incomes rose leisure other leisure pursuits developed reducing audiences. In parallel to this TV became an important exhibitor of films. Between 1965 and 1975 the number of films screened on TV doubled. Films were a relatively cheap way of filling up continuously expanding broadcasting schedules, and the French TV monopoly ORTF was broken up into seven separate companies. This was partly motivated by an attempt to control costs making a proportion of each channel’s income dependent upon viewing numbers to increase competitiveness. Popular films which were also cheap were popular with schedulers too. This led to the numbers of art films which had received the avance de recettes being shifted from prime-time viewing.
TV also steadily became important producers of films and there was a special budget allowance of 8 million francs allowed for film production in 1979 for the TFI and Antenne 2 channels which joined the 2 channels which had had a production license since 1974. By 1982 the Bredin report on French cinema pointed out that joint production and advance sale of broadcasting rights had significantly transformed film production and distribution. Becoming exhibition-led rather than production-led, the influence of cultural policy that was directly intervention declined changing to a more regulatory role, whilst TV has taken over as the ‘effective controller of the industry’ suggests Forbes.[vi]
In many respects Forbes’ analysis effectively shows that the processes of globalisation, in the form of centralising capital were gradually becoming focused upon media concerns. Cultural policy at the level of state control was being eroded. Historically it is likely that the period of French film history from the inception of the nouvelle vague to the awarding of several TV companies with the rights of film production will go down as a period when the auteur film flourished in a way that no other single country has ever seen or is likely to see. These films were somewhat elitist in that they were made for a largely intellectualised audience, it is nonetheless important to ensure that cinema seen as a form of public sphere operating at levels of both form and content should have some relative autonomy from purely commercial concerns. Arguably the way forward for European cinema and the institutional frameworks supporting it needs to be multiperspectival utilising some of the insights which informed French cinema policy.
1 [i]Graham, Peter. 1997 p
[ii] Forbes, Jill. 1992, p 2 makes a stronger case arguing that the audience has been constructed and maintained by ‘supporting the production of films that are intended ot for the mass audience but for the smaller , educated, middle-class
3 [iv]Joll, James.1990, p 448.
4 [v]Forbes, Jill. ( 1992 ) p 6.
5 [vi] Forbes ( 1992 ) p 10 .