Life After Cannes: France’s Government Is Saving the Movies Better Than Hollywood (Column)

France is invested in keeping cinema alive. What would it take for the U.S. to follow suit?
France’s Government Is Saving the Movies Better Than Hollywood
French president Emmanuel Macron, the Palais des Festivals at Cannes, "The Five Devils," "Forever Young"

Fifteen years ago, I made my first trip to the Cannes Film Festival 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 movies as possible. After a dizzying ride through screenings of everything 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 rooms. And I couldn’t wait to return. 

Back home, my euphoria gave way to frustration and envy. Cannes rolled out the red carpet for auteurs and treated cinema as high art; even in New York, movies felt like a much smaller piece of the cultural equation. What gives? The answer, of course, comes down to money. It helps to have a government with formidable resources invested in the arts, as France does, and Cannes reflects its country’s equation of cinema as civic duty. The result is a national effort to save the movies that’s more impactful than anything Hollywood is doing.

I’m not alone in noting the contrast. On the red carpet this year, an official festival reporter asked Andie MacDowell what she appreciated about Cannes. “It’s a very certain perspective in film,” she said, “a more artistic perspective than how we see movies in America. It’s a different creative avenue for exploring art and cinema.” 

That doesn’t mean the investment is guaranteed. Timing for the festival’s lineup fell at an awkward juncture this year with the French presidential election, which fortunately concluded with the reelection of Emmanuel Macron and not his frightening far-right opponent Marine Le Pen. (During her campaign, Le Pen said she would prioritize preserving French national heritage sites over other cultural initiatives.) France’s election drama isn’t over: On June 12, the country will hold its parliamentary elections that determine which of the country’s political parties hold the most power. Historically, the country’s newly elected president tends to prevail. Still, the world knows not to take these showdowns for granted; if Macron loses, then his party’s cultural priorities could suffer as well. 

The president appointed his new minister of culture just this past week and Cannes was her first assignment. I was a few rows away  from Rima Abdul-Malak at the Croisette Theatre when Directors’ Fortnight artistic director singled her out in the audience as she settled in for “The Dam,” a Sudan-set feature from Paris-based Lebanese artist Ali Cherri. Abdul-Malak previously worked as a cultural attaché in New York and served as a Macron advisor during his first term; at 43, she brings a fresh spirit to his cabinet and the potential to accelerate its investment in cinema. She will also be tasked with choosing a new leader for the CNC, the government financing body that pours millions of euros into film projects each year and provides half of Cannes’ budget.

If Le Pen’s party were to take hold of Parliament next month, it would be much harder for Macron to prioritize cultural initiatives on his own terms, including Cannes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the festival would immediately lose resources, but it’s a reminder that this enviable ecosystem remains fragile within its own country. And if you care about movies, you want Cannes — and the extraordinary film culture of France — to thrive. The festival’s trickle-down effects are felt around the world. It doesn’t necessarily have the power to galvanize the arthouse market, but it generates enough noise and energy around the idea of cinema for many of the countries in attendance to feel compelled to bring some measure of that attitude back home. 

It’s quite possible that “Top Gun: Maverick” would do just fine at the box office without its boisterous Cannes launch, but Tom Cruise’s arrival at the festival showed a clear solidarity with its investment in the potential for big-screen movies. Paramount is spending massive marketing dollars, but that’s nothing compared to the heavy lifting performed by French tax dollars. Arte France brought 33 projects to the festival this year and set up many future projects out of the market. You could practically smell the money wafting off the yachts at the pier. 

Those monies go to projects far more daring than strapping Tom Cruise to a jet. They include Lea Mysius’ extraordinary biracial time-travel coming-of-age thriller “The Five Devils” to Albert Serra’s dreamlike rumination on colonialism, “Pacifiction,” and “Forever Young,” a touching look at the ’80s theater troupe run by Patrice Chereau. The range of cinema France supports is like Cannes itself: It argues for the survival of the art form.  

I marvel at this kind of investment every year. When I mentioned it to a prominent French actor at an event a few nights ago, he chuckled and said it sounded like I wanted to move there. (It was the cinephile of equivalent to “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”) I don’t; I want to see some measure of the infrastructure involved in supporting the movies brought back to my own country, however unlikely that may be. 

America has so many harrowing problems that grousing about a lack of support for the arts may strike some as glib. But storytelling, of course, can change the world, or at least enlighten it. In its ability to create jobs, it’s an economic imperative with lasting value for society.

Yet Hollywood treats movies and TV under the guise of the dreaded C word, which has no place in Cannes. You know the one, and so does Martin Scorsese, who brings it up onstage whenever he’s handed the mic. “Cinema is being devalued by content,” he wrote in an essay for Harper’s Magazine last year, decrying the use of the word as “a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.” That homogenization “has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field,” he added, “which sounds democratic, but isn’t.” 

There’s no point in dreaming of an ideal world in which the National Endowment for the Arts suddenly supports film production across the U.S. Earlier this year, the French government reported the investment of $1.3 billion euros in French productions; the CNC supported all of them. Hollywood studios support their own projects for other reasons.

What America needs is a greater private investment in the overall ecosystem for cinema itself. Companies exploring their next big moves, from BRON to A24, might want to start thinking bigger than individual grants and production resources. 

Companies with the capacity to spend big must address the gap in sustainability. They could consider some of the deficiencies in the current market, a few of which I’ve covered in recent months, including the absence of first-look deals for emerging filmmakers and the lack of reliable financial support for the regional festival circuit.

Arthouses (and the Art House Convergence, for that matter) need a pipeline to sustain the only potential for daring exhibition left in the country. They need vast infrastructural solutions rather than investments in piecemeal. It’s so much more than throwing money around; companies that actually want movies to survive must 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 this front — well, at least we have Cannes. For now. 

Do you have ideas for larger economic support systems that could help film culture survive in the U.S., or bring more Cannes-like empowerment to the other side of the Atlantic? Give me your ideas and I’ll pick up the phone to see how viable they are in an upcoming column:

Speaking of which: One takeaway from this year’s Cannes was that my story on the dire situation facing the programmer profession has people in this field fired up and ready to see more progress. More details next week. 

Browse previous columns here

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