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Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 14:53 GMT
French filmmakers 'fear Vivendi deal'
French film Amelie has been a global hit
By Rory Mulholland in Paris

French filmmakers fear the $10bn deal sealed this week by French media giant Vivendi Universal could mean a rapid end to the artistic and commercial success currently enjoyed by the movie industry in France.

They worry that that Vivendi's acquisition of the movie and television businesses of USA Networks will mean an end to the "cultural exception" that France battled for and won at the GATT world trade talks a few years ago.

Messier has chosen America and Canal Plus is no longer a priority for him

Sophie Dacbert, Film Français
This "exception" - which ensures that French television, film and music, all enjoy a lavish measure of state protection - is one of the reasons that French cinema is so bouyant today.

There were record attendances at French films here this year, at the expense of US movies, and homegrown products such as Amelie won audiences across the world.

Powerful directors

Vivendi Chairman Jean-Marie Messier fuelled these fears when he told French journalists that the "cultural exception" was dead.

But he said claims French cinema would be "Americanised" were unwarranted.

His assurances were not enough to convince French director Coline Serreau, who is president of the powerful directors and producers lobby, the ARP.

She labelled Mr Messier a "traitor" and called on the government to ensure that the French film industry would continue to enjoy strong state support.

The French media share Serreau's concerns.

The daily Libération's coverage of the issue was typical. It made the issue its top story and its front-page headline read: "Fears for French Cinema". Inside was an editorial titled "Survival".

Major player

The fears centre on the fact that Vivendi owns the pay television company Canal Plus, which is the biggest financial backer of French cinema.

The company buys for broadcast 90% of all French films in order to meet the 40% quota of original French films it legally must show.

It also invests 152m euros (£92m) a year in French film production, about a third of the total.

Critics say that now Jean-Marie Messier has achieved his dream of becoming a major player in the US - Vivendi is now in the same league as AOL Time Warner - he will lose interest in his French operations.

Or, arguably worse in critics' eyes, he may use Canal Plus to start churning out French films that are little different from Hollywood blockbusters.

'Cultural exception'

Vivendi, now called Vivendi Universal Entertainment, replies to such fears by saying that it can be a global player and still produce local products that can appeal to both local audiences and worldwide ones.

"We don't know yet what will happen," says Sophie Dacbert of Film Français, the film industry magazine. "But if Messier says the 'cultural exception' is dead then I think that shows that he's chosen his camp.

"He's chosen America and Canal Plus is no longer a priority for him."

"What happens now will depend on political will," she added.

An initial response from politicians may give a taste of what is to come.

Catherine Tasca, the culture minister, said she was "scandalised" by Mr Messier's comments.

See also:

05 Oct 01 | Reviews
Spellbinding Amelie
17 Dec 01 | Business
Vivendi seals $10bn US media deal
25 Sep 01 | Business
EMI shares dive on profit warning
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