After a rocky start, relations between the streaming giant and the French film ecosystem have improved thanks to Netflix investments in local production. But ensuring long-term independence of French films from the Hollywood system is still a battle.
PARIS — We might as well say it right away: With Netflix, the French cinema world doesn't quite feel like celebrating a successful marriage, as it did with French TV channel Canal+ in the 1980s. Still, relations have warmed considerably with the U.S.-based streaming platform. "As good Americans who respect themselves, they considered us, at the beginning, as a village of indomitable Gauls," says a veteran French film producer. "We have learned to tame each other."
Netflix has recently made some seductive moves in France. Last January, it inked a collaboration with the Cinémathèque française film archive in order to preserve historic movies, which will result in the restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon, a film from 1927. In 2020, the American platform also made a deal with French production and distribution company MK2 to be able to offer films on its platform by the likes of prestigious directors François Truffaut, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy …
But its focus goes far beyond these symbols. One of Netflix's key strategies is to produce original local content. So it began working hand in hand with French cinema producers and a pool of filmmakers. "They were meant to become business partners," notes Lauren Creton, Associate Professor of Film Economics at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. "Netflix really needs French cinema to expand its offering, especially since film lovers are often disappointed with its portfolio."
This new venture for the film production ecosystem has undoubtedly enticed a part of the industry at a time when its finances are dwindling. "Netflix has been a breath of fresh air," says Matthias Weber, a producer of a film (La Grande Classe, or Back to School in English) for Netflix, which also bought the video-on-demand rights to several of his feature films. "It looks for different typologies of works from the traditional players and enables us to introduce genre films that are hard to pay off in theaters."
Less dependent on TV ratings and targeting a young audience, Netflix is also open to other talents that are not part of the establishment. "I wanted to make a movie, I did, but I didn't wait for Canal+, and I didn't wait for the CNC National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image," rapper Kery James recounts in his song "Who's to blame?" extracted from the soundtrack of Banlieusards (Street Flow in English), which he co-directed with Leïla Sy for Netflix, after having been turned down everywhere else.
Netflix's focus on storytelling and efficiency has also appealed to some young producers — such as Zangro behind the movie Mignonnes (Cuties), whose international rights were bought by Netflix — who try to benefit from the impact of their films. And even though its algorithms may ultimately dictate its strategy, the movie platform lets the talents of the seventh art express themselves once they've been signed.
Distribution in theaters is still the very definition of a film in this country.
But from basic flirting to real love story there's only one step that yet hasn't been taken between Netflix and French cinema. Why? Because in France, the system of public support to cinema is based on distribution in theaters first. For lack of anything better, distribution in theaters is still the very definition of a film in this country.
However, a new era is opening up. Tough negotiations are underway in order to bring Netflix into the traditional French system. And as other broadcasters, it would then have funding obligations — that would go up to €40 million for cinema by 2023, according to expectations — and be able to let its movies play in theaters. This would be a sort of small miracle in itself. Never has Netflix made exceptions to its model, reserving its contents to its subscribers. "We'll do the math at the end of the game," says Marc-Olivier Sebbag, general delegate of the National Federation of French Cinemas.
And with its multimedia content reserved for its subscribers, Netflix has been accused of taking advantage of the French ecosystem, which has been cultivated and supported for years by traditional broadcasters. The platform is indeed taking advantage of filmmakers with generous checks, while at the same time avoiding funding obligations and destroying à la française copyright law, thus imposing its American model. It was largely because of these complaints that the Cannes Film Festival decided to ban Netflix movies from the contest.
Ultimately, Netflix's entering the traditional French system means that it must let it broadcast films fairly quickly after their distribution in theaters, instead of the current three-year period. And as a result, traditional TV channels — particularly Canal+ but also TF1 and M6 — are worried that Netflix might be able to snatch the best exclusives after their distribution in theaters, especially American films.
The French cinema industry knows its golden age is over. But it fears that it might lose its artistic freedom in a world where movie platforms become utterly dominant. "Even if we have to update our traditional system, it is of the utmost importance that Netflix and other platforms fit into our virtuous model, which has lasted for half-a-century and whose values and spirit we must preserve," says Matthias Weber. "Along with Bollywood, French cinema is one of the last film industries not to have been absorbed by the Americans."