Mathieu Debusschère • Managing Director, ARP
"The market cannot be the only diktat"
- The Managing Director of the ARP gives us his opinions on some of the hot current topics animating the French film industry, from financing to media chronology
We had a frank conversation with Mathieu Debusschère, Managing Director of the ARP, the very influential Civil Society for Authors-Directors-Producers, during the 31st edition of the Film Meetings (taking place in Touquet-Paris-Plage from 3 to 5 November).
Cineuropa : Is the general outcry seen over the organisation of Netflix screenings in cinemas in December (which, in the end, will only take place at the Cinémathèque Française and at the Institut Lumière) symbolic of the solidarity that exists within the French film industry?
Mathieu Debusschère : The industry has never been so united. For almost two years, the whole of French cinema has focused all its attention on the negotiations with streaming platforms, first with the AVMS [Audiovisual Media Services Directive], then with the ODAVMS [on-demand audiovisual media services] decree, and now with the step-by-step negotiations with the platforms and with Canal+ in particular. Independent distributors, independent producers, integrated film producers, filmmakers: everyone is totally united to defend the same interests. The crisis has accelerated a better structuring of the sector when it comes to the protection of its interests, notably through task forces which we put in place to negotiate with the platforms and, before that, with the government, regarding the legislative and regulatory system. Netflix attempted a coup. From their perspective, it isn’t uninteresting, I understand it and they naturally defend their own interests. It’s on us, standing in front of them, to present a united front in order to tell them that theaters are exclusively for watching films which are released in cinemas. And saying this does not mean being against Netflix. We are currently in negotiations with Netflix and of all the streaming platforms, it is with Netflix that our negotiations are at the most advanced stage. We talk with them, we know them, we are no longer in a confrontational rapport the way we were for years. It used to be that Netflix refused the principle of our obligations, which created a huge equity problem for French actors, and a huge problem of principle, since Netflix was benefitting from our pool of viewers and creators without financing cultural diversity. Now, they will finance it. Obligations are underway and we are negotiating with them in an approach that is a power struggle, but a power struggle which is healthy and frankly constructive, unlike the way it is with other streaming platforms. We simply need to be very united when it comes to all the details, which are in fact very significant and can be very dangerous, to make clear that theaters are for watching films made for theaters. That is where independent distributors and theaters must be united, without any ambiguity.
At what stage are the negotiations about the media chronology reform, which were supposed to conclude in July?
Things need to be put back in order. Many people want to talk about media chronology before even knowing how and to what degree streaming platforms and TV channels want to finance and broadcast European cinema. Media chronology isn’t a given that falls out of the sky, nor is it just a theoretical idea: it exists to structure broadcasters depending on the nature, the quality and the volume of their investments. For us, it seems completely counterintuitive to think about media chronology before thinking about the negotiations and future investments of all. And so what was needed — and what we are currently trying to do — was to talk with Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Canal+, Orange and the free TV channels (TF1, M6 and France Télévisions in particular) in order to ascertain the way they saw things; the way they each dealt with this new regulated environment (and particularly with the arrival of streaming platforms) in their industrial and editorial choices; and to what potential level they’d wish to insert themselves into media chronology, depending on the reality of their investments.
This discussion is ongoing, with Canal in particular, because it is the first backer of French cinema, our primary partner. It is, logically and naturally enough, rather complicated to talk with the streaming platforms while we do not yet know what the reality of Canal’s investment will be, and while we know — and I think that everybody now has understood this — that Canal is at a critical juncture in the mutation of its industrial model, in terms of purposes and commercialisation: the Canal we knew for more than 30 years is no longer, and it will not be the Canal that we’ll know in the years to come. Canal people are thinking about profound transformations, which could have an impact not on the place of cinema at the heart of their model, since cinema remains one of the main incentives (if not the primary incentive) for subscribers, but on the mode of commercialisation. Indeed, we are starting to have serious doubts about their will to maintain a mainstream model, with sports, cinema, series. This would have an impact on us, because within this mainstream model, cinema benefits from the momentum of the sports and series offerings. If we lost this virtuous logic, which allowed there to be a very positive rapport between cinema and Canal+ for more than 30 years, this would naturally redefine the nature of our exchanges with them, and therefore the position of Canal+ in media chronology. We are therefore trying to talk to Canal about setting up at least a transition strategy. We tell them: “platforms are arriving in our system, we do not know how big a part they want to play in it, we can see that they are thinking about it but that their respective positions are still not final (except for Netflix, where negotiations are progressing constructively); in this environment, how do you, Canal, perceive cinema and to what extent are you willing to finance it at least for the next three years?” We want to put in a place a structure that protects Canal while that can be done, because we cannot protect them completely: previously, streaming platforms could show films 36 months after their cinema release, but the platforms did not have to contribute anything; not that they are obliged to contribute, it is logical that they should be allowed to move forward in the media chronology. The question is, how far forward? From this point of view, everything is in the hands of Canal. If Canal gets involved and plays the game, continues to finance cinema because it makes sense with its model, and to pre-finance cinema and diversity through Canal+ and Ciné+, it is logical that Canal continues to have a very privileged window in the media chronology, and that they have a great agreement with the French film industry. If, on the contrary, and I do not know how to answer this question at this stage, Canal has some very short-term questions about its industrial model and the reality of its investments, our position won’t be the same regarding the platforms, and we will have to change our mindset. Negotiations take time. To be frank, they are stalling a little bit, but because we are very constructive and Canal is a historical partner of ours, we want to believe, to stay optimistic, to refuse mistrust despite a few nascent doubts about Canal’s intention to reach an agreement soon. We continue to negotiate so as not to let the situation slow down, because this wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest: Canal needs a favourable media chronology, and we need a Canal that can be strong, that can broadcast, that can be influential, that can finance the diversity of European cinema.
What about ticket sales, which struggle to return to pre-Covid levels? Are you worried about the potential consequences on the sector and on the financing of films?
The problem is massive. It is the problem of the durability of the sector’s independent actors, but also the problem of what we mean by “independent actor.” Independence isn’t a concept that we defend on principle, to please ourselves among ourselves. It is what allows creators to be as free as possible, independently from the control of integrated groups, and it is what makes it possible to have works that are not just commercial works. At the ARP, we do not deny the reality of the market at all and the fact that cinema is a cultural industry, because making films costs millions of euros, and it is therefore logical for cinema to fit into a market. However, the market cannot be the only diktat, the only constraint, that allows a film to be made or not. Our regulation must therefore continue to have, when it comes to cinema, a prototype logic. The danger today is of how to continue having strong independent actors working with directors to develop ambitious projects that have good chances to ultimately seduce the market, while taking real creative risks. In that respect, the needed conditions are not met and the market is very complex. Even though things are a little better since a few weeks ago, there is a real fragility to cinema attendance, particularly for independent films. Independent distributors have been severely weakened, just when we need their expertise on how to continue to promote diversity in all our cinemas, but also on streaming platforms and TV channels, the most. For that to exist, we need very strong independent distributors and producers. We have received great political backing, and must thank the government and the CNC for their support during the crisis which allowed production and distribution companies to stay afloat financially, but this short-term logic cannot replace a vision for the future: if we continue this way, what will the market and independent creation look like in the next five or ten years? Depending on our observation of this future reality, what are the regulation elements that must be put in place to correct the market and to allow France to continue to be the jewel of cultural diversity?
These days, when I hear talk about cinema, I am petrified, because I hear terms such as “preservation,” “conservation,” “protection,” “guarantee.” At the ARP, we are of course fierce defenders of cinema because we believe that cinema plays a major role in the challenge of preserving the cultural diversity of society, because it is an economic issue and cinema creates value in our territories as well as internationally when it is exported. We believe that cinema creates value because companies continue to be born thanks to the funds, in particular, of the BPI [public investment bank] which capitalises on the power of cinema. It has an economic and industrial value, a cultural value and, of course, a social value because cinema is a way of bringing people together thanks to our network of theaters, among other things. And so we must ask ourselves how to make it so that cinema continues to be perceived as an advantage, as a positive asset. The platforms are developing a great number of series and that is another side of our industry that also creates a lot of value, but cinema remains and will remain, we can see it in fact in the platforms’ own strategies which present films as an alternative offer that complements their series, one that should not be neglected and in which France is already the leader. We cannot and should not embrace a purely defensive and negative logic. There are some points on which we are waiting for protection from the government, in particular when it comes to the preservation of strategic assets on a European scale to avoid a scenario where our network of theaters or our catalogues could be bought by the Chinese or the Americans, and because we need a powerful CNC that can protect us in the short term so that our independent companies do not risk liquidation and can survive this transition period. But alongside this, we must also be able to say that in five or ten years, cinema will be at the heart of our strategy in terms of cultural and creative industries, that the BPI will continue to support projects which put cinema at the heart of their model, that we will continue to see a cinema that creates value in our territories and that is at the heart of our political project for culture. Besides legitimate defensive postures, we must also be able to assert this in the most affirmative and aggressive manner possible.
(Translated from French)
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