Wednesday, June 15, 2005

French script contest criticises the "mal français"

In terms of overall production and impact, France has been the motor of European cinema for a good number of years. Although Germany has seen a major increase in production recently, and the UK continues to survive due to co-productions with the US, the state of French cinema directly affects many partners across Europe.

The industry has been kept alive by a very vocal lobby that has kept its interests on the political agenda, while judiciously re-investing cinema levies back into production. It has also insisted that French TV – once seen as a threat – plays a role as an investor. This has effectively turned the channels into major players in the movie business. But although there are exceptions, such as Annaud's “Two Brothers/Deux frères”, Moix's “Podium” and Jeunet's “Un long dimanche de fiançailles”, France is no longer the producer of international hits that it once was.

"Le mal français"

For Philippe Maynial, co-organiser of France's prestigious Sopadin scriptwriting awards, this is partly due to what he calls the “mal français” (French ill). “The system as it now exists favours production, but forces the major channels into the role of banker,” he says. “They have little say in the actual creative process. The result is that a large number of films are going into production with scripts that should have received more work, and the channels can do nothing about it. So what you get is Franco-French films that don't export well.” In his previous career, he worked with Gaumont. “We had major Italian and Polish directors working on French subjects,” he remembers. “People like Ettore Scola and Wajda. We were already thinking in terms of Europe rather than just France.” So why don't more companies spend more time on the development? Despite lip service paid to the notion of a great script, the vast majority of French - and indeed European - companies simply don't have the budget. Inevitably, there is talk about looking for public funding. As one insider put it at last year's ScriptForum in Venice, "60% of the European Commission's Media budget is going towards promoting films that have not been developed enough".

Sopadin is well placed to talk about scripts, as they run 4 major annual competitions. “It provides an absolutely unique opportunity for writers to be read by the major producers and TV channels. These people just do not read unsolicited material – ever.” Maynial's partner Barbara Vassiliev pointed out that many of the scripts actually end up being produced, “Nuit Noire” being a recent example. Sopadin also runs the Ré-écrire script workshops on the aptly-named Ile de Ré.

The Belgian touch

Talking to the Belgian Association of Audiovisual Scriptwriters, they were enthusiastic about the critical success of Belgian films. “There is a creativity you can feel as you walk around Brussels already,” said Vassiliev. “People are looking for new ways to do things.” Concerning the so-called “Belgian touch” that has seen films such as “Quand la mer monte” and “L'enfant” pick up major awards, Maynial repeated the old advice about writing what you know about. “It seems like the more Belgian you are in your writing, the more interest it generates. The more specific the touch you bring to it, the more it appeals to people. These are the sort of scripts that are being bought for the moment,” he said.

For details about Sopadin's competitions and the Ré-écrire workshops, visit

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