Under normal circumstances, the Cannes Film Festival would have announced its lineup this week. Instead, it’s still unclear how the festival will happen at all, now that the earlier delay to late June has become impossible — after French President Emmanuel Macron banned festivals and other crowded events until at least mid-July — and the rest of the festival calendar is mighty crowded. Autonomous sidebars Directors Fortnight and Critics’ Week have officially canceled. The festival said in a statement that it hoped to communicate the different forms that Cannes 2020 could take in August or September.
Whatever happens with Cannes, however, the French film industry’s representatives at Unifrance are soldiering on. Backed by the government and the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC), Unifrance is trying to keep its 1,000 members, who include global partners, informed during a pandemic.
Executive director Daniela Elstner had to make some tough decisions in early March, when Juliette Binoche was scheduled to fly to New York for the March 5 opener “The Truth” at the annual UniFrance/Lincoln Center “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema.” Unifrance canceled the flights of the French delegation, including Binoche. Many thought Elstner was being overly cautious, but she didn’t want to take any chances. Instead, Unifrance supplied video intros and Q&As with the film directors.
These days, the German-born former international sales agent is holed up with her family just outside Paris, working with Unifrance president Serge Toubiana to keep the organization’s members informed of cinema closures and the latest virtual releases around the world. Elstner immediately accelerated the formation of a digital department in order to better communicate with members and collect data from different channels and platforms.
And two weeks ago, Unifrance mounted a stay-at-home edition of MyFrenchFilmFestival, with 70 free short films (and subtitles available in 10 languages) streaming on the Unifrance site as well as Facebook and YouTube, which will run until April 27. It’s a success, especially the family program, Elstner said on the telephone Tuesday. “We’ve had 420,000 views on the three platforms.”
While the French industry has, like the U.S., transitioned some movies like “The Truth” from shutdown theaters onto VOD platforms much sooner than the usual four-month window, the CNC’s unique revenue-sharing system for film and television producers, distributors and exhibitors also moved swiftly to alleviate the pandemic’s stunning economic blowout.
In France, the goal is to keep jobs for everyone via a generous unemployment system. And the CNC has already provided subsidies to the participants in its system, “so that films could be available on VOD more quickly,” said Elstner. “Most [distributors] are waiting for theaters to open.” That includes Binoche vehicle “La bonne épouse,” which opened well and played in theaters for one and a half weeks, and will be brought back after theaters reopen.
In France, movies are celebrated by the government and the culture. In his Monday speech, Macron specifically cited giving aid to movie theaters. He may have seen the recent French survey that showed that when asked what they missed most, respondents answered restaurants and bars first, followed by 52 percent of those surveyed missing going to cinemas, Elstner said. Counting regular moviegoers, that was 70 percent, even as they were watching more films at home. Unlike the U.S., where movie companies are laying off and furloughing their employees, “the government and the CNC will do everything they can to avoid that,” said Elstner. “There is solidarity between French politicians and culture.”
Even Netflix is doing its part in France. The streamer has not canceled any of the 20 shows originally scheduled to play in 2020 in France, from original film “La terre et le sang” to Damien Chazelle series “The Eddy,” but during the pandemic, projects in mid-production such as “Arsene Lupin” and “La Revolution” are on hold. “As soon as the crisis is over we will start immediately,” said Netflix spokesperson Anne-Gabrielle Dauba-Pantanacce, “while we need to respect the rules.”
Recent negotiations to include the controversial global streamer in France’s unusual shared revenue system (including pay TV channels and producers as well as theaters and distributors) are on pause. “We want to contribute to be part of the conversation,” said Dauba-Pantanacce.
As the COVID-19 crisis underscores the benefits of paying taxes to culture, Netflix has stepped up to support the production side of the CNC equation. The streaming service donated $1 million to aid unemployed French artists and technicians via support-group Audiens (as part of its $100-million aid package, with $85 million earmarked for America). “The $1 million is dedicated to help the hardest-hit workers in the TV and cinema industry,” said Dauba-Pantanacce. “Some workers don’t meet the eligibility conditions to access help from the state.”
American theaters wouldn’t be so marooned and vulnerable if they were part of a holistic whole. During this economic crisis in France, the CNC made help quickly available to every facet of the movie industry. In America, whose Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences did mobilize to donate $6 million to film artists, unemployment offices are swamped, government checks are slowly trickling out, and banks are ignoring pleas for loans. Exhibitors like struggling chain AMC have been focused on real estate and concessions at the expense of marketing movies to their customers, and in recent years have fallen out of sync with their studio partners. “The whole system makes it possible to give support to cinemas in France,” said Elstner. “All the different professions, exhibitors, distributors, and producers, are well-organized to make their voices heard.”
The government, she added, “will be there for culture. They have always been there.”