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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

how much national cultural protectionism is feasible in a wired world?

French TV

This is a few weeks old now, but the subject is one of ongoing debate. From The New York Times:

France is digging in its heels on protecting its film and television industries from foreign competition.

The French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told the French Parliament on Wednesday that France “would go as far as using its right of veto” to protect its cultural industries.

Intense lobbying on the issue from the other side has begun by American technology and media companies, including the online movie distributor Netflix, which want easier access to European markets.

The core issue for countries like France is the “control of the digital space and the implications of the evolution of the digital economy, for culture,” a senior European diplomat said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the effort to reach a deal with France.

“The reality is that the global market is currently dominated by U.S. operators, and that is why it is such a sensitive issue,” said the diplomat. He cited Google, Apple and Netflix among the leading American companies in markets where European competitors, not only French ones, lag far behind.

Other European countries are happy to treat their media like a commodity when it comes to dealing for other access to U.S. markets, ones unrelated to media, but:

in France, filmmakers are among those describing the stakes in stark terms. Using media as a bargaining chip “breaks deeply held European beliefs and jeopardizes our cultural identity, particularly in the online world, for incredibly short-term and tactical gains,” said Frédéric Goldsmith, the general manager of the Association des Producteurs de Cinéma, an industry group in Paris representing small and midsize feature film production companies.

Meanwhile, American companies like Netflix hope to use the trade negotiations with Europe to remove barriers erected over the years to hold back a full-scale invasion from Hollywood. Netflix is apparently among companies seeking to stream movies in Europe without being required to show locally sponsored films and programs as well.

Bronxbee, who sent me this link, wonders:

do you think sovereign nations such as france, belgium, greece, have the right to prevent an invasion of cultural raiders, as well as physical ones? should they?

should US media be allowed to come into european markets and not have to carry european, or local, programming?

I think it’s pretty clear that nations have the right to try to prevent cultural invasion and boost their own cultural products. I just don’t know how feasible that is anymore, when anyone can get online and watch material from all over the planet, or import their own DVDs (or music, or books) from overseas retailers.

Of course, even when one gets online, most of the stuff one is going to find to stream will be Hollywood stuff anyway…

So there’s the Question of the Week:

How much national cultural protectionism is feasible in a wired world?

What do you think? Would you want your country to protect you from too much entertainment from another culture?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)


  • RogerBW

    Want to know why France is so bad at the Internet? Legislation that banned any private use of encryption until 1999.

    We see in the populations of evangelical American Christians — they leak so fast that they have to recruit constantly to keep their numbers even slightly steady — that trying to isolate your subjects from the outside world is doomed to fail.

    I think television is obsolete, and should be shut down.

  • Jim Mann

    The question “do you think sovereign nations such as france, belgium, greece, have the right to prevent an invasion of cultural raiders, as well as physical ones?” is a loaded one. “Cultural raiders”?

    The US makes a lot of big budget action films that many folks in Europe seem to want to watch (sometimes for inexplicable reasons, as some really bad films seem to do well there). If the people of France want to watch these films, how is a cultural raid. France makes it sound like Hollywood is forcing them to watch the latest Transformers film

    More specifically to your question: no, I don’t think it’s feasible for them to block this expansion on the internet, since again, people there seem to want to watch this content.

  • bronxbee

    i don’t mean that countries should prevent US programming or media when their population wants it, but should that programming be allowed to squash all local or culturally based programming of that country? the more purchased media that a country has, it seems, the less they encourage, back or produce their own.

  • Damian Barajas

    I would love the idea of Netflix penetrating the french market and making french content available to me in my country, but that’s not what’s going to happen is it?

    These trade agreements are not really about culture but about profits, so what can the french do but make sure that France gets as good a deal as Netflix?

    This trade agreement won’t protect the french from exposure to other cultures, its not meant to. It doesn’t.

    The french are protecting france here not by stopping the influence of other cultures as China tries to do today, but by making sure that there is a french industry that can create french expressions of popular culture and letting them compete in the marketplace.
    And that is what goverments are for.

  • singlestick

    I guess, as others have noted, I don’t think it’s feasible for them to block this expansion on the
    internet, since again, people there seem to want to watch this content. But I don’t have a problem with France and other countries trying to preserve their own media markets. They should just try to be more creative, instead of erecting barriers and being protectionist.

    Sometimes their efforts play into Hollywood’s hands. Sometimes, studios would buy the rights to a foreign film and then prevent it from being shown domestically. They would then do an English language remake, and pretend that it was original, downplaying the film’s foreign origins.

    I would like to see Britain, France, and other countries get more aggressive in making their popular works more available in the US. This might be a solution to the tendency to force foreign films and TV shows to compete for increasingly limited “art house” distribution.

  • RogerBW

    I would like to see Britain, France, and other countries get more aggressive in making their popular works more available in the US. This might be a solution to the tendency to force foreign films and TV shows to compete for increasingly limited “art house” distribution.

    Problem is:

    (1) There are lots of Americans. (So the domestic market is big enough that if you’re in the USA you make your films to appeal to it.)
    (2) Most of them don’t want to watch anything but American films.

  • Stormy

    Would I like Canada to stop me from watching so much anime? Hell no. So, should France try to stop its citizens from watching so many American films? Hell no. People have the right to watch what they please. The trick is to make good movies that people want to watch, not restricting foreign films.

  • Tone

    It’s not about stopping people of seeing what they want (an impossible task in today’s online world). It’s about making sure that the conditions exist for other material (in this case French cultural products) to be produced and distributed.

    I don’t want to live in a world where only Hollywood movies are shown (as much as I love so many of them). That would make us all poorer in the name of free trade, which is an idea always being advocated by those who stand to win financially from it.

  • Lone Star

    There are some enjoyable French television programs we watch. One of the most genius portion of French TV, in my opinion, is French elections. They put the national candidates on for a minimum 3-hour lineup up specialist reporters questioning them on the issues in 20 or 30 minute blocks. Another evening is another candidate, so we get to see each individual under the live pressure, hours on end, expecting to give on-the-spot, in depth answers. Wish the US would do it.

  • David N-T

    I live in Quebec, where such issues are considered topical on pretty much any given day. The problem with those who advocate the “let people see what they want” approach is that in order to make an effort to see it, you actually have to be aware of its existence in the first place, and mega-blockbuster productions have advertising budgets that dwarf anything local productions could ever hope to muster up. They also dominate at the multiplex too, where they get far more screens than the local films do as well. If a domestic film is successful here, the most that it can hope for is a Hollywood remake.

    The controversy isn’t that companies like Netflix are streaming American movies, but that they aren’t required to make European ones available for streaming as well. The way it’s traditionally been done here is things like mandating French-speaking radio stations to have a certain percentage of their playlist be local francophone music. I don’t think that it’s directly applicable to downloadable content, but I could see something like a rule mandating Netflix and similar companies to make a certain percentage of the films available for streaming local productions, or mandating that a certain number of domestic productions per year be made available for streaming. It’s essentially the type of struggle that independent film makers have, but with issues of cultural identity tacked in addition to it.

  • RogerBW

    The controversy isn’t that companies like Netflix are streaming American movies, but that they aren’t required to make European ones available for streaming as well. The way it’s traditionally been done here is things like mandating French-speaking radio stations to have a certain percentage of their playlist be local francophone music.

    It’s worth noting, I think, that when such stations aren’t the sole providers — when they’re near a border, or when people have access to the Internet — they are almost universally avoided by the listeners. How much should a democracy be doing that’s clearly against the expressed wishes of the vast majority of its citizens?

  • David N-T

    Actually, that’s plainly untrue. The most successful Quebec TV shows, for instance, have ratings that would make any US TV station pale with envy. And we get US TV shows too, BTW.

  • RogerBW

    Glad to hear it.

  • David N-T

    I’m kind of surprised that you haven’t heard of it, actually: Quebec’s TV rating have been fairly well known for years and have no comparable analog anywhere else. For instance, the highest rated TV show drew over 2.8 million viewers out of a population of 8 million inhabitants. Yes, a whopping 35% of people tuned in. As I wrote, any US TV station would kill for these kind of ratings.

  • singlestick

    The foreign market for some American films is often bigger than the domestic market; it’s just harder to cater to this larger market (look at the Box Office Mojo info for the new Star Trek foreign and domestic gross, in comparison to that of Iron Man 3, for example). And it is just not true that Americans just want to watch American films. Look at the success of BBC America content, or the greater success of the foreign language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo over the English language remake.

    The Internet and new models might make it much easier for foreign movie makers to get their work in front of the public. But they need to be more creative, and stop falling back on simple (and increasingly futile) strategies like protectionism.

  • bronxbee

    i wish we in the US would get *more* canadian content or mexican content, or content other than our own. i love some US shows, but i’ve often enjoyed the canadian ones i have been able to see (and not others, DaVinci’s Inquest is very “eh”.) though it does seem most sci fi and fantasy shows on tv are either joint US/Canadian or all Canadian… but i’d like more honestly canadian culture shows.

  • Damian Barajas

    I also live near a border and this isn’t true at all.

  • Bluejay

    I also live near a border and this isn’t true at all.

    I approve of how you countered someone’s easy assumptions with your own personal knowledge and experience.

    It most likely is true in the United States though.

    *sigh* Never mind.

  • David N-T

    I don’t find it reassuring that your proposal to solve the problems of the European film industry is an ill-defined buzzword like creativity, whose real-life implementation is undefined and that could mean anything.

  • Damian Barajas

    Well, it seems to be true in San Diego, so I hedged.

  • singlestick

    RE: I don’t find it reassuring that your proposal to solve the problems of
    the European film industry is an ill-defined buzzword like creativity

    I’m not one of the executives who can solve the problem. But here’s the fun. In the US, we cannot access the BBC iPlayer, in part because it would screw up the relationship that the BBC has with BBC America, despite a clear demand for access to this programming. In California, where I live, art houses are dying, more because of costs to keep everything state of the art. But there has long been an audience for art house and non-traditional movies. PBS does well with Scandinavian, French and Italian movies and detective series (just to toss off some examples). So, I think the market continues to be there, and older markets are dying. And yet, the studios and media companies keep focusing on ways to preserve existing distribution channels instead of opening up new ones. So, if I were the French culture minister, I would be looking as much to get French product more widely distributed outside of France more than I would be trying to fight off the Americans. But since I am not a media executive, I can only watch and hope that these people stumble onto a workable solution.

  • OnceJolly

    Some indication that market fragmentation is catching up to Quebec too…

    …those kind of audiences pale in comparison to the three million viewers some TVA and Radio-Canada shows used to garner just a few years ago. Market fragmentation has come later to Quebec than to the rest of North America. But the arrival of digital cable and deft specialty channel players such as Astral Media have opened a whole new TV universe to Quebeckers. For traditional broadcasters such as TVA, the result is comparatively lower ratings and proportionately fewer advertising dollars.

  • OnceJolly

    Obviously this is different from saying that Quebeckers prefer American content over domestic content. However, it will have implications on the economics of producing domestic content.

  • Isobel_A

    We don’t get a lot of Canadian programming here in the UK, either, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so it would be nice to see more. Being Erica (final season notwithstanding) was great, and I’m enjoying Continuum, also.

  • David N-T

    I don’t know, man. My own understanding is that there is nothing inherently wrong with some form of protectionism, despite the fact that it is much maligned by free market ideology. Even if France were to aggressively pimp its films, this is hardly a symmetrical situation: the means at the disposal of the French film industry to penetrate the US market cannot possibly compare favourably to those available to the US film industry in trying to penetrate the French market. As far as the new technologies go, I don’t see any good reason to think that the forces at play in the shaping of how old media technologies were exploited will not also play out in the field of new technologies to yield similar results (or worse, given that the digital age opens up new possibilities in the areas of surveilance and disruption) if left to their own devices.

  • Paul

    There are some pretty compelling economic arguments against protectionism. Which is to say that resources are distributed and employed less efficiently in an economic system where there is protectionism than one where there isn’t. So if culture is nothing more than the deployment of resources in order to achieve an economic effect (an idea I suspect wouldn’t be alien to many Hollywood execs), then protectionism is clearly bad.

    If, on the other hand, culture is something rather more than mere economics, then as you say, there is nothing much wrong with protectionism. Nothing much wrong at all.

  • singlestick

    I have no issue with protectionism here, even though I don’t think it works in the long term. But I think that government officials waste time and squander resources that could be better used trying to make their countries’ film more widely available. And it does not matter whether it is symmetrical. There are people in the US who can’t be dragged to watch a British TV show or movie, and yet there is still a comfortable and profitable niche for British TV shows. The same is true for some foreign language programming. I recently read about a company making a deal to bring new episodes of a show called “Doc Martin” to the US; apparently there is a sizeable fan base for this show. But they had to struggle to acquire the download rights and streaming rights, which were held by separate companies. Whether new or old technology, the biggest stumbling block is often greed and stupidity, preventing willing customers from being served with what they want.

  • David N-T

    Even then, I get very skeptical whenever the word efficiency is used in relation to economics, given that it all too often conceals vested interests that define efficiency in a manner that don’t take into account the externalized costs of free market reforms. But we are straying far from the original discussion, so I will end it there.

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