Disconnected or Is Britain Ready for Europe?

By Michael Chanan

Michael Chanan presents a Commons Select Committee at work

‘Movies need tax breaks, say MPs’ so the newspapers told us in April when a House of Commons National Heritage Committee, chaired by Gerald Kaufman, submitted its report after nine months of deliberations and trips abroad (Hollywood and Ireland) to investigate. The British film industry, said the committee, will be able to compete for business only when it adopts the Irish solution of tax breaks.

On the insistence of the Directors’ Guild, the committee eventually invited someone over from France to explain how the French system works. Gabriel Auer, representing the Société des Réalisateurs de Film, came to London to give evidence in January 1995.

Auer explained that, despite the general decline in European production since the 70s, French films have managed to maintain a steady 30-35% share of the national market, compared to the rest of Europe where national films account for approximately 4-12% of their own markets. At the same time, France produces about 140-150 films per year of which, in 1993, 39 (out of 155) were first films.

This level of production is due to a complex system of aid to cinema (fond de soutien de l’industrie cinématographique) which has continually evolved since its inception in 1948 – ‘rules that, for the most part, were not imposed on the industry by government’ but negotiated between government and industry. The system comprises a tax on cinema seats (combined with reduced VAT); a TV levy; controls over TV film screenings; bank guarantees to producers; and a tax on blank videotapes. The resulting funds are distributed to French producers, distributors and theatre owners in both an automatic and a selective way.

The ensuing discussion makes depressing reading. The first to lay in was Michael Fabricant (Conservative, Mid Staffs):

‘Mr Auer, during the 80s, I had the interesting experience of working a lot with Radio Moscow... and... in the worst times the Soviet Union there were fewer regulations than appear to be existing here, particularly on controlling what can be shown on TV. While you would not anticipate, I am sure, the results of the French general election do you think that if Mr Balladur or any of the other right wing people were to become president of France this sort of highly structured regime could be sustainable?’

Auer: ‘These rules were established mostly in the conservative governments back in the 60s and the 70s when there was no Socialist government in France. Most of these rules were devised and negotiated between the industry and TV.’

Fabricant: ‘The evidence that we were given in the United States... is that although French film production continues, as pointed out in your evidence, people do not actually bother to go and see them very much and it has been suggested in the United States that the actual number of people going to pay for cinema tickets in France has been falling...’

Auer: ‘I am extremely surprised that you take your information in Hollywood as to what concerns France.’

Then came the turn of Toby Jessel (Conservative, Twickenham), who taunted the French director with being ‘politically correct’ for saying that the film industry should be used to promote the European Union:

‘So you think public funding should be used to stop American culture or to promote French culture or to promote the idea, as you say, of the European Union...?’

Auer: ‘I am not saying public funding. There is not one single cent, in this system, of government money; this is money that goes from cinemagoers straight into a fund which is then paid back to people in the cinema industry. This does not take any money out of the national budget...’

Jessel: ‘... but it is intended, is it not, to promote French culture rather than to stop American culture?’

Auer: ‘Film-makers make the films they want to make, and if they were raised in France they make the films that belong to that culture and to what they are and, of course, they talk of their environment and of their lives, which is the French life. We also make many co-productions with many other countries. With Britain, as I say, we have co-produced 34 films... so we are building Europe. I came here last night on a train; I just got on the train, took the Tunnel and arrived in Waterloo Station, exactly as if you were going to Manchester. This is no longer an island, you are a part of Europe... we are building Europe and you people turn west all the time; please look south and east. Europe is there and you are part of it...’

Later, the committee heard from Michael Gifford, Group Managing Director of the Rank Organisation. As the session ended, Fabricant referred back to the French example.

‘I saw you listening to the evidence of Mr Auer, and very culturally traumatic I found it. If a similar regime could possibly be implemented in the United Kingdom... do you think all that tranche of measures would stimulate you, as the Rank Organisation, to start producing films again?’

Gifford: ‘I think I would contemplate emigration.’

Fabricant: ‘I would join you.’

Chairman: ‘But not to France.’