France 2014 in Review: Cannes Controversy, Netflix Launches

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Scarlett Johansson in 'Lucy'

Actors' salaries get capped, a presidential affair shifts media perceptions of privacy and U.S. buyers don't go for a French box-office hit

France kicked off 2014 with a presidential affair that became a scandal that caused a media frenzy.

The year also brought the country its biggest homegrown success stories in years, but they turned out to be in English or were deemed too risky and politically incorrect for the U.S.

Here is THR's look at big media and entertainment stories that left their mark on France in 2014.

The President and Actress’ Affair

The year started off with a revelation that rocked the Fifth Republic, as well as the film industry, with the affair of President Francois Hollande and actress Julie Gayet being exposed in Closer magazine. The Us Weekly-style tabloid published photos of the pair on Jan. 10, including a pre-rendezvous president cruising the Paris streets on a scooter, which prompted public criticism of the president’s safety procedures.

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Hollande publicly dumped then-first lady Valerie Trierweiler in an 18-word statement shortly thereafter, landing her in the hospital for a week and resulting in the cancellation of a state visit to the White House. Trierweiler quickly went on to write the year’s best-selling book, scoring a multimillion-euro payday for Thank You for This Moment, a tell-all about her relationship with Hollande and time in the Elysee Palace.

For her part, Gayet didn’t shy away from the press, walking the red carpet at the Cesar Awards just a month later for her supporting actress nomination in Quai d’Orsay and at the Cannes Film Festival in May to promote her new producing and financing venture Ezekiel Films, whose first project was Cannes competition entry Sils Maria.

In separate legal decisions, Closer was ordered to pay Trierweiler $15,000 (€12,000) and Gayet  $18,400 (€15,000) for violating France’s strict privacy laws. That didn’t stop the press, however. In November, magazine Voici published photos of the couple, who are rumored to be living together, inside the Elysee gardens, prompting a new round of public handwringing about the president’s lax security.

All in all, it was a seismic shift in the French media’s attitude, which historically had been laissez-faire about politicians’ private lives.

Creatives' Checks Capped
 
Following much debate after the publication of an open letter by Wild Bunch head Vincent Maraval, who complained in December 2012 that one of the main problems of French cinema financing was the plump paychecks of famous French actors. He called out Gerard DepardieuDany Boon, Vincent Cassel, Jean Reno, Marion Cotillard, Gad ElmalehGuillaume Canet, Audrey Tautou and Lea Seydoux, who take pay cuts in American films but command salaries of up to $2.4 million (€2 million) at home, in part funded by the generous financing system.

In December, France’s National Film Center (CNC) announced that it would not subsidize films in which salaries exceed a certain percentage of the cost of production. The publicly funded paychecks of actors, writers and directors will be subject to a new scale, with compensation topping out at $1.2 million (€990,000), although variable deals based on a film’s financial success are not ruled out.

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Too much cash for creatives will be considered “disproportionate artistic cost,” and the projects will be ineligible for the public financing that France offers film productions through the CNC’s system of TV network subsidies and earmarked movie ticket taxes.

The move was generally well-received by the industry as a way to limit losses for producers in an industry that is being ravaged by piracy. Productions who want writers, actors and directors that demand top dollar will have to find the funds elsewhere.

The new caps will go into effect in January.

Cannes' Controversial Kidman Premiere

The Cannes red carpet saw one of its most controversial premieres in years, with the opening-night film Grace of Monaco infuriating the royal family of Monaco and pitting director Olivier Dahan and U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein against each other. Star Nicole Kidman was caught in the crossfire, and her portrayal of the Hollywood star turned princess was widely panned.

Kidman brought the glamor in an Armani gown, but the royal family, whose members regularly attend the film festival, skipped the premiere and condemned the film that depicted Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier as struggling personally and politically.

The film had been mired in controversy for months, with Monaco royals Prince Albert, Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie issuing a joint statement calling it “pure fiction” and making it clear they had no association with the film, despite early cooperation between the director and family.

Dahan admitted that some liberties had been taken in telling the story and argued that the film was not a biopic. All that might not have mattered had the film been well received.

Weinstein, who had originally planned an awards season push for the film, insisted on edits that Dahan called a “pile of shit” and ultimately refused. Weinstein announced he would miss the premiere that day noting that he was visiting Syrian refugees in a pre-planned visit, though he made it to France the next day.

The film was booed at its premiere, and critics panned it. The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Dalton called it "unforgivably dull."

Kidman gracefully addressed the controversy. “I still have respect, and I want them to know that the performance was done with love and I want them to know if they ever do see it, they would see that there is an enormous amount of affection for both their parents and the love story of their parents," she said.

Serial (Bad) Weddings Does Well in France, Deemed Politically Incorrect by U.S. Buyers

The French family farce Quest-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu, translated as Good God, What Did We Do? but given the English-language title Serial (Bad) Weddings, dominated the French box office this year. It spent a stunning 20 weeks in the top 10, with more than 12 million admissions — bringing in just above $148 million at the domestic box office.

The TF1-produced comedy tells the story of two white Catholic parents whose first three daughters have married an Arab Muslim, a North African Jew and a Chinese man, respectively. Their last hope is their fourth daughter, until they find out she is engaged to a black African. While France, which is struggling with rapidly shifting demographics, made it the biggest domestic hit since 2011’s The Intouchables, it failed to find the international success of that film or Luc Besson's breakout hit Lucy. The film’s plot was simply deemed too controversial and politically incorrect by American buyers.

“They have a very different cultural approach to ours,” TF1’s Sabine Chemaly, who handled international sales for the film, told Le Point magazine about the controversy in October. “Our contacts have found it politically incorrect. They would never laugh about blacks, Jews or Asians.”

She added: "They are obviously excited by the success of the film, but they refuse to show it as it is. They know it would immediately create too much controversy.”

The film, which did well in release in Greece, Belgium and Portugal and was a huge hit in Germany with another $32 million (€26 million) in box-office revenue there, may get a British remake, but also failed to find distribution in the U.K.

Despite Brits’ and Americans’ aversion, Weddings will be released in Italy, Spain, Latin America and China next year. Stars Medi Sadoun and Frederic Chau have already signed on for the sequel that director Philippe de Chauveron is planning for 2016.

Netflix Frays French Nerves, Signs Up Subscribers

After early talks with the French presidential palace and various ministers failed, the California company went ahead with its highly anticipated French launch Sept. 15 following much speculation and secrecy.

It tried to win over the French public and film industry by announcing the locally produced series Marseille from veteran producer Pascal Breton just before launch and agreed to abide by the country's strict windowing rules requiring a three-year wait for SVOD. Still, having its European base in Amsterdam, the streaming service has been accused of avoiding the fees paid by French TV networks and streaming services, which go on to finance films through the CNC. The location also exempts it from a requirement that 40 percent of its content must be French.

The film industry, which has been battered by piracy and lower theater attendance in recent years, fears that it will take its toll on the French “cultural exception.”

But customers seemed enamored. Just 15 days after its launch, the subscription service boasted more than 100,000 signups, according to reports. CanalPlus-owned competitor CanalPlay has about 520,000 subscribers three years after its launch.

Anglais, S’il Vous Plait

Luc Besson’s Europacorp, the Paris-based mini-major studio that produced Scarlett Johansson’s summer box-office juggernaut Lucy, announced $450 million in new financing during Cannes. The figure was finalized at $600 million in October.

But it wasn’t just the massive cash influx that could take the homegrown studio global that made headlines — Europacorp also announced it would be shifting its production slate to favor English-language projects like Lucy. It has already produced the successful Transporter and Taken trilogies and announced it would be opening up Los Angeles-based production offices for both film and television projects.

Although France goes to great lengths to protect its language and "cultural exception," Europacorp's decision follows a larger trend of French companies producing programs and films in English. Gaumont opened up its television division in L.A. in 2011, turning out hits Hannibal and Hemlock Grove for American audiences. Even the venerable pay TV service CanalPlus, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, started shooting its first English-language series in July. Versailles tells the story of Louis XIV and was originally intended to be in the Sun King's mother tongue, but is now penned by British writers Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (MI-5), an irony not lost on the French public.

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