Europe sticking to its guns despite French invasion of Hollywood

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Series Details Vol.7, No.30, 26.7.01, p13
Publication Date 26/07/2001
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Date: 26/07/01

By Simon Coss

LAST December a French firm took control of one of Hollywood's leading film studios, an event which on the face of it should have radically changed the nature of European audiovisual policy. When former French state water company Vivendi became Vivendi-Universal by merging with Canadian entertainment group Seagram and taking over Universal Studios in the process, many analysts said the move made a mockery of the Union's protectionist attitude towards its cinema industry. How could EU politicians continue to argue that

European filmmakers should be protected against the might of the US studios when a third of Hollywood was now European-owned? The answer, it seems, is with no difficulty whatsoever. To put it in terms a studio mogul might understand, here's the story in a nutshell. The EU believes that when it comes to world trade rules, films, TV programmes and other 'cultural goods' cannot be considered simple products such as shoes or cars, in that these artistic products reflect the cultural diversity of the Union's member states and should not therefore be exposed to the full blast of global market forces.

In other words, EU politicians are worried that unless European cinema is protected in some way - usually by subsidies for filmmakers - we would all end up watching Friends or Pearl Harbor ad infinitum. This is why the EU has always ensured cultural goods are excluded from global free trade deals, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which followed the Uruguay round in the 1990s. And the Union has made it clear that it will stick to this line at this November's summit in Qatar, Vivendi-Universal or no. "There are no plans to change the EU stance on this. The Seattle mandate is still valid," says a senior aide to Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding, referring to the last failed round of World Trade Organisation talks held in the north-western US city. Ironically, given Vivendi's gallic origins, the French government is one of the EU's strongest supporters of the 'cultural exception'.

According a senior advisor to French Culture Minister Catherine Tasca, the conglomerate's conquest of Hollywood does not mean her boss is about to alter her views. "Just because a French firm takes control of a Hollywood studio that doesn't mean the policy should change," she says. "This won't change anything." But the French cinema industry itself is in somewhat of a quandary over the Vivendi-Universal deal. Most filmmakers are keen to keep their 'protected species' status, even though one of the biggest sponsors of French cinema, the Canal+ pay-TV group, is also owned by Vivendi. Claudie Ossard, whose company Victoire Productions, made the hit film Le Fabuleux Destin D'Amelie Poulain, argues: "The Vivendi deal shouldn't change the policy in France. Other countries should follow the French example.

We need to protect the cultural exception." Even Vivendi-Universal's boss, Jean-Marie Messier, believes cultural diversity is important. He insists that his new firm, now the world's second biggest media group after AOL-Time Warner, will fail if it pursues a McDonald's-style strategy of selling the same homogenised product across the world. Vivendi-Universal will concentrate on selling the right films in the right markets, he says. "The fact that we had eight Oscars this year with Universal studios, to be able to bring out Jurassic Park III and at the same time to have a Studio Canal with six palms at Cannes, to have a link with Working Pictures by promoting films like Bridget Jones - the UK film which has been very successful in Europe and is doing well in the US - is an enormous opportunity." And it's not just a piece of luck. "Cultural diversity is an essential objective," Messier argued recently.

Feature on EU audio-visual policy, which ensures that 'cultural goods' (film and TV in particular) are excluded from global free trade deals.

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