Film Scouts Diaries

1997 Dinard Film Festival Diaries
The latest from Dinard

by Lisa Nesselson

Dinard, France, October 6 1997

Seven years ago when the Dinard Festival of British Cinema was founded in a quaint resort town on Brittany's Emerald Coast, a fest devoted to promoting recent fare from the UK seemed like a nice but commercially inconsequential idea and trying to get producers from France and Britain to work together on film finance appeared to be a Sisyphean task. A lot has changed as the '90s unspooled and Dinard, whose 8th edition ran Oct 2-5, is now regarded as one of the most convivial, productive and, well, essential, gatherings on the Euro-calendar for movers and shakers who speak French, English or preferably both. The annual producers confab is a big part of why.

Just one year ago in Dinard, Simon Perry of British Screen pegged the future of the British film industry to the distribution of Lottery funds and a hoped-for change in government. The Lottery moolah has begun to flow toward film production, Tony Blair is in office, the UK has its first-ever Film Minister and the British Isles are cranking out crowd-pleasing and artistically noteworthy films like there's no tomorrow.

Per Perry, more than 120 feature films were produced this year in the UK compared to 40 or 50 in the early '90s, which makes British production almost level with France. While the French don't appear to be worried - French films currently boast a 40 percent market share in Gaul while British films rarely top 10 percent in the UK - they may be just a wee bit jealous. For UK productions continue to do very well in export markets.

After all, French men have appeared nude in films for years, but it's the 'Will-they-or-won't-they?' approach of "The Full Monty" that audiences want. And while "Touts les matins du monde" did wonders for the viola da gamba and "Ridicule" was Oscar-nominated, "Brassed Off" sent folks out of the theater humming, "Trainspotting" taught the world new intricacies in foul-mouthed slang and Mr. Bean is more of a household word than Juliette Binoche.

Pix from Blighty have been making a splash in the autumn fest season, with 19 such films selected in Edinburgh alone, where British fare nabbed all the awards. Venice hosted 8 films in a special section called "British Renaissance II." Toronto programmed 23 British titles. And whereas recent drama school grads used to go from university to the stage, "Now," says Perry, "our young actors are simply seizing the screen." The special parade of new faces from Britain at Cannes reminded the world that outstanding young thesps are being cranked out like pound notes.

Versatile new British directors such as Michael Winterbottom are making their mark and established helmers including Sally Potter, David Leland and Beeban Kidron have returned to Britain from America to continue working in the current boom.

Although Britain's abrupt withdrawal from Eurimages two years ago continues to hurt some would-be co-producers, other co-production arrangements are beginning to show fruit.

The screwball comedy "The Misadventures of Margaret," a British-French co-production under the formal co-production treaty, wrapped in late August and has begun generating excellent buzz while in post-production. A fine example of a financial-only co-production, "Ma Vie en Rose" - which has been collecting kudos and fest prizes since its attention-getting debut at Cannes - is a French-language Franco-Belgian film with minority English investment. There is also a small English financial participation in Alain Resnais' splendid "On Connait la chanson" ("Same Old Song") which has been "twinned" with David Leland's new film, which has a French co-producer.

While production is healthy, distribution of British films within Britain is perhaps the industry's most pressing problem. The U.K.'s first Minister of Film, Tom Clark, has instituted a policy review of how films are made and distributed in Britain. A number of working groups headed by professionals with proven track records, will produce a report by February 1998.

"The British public tend to think of the cinema -- from the way the theaters look to the sort of snacks served there -- as an American form of entertainment," says Perry of the UK where the American majors have a stranglehold on exhibition and the population has been conditioned to assume that television is the place for British films about British subjects.

"Our American friends must be astonished," adds Minister Clark, a Scot who was spokesman for cinema development under the shadow government before assuming his post in May. "Despite their talents, they really don't deserve that only one out of ten British screens is showing a British film. They can't believe their luck. Certainly we should have a much bigger share and I'm determined, as minister, that that should be achieved."

The Labour government has already announced that Britain will return to Eurimages, but Minister Clark was unable to offer a firm date, despite constant prodding during the Dinard get-together. "We are absolutely committed to return to Eurimages," says Clark. "Let there be no doubt about that. It's not a question of if, but when."

"If the French and British work together it will pose a danger to the Americans, so they'd better watch out," announced CNC topper Marc Tessier, with a dash of humor. But France and the UK's very different approaches to government funding of the arts became clear in the debate.

When Britain withdrew from Eurimages, the UK was contributing about 2 million pounds annually to the pan-European production fund. Upon hearing that "only" 2 million pounds (roughly 20 million francs or 3.4 million dollars) were at stake, French participants at Dinard concluded that despite Labour's promise, Britain couldn't possibly be serious about re-joining or they would have done so already.

"Two million pounds is the totality of the grant British Screen receives," Perry points out. "For the French, 2 million pounds seems 'symbolic' but it's really a lot of money in the UK context for culture." Indeed, according to Tessier, France's "avance sur recettes" program alone, which provides funding to French projects deemed worthy by a committee, plans to distribute some 180 million francs per year (31 million dollars). In other words, when it comes to film production, the local equivalent of 3.4 million dollars is pocket change to the French and a precious sum indeed to their English-speaking friends across the Channel.

"Obviously I'll get the money from my existing budget if I can," pledged Clark. "If not, I'm talking about perhaps 18 months."

"It's a long-term struggle to get anywhere near the level of serious thought the French have put in to have a national film industry," says Ben Gibson, chief exec of a new UK feature production platform.

In the first semester of this year, French films have nabbed nearly 40% of the Gallic market. In a good year - one with a "Full Monty" or a "Four Weddings and a Funeral" - British films can claim 10 or 11 percent of the domestic box office. "Otherwise, it's a mere 4-5 percent," says Perry. "Less than 10 percent of the theaters are adapted to non-American cinema. It's practically impossible for a British film to crack the market." The French spend as much on exhibition as they do on production. In Britain 67 percent of government funding is allocated for production and only 12 percent is applied toward exhibition.

Announcing a statistic he found "shocking," Perry pointed out that a mere 20 percent of tripartite co-productions aided by Eurimages are actually distributed in all three co-financing countries. Tessier emphasized that the failure of the remaining 80 percent to respect the distribution arrangement just goes to show "how artificial the requirements are" as they currently stand.

But there appeared to be minimal enthusiasm on the British side for a French proposal to revamp Eurimages, including a so-called "penalty" clause for grant recipients who fail to properly account for profits, if any. France wants to divide the fund into two "streams" to which members may apply for aid -- one for film projects with international commercial potential and one for films that would be produced only to insure "cultural diversity" and for which careers beyond the fest circuit seem unlikely. Perry reminded the gathering that in smaller nations with fledgling film industries "Eurimages is a lifeline. In the spirit of provocation I would ask: Is it fair for the bigger countries to dominate a system they don't really need?" Tessier responded that Eurimages "is not a system of aid for small countries. It aims to help establish European cinema. The spirit is to aid an INDUSTRY -- a European industry."

If officials and cinema professionals in France and Britain get their druthers, by the time Dinard rolls around again a year from now, that industry will have grown and changed yet again. As Paris-based American producer Carol Polakoff put it, "Familiarity breeds attempt."

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