New Nouvelle Vague - France Flirts With Digital Cinema

Some film distributors are choosing to release movies directly online without theater screenings. Because of cinema regulations, this new model is forbidden in France — for French movies — but foreign films are another matter.

You watching a film on this tablet?
You watching a film on this tablet?
Nathalie Silbert

PARIS â€" Do viewers of first-run films really need a theater these days? Two major movie distributors have decided they don't, choosing to release feature films directly online, skipping the theater altogether. This is how The Age Of Adaline â€" starring Blake Lively and Harrison Ford â€" was recently launched in France.

The companies TF1 Video and Wild Bunch have both decided that they will choose this new "digital cinema" model for five releases this year, offering new films as on-demand rentals at around $8, the average price for a movie ticket.

For now, this is just an experiment, both companies say. They have found a way to follow the rules of French cinema and still use this new model. Because French films aren't allowed to be introduced this way, they will only release foreign movies, mostly English-language, digitally. This also allows them to free themselves from the calendar of a movie's life that determines how long it can be shown in each medium â€" theaters, DVD, VOD (video on demand), free television and paid television.

Wild bunch and TF1 Video say digital cinema releases will make movies more profitable, whereas today they are victims of the saturation of movie theaters. "With 663 movies released exclusively in 2014, the theater network, despite all its efforts, cannot guarantee a larger geographical coverage," says Vincent Grimond, president of Wild Bunch. The profusion of releases creates effectively eliminates the movies that don't convince the audience in their first days.

They also argue that a download gives the distributor a higher profit margin than what it would get with a ticket sold in a cinema. In fact, a VOD release is cheaper than a classical release because many expenses disappear (making copies and transportation, for example). Promotional expenses remain the same because films still need to create a buzz to attract viewers. And movies that go directly online have an advantage that Wild Bunch and TF1 Video are already exploiting: They can be sponsored by advertising companies on television, which is forbidden for films released in cinemas.

Bypassing the traditional calendar

Both distributors are counting on "post digital cinema" exhibitions. Movies can be sold to television channels, for example, to be broadcast on small screens even before the 36 months imposed for traditional cinema releases.

Finally, the development of broadband and the growing number of households equipped with HD television sets and tablets have made watching movies at home customary.

For all that, the digital cinema model still needs a bit of tweaking because initial results are mixed. The movie Welcome To New York enjoyed significant buzz because of its subject â€" the fall of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And thanks to Gérard Depardieu's portrayal of the former IMF boss, it generated more than 200,000 views. But the performance of the thriller Mercy â€" a huge success in Denmark, where Wild Bunch has released it as a digital film â€" will be disappointing.

In the medium term, the question is whether digital cinema will find its place in France. Already, the European Commission, seeing that a growing number of films are produced in Europe, has expressed support for this new model and encouraged experimentation. In the U.S., digital cinema â€" as well as simultaneous releases in theaters and on the Internet â€" has become common. The Weinstein brothers, famous American producers and distributors, are among the first in this market with their label Radius. Streaming giant Netflix is also planning to implement a new strategy for movies it will produce.

Digital exploitation has already become a lifeline for an entire sector of independent production. In France, this system encounters some difficulties because of financing in the movie industry that is based on cinema release. Being broadcast on big screens is the only criteria that allows a film to be labeled as "cinematic work." On the other hand, as producers have difficulty finding money for their films and as the number of theaters stagnates, having access to a parallel broadcasting system could be an advantage if it is efficient.

Tristan Du Laz, deputy general manager of TF1 Video, says, "We are ready to welcome every director who wants to come."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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