Although French people spend their time criticizing their country the truth is that they love it. The French are very proud of their food, their history, and their social system. The combination of these different elements sometimes gives the French the impression that they are superior to the rest of the world. This point of view does not help their popularity outside of their borders where they are often perceived as arrogant and haughty. This perception is not totally wrong and like every country in the world France has some issues to resolve in relation to the mistakes it made in the past and in more recent times.

To understand why the French are so proud of their culture, it is important to put things into perspective. Before the emergence of the US as main world power, France and England used to rule the world. France was a dominant country with a dominant language in international relations. France was a country exporting its culture. But since their loss of global prominence, the French have been constantly fighting against the culture of American domination particularly since the end of the second world war. French TV is full of American programs, Hip Hop is the number one music genre and in the 1980’s, English first names became very popular among the working class. The French elite have a hard time accepting this American cultural domination, this is why they developed the principle of the ‘French cultural exception.’ 

The French cultural exception is a principle that casts the culture as more than a typical good. For the French, culture should not be part of the free market and subsidies should be allocated towards the development of French cultural goods. In other words the French have implemented a form of protectionism where their cultural goods are concerned. For example 40% of the songs played on French radio must be in French. The same is true for the movies broadcasted on TV by the different French channels; and thus the 40% quota contributes heavily to the overall French film industry by increasing the production of films. Subsidies are also an important part of the required arts budgets. If this policy had the clear objective to fight against the invasion of outside cultures, it also had the objective to keep a certain form of cinema alive with the ambition to educate and not merely entertain. 

To promomote these French language films requires a place to screen said films on a regular basis, knowing that such films are rarely money makers. Once again the French responded to this dilemma by providing subsidies to the various cinemas houses that screen the French lanaguage movies and documentaries. These movies theaters belong to a specially designated category called “art et essai”that can be translated to art-house cinema. The art et essai movie theaters have the particularity to broadcast movies or documentaries that are also classified as “art et essai.” These art-house cinemas can be found all over France, such as in the town of Châtellerault where there is an art et essai movie theather called “les “400 Coups” (translated to “run wild”). We visited “les 400 coups” and had the chance to interview Stéphane, a projectionist there who was cool enough to give of his time to answer a few of our questions.

Interview 400 Coups

Can your movie theater “les 400 coups” be classified as art-house cinema?

Yes, we are classified as a cinema promoting “art-house movies, young audiences and discovery.” Art-house cinemas are classified based on the percentage of “art et essai” movies they screen. Based on this percentage they receive subsidies from the French government. Here at “les 400 coups”, we are classified art-house cinema at 30/35%.

How is the decision made to classify a movie as art-house?

It is linked to the number of screenings made per year that can be classified as “art et essai.” The “art et essai” movies are generally independent films. The decision to classify a film as “art et essai” is made by a jury. For foreign films, an additional criteria to obtain the classification is whether the original version of the film is broadcasted with subtitles in French.

Apart from the subsidies for the “art et essai” films, what else contributes to the budget of “les 400 coups”?

The first thing to understand is that the cinema is handled by an association previously called MJC (MJC in France is defined as the organization for youth and culture). The MJC was created in the 1960s but the “les 400 coups” was established a few years later in 1971, so our movie theater is 46 years old now. The purpose of our movie theather is to educate the public through the art of moving images. We receive some financial help in this purpose Chatellerault’s agglomeration. As previously explained we receive subsidies from the association “art in house movies, youth audience research and discovery.” From time to time we also receive money from the region and from the film departments that we screen for in the middle schools. Of course a part of our budget is also linked to the number of tickets that we are able to sell.

To classify a film as “art et essai”, is that a classification that is unique to France?

It is a real French particularity like in many other artistic fields. Our system is a little bit pernicious because there are subsides for a little bit of everything. Such funding has helped in the past and will help in the future to ensure that these art forms exist. As a comparison, Italy was the symbol of a certain form of cinema which could be classified as “art et essai” for a long period of time, but today in Italy there are almost zero movie theaters dedicated to this form of cinema. In France we have the good fortune to have “art et essai” based production which benefits art-house cinemas. It is that sense of French willpower that makes art et essai a part of the French identity.

Who is in charge of the programming at “les 400 coups” ?

The director is Pascal Robin and he chooses movies by conviction, because of their nature or because of his knowledge of the body of work produced by certain directors. We also regularly organize debates where we work with organizations like the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen’s Action (ATTAC), Human Rights League, the Social Centers (community associations that provide cultural and sport activities to the youth). All of these things have an impact on our choice of movies. A movie can also be part of the selection because during the negotiations, the distributor often provides us the film that we want and will include another film in the deal even if our interest in the second film is more limited. It is important to keep good relations with the distributors. Pascal carries out many important tasks for our cinema, such as planning screenings and film festivals. He is also very involved in the AFCAE (the French association for art and essai movie theaters)

How many tickets did your cinema sell in 2016?

In 2016, we sold more than 35,000 tickets.

This number seems somewhat surprising, knowing the types of films and documentaries screened here are not well publicized and Chatellerault only has a population of 30,000 people.

It is a fact that our cinema does not speak to everyone because of the kind of movies that we screen. Sometimes I also think that some people, especially the young people, can have some clichés about the cinema. For example, the thought of watching movies with subtitles can be repulsive for them. We still have some issues such as this to overcome. That’s why it is important for us to work with schools. It helps to bring them here and make them think about certain topics.

If you had to define the portrait of the typical spectator of the cinema, what it would be?

We can say that the spectator has in general a certain age. We have a lot of people about to retire or who have been already retired. We have of course other profiles. But in the majority of the cases we can say that our audience has free time and has typical characteristics of the cinephile, meaning they are curious and interested in seeing films in foreign languages. They are also quite often citizens who are engaged in different social activities and who like to participate in the debates that we have after the screenings.

Although your audience tends to be older, do you see a generation renewal?

It is difficult to say because we do not keep statistics on our audience, but it appears that the renewal is very limited. It seems that we are more in a continuity. When we broadcast a movie with political content for example about ecology, immigration, or women rights; the people coming to the screenings are already generally concerned about these topics. Unfortunately, the only way that we can show this kind of movies to a young audience is by using the schools.

The cinema has a very strong bond with the different schools in the town. Do you feel empowered by an educational or informative mission?

Personally I have this objective and many of my colleauges do too. For example, right now we are screening short movies to kindergarten students and the hero is deaf. It helps us to raise the children’s awareness on topics like disabilities. With the middle schools and high schools it is a bit more complicated because the group syndrome can lead to mockery used as shield in the discussion of certain topics. In this kind of situation, we keep insisting by organizing constructive discussions whenever possible. I could not accept to only screen movies at the cinema, our mission to educate is really important to me.

Besides the schools, in your opinion, what can be done to create more interest in the young people for the kind of movies that you broadcast?

Today the problem is that you have to fight against movies that can easily be hacked, but at least the movie is seen. But we also have to fight against the short life that information can have. Today’s young people are flooded with information. One the consequences is the fact that one piece of information replaces another almost immediately. I think that the kind of discussion that we are having today is the type of thing that can help to spread the word and to increase the interest of the younger generation. Word of mouth is also important. It requires effort to be cultured, you have to make it happen, discussions are an important part of that process.

What is the estimated life of a movie in “les 400 coups”?

In general, it ranges from one week to sometimes fifteen days.

Do you have a recent example of a movie that became an unexpected success ?

From the top of my head, I don’t remember one. In general we know right away when a movie will work or not. One exception can be made for a Turkish film called Mustang. It is a movie that was released in the middle of the summer and had so much success that we had to keep screening it again and again!

How many movies do you screen per year?

We screen between 4 or 5 movies per week so between 250 and 300 per year.

Are there any particularities for the art-house cinemas in the Poitou Charentes region?

One particularity was the number of art house cinemas that we had in the region. We even created an association called Clap to make us stronger. Because the Poitou Charentes region disappeared and now we are part of the region called Nouvelle Aquitaine, the association will probably take another form.

Do you help out any of the local young directors?

Yes we are happy to, but the director must make the effort to establish contact with us. In general we enjoy this kind of exchange. Today with the digital format, it is easier to help young directors. If someone comes to us with an HD movie, we can transform it in what we call DCP, meaning a format of the film that can be screened in a movie theater. So we even help to make it easier for other movie theaters to screen their movies.

Does the fact that the government is left or right have an influence on this policy?

In reality, the decisions are mainly made more at the local level than the national one. Important changes can happen if a town is suddenly ruled by the far right. In such scenario, the far right has the tendency to interfere, for example, by not allocating the necessary subsides or by cutting them. Recently the director Lucas Belvaux released a movie called Chez Nous which is a fictional account of the rise of the far right party in the Northen part of France. This film has not been screened in the towns where the Front National (far right party) is in charge.

How do you feel about the evolution of French cinema?

First, I would say that I feel a certain sense of navel-gazing. The films talk a lot about little bourgeois problems which we see again and again. Our cinema should denounce more things. If you look at the history of our fiction and documentary films, there are very few films that were politicized. In the 1970’s and the 1980’s, there was a French director who by using a love story denounced very clearly a certain bourgeoisie, a certain exploitation. Today we do not necessarily see this type of thing in French film.

From your point of view, what is the main difference between French and American cinema?

The main difference for me is the fact that the Americans have their blockbusters but at the same time their independent film genre is very strong. Sundance is a perfect symbol of this idea. The actors also have the possibility to do a film to help their bank account and after that to do a film that speaks to a social commitment. Moreover, the Americans do not put people in boxes like the French can do. The same person can be on TV, do a one-man show, sing and be a cinema actor. For them it is absolutely natural. I think this is the way that it should be.

Thanks to Stephane for his time.

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