GN3 Banner

Filmmakers Seek Protection From U.S. Dominance

New York Times


PARIS, Feb. 4 — During the countdown to the last global free trade accord in 1994, an outspoken group of French movie producers, directors and actors scored an impressive victory over Hollywood when cinema and other forms of audiovisual entertainment were excluded from the agreement. The compromise became known as the "cultural exception," a term that, in France at least, quickly assumed the patriotic resonance of the opening line of "The Marseillaise." Advertisement

What it meant in practice was that France — and any other country that opted for the cultural exception — could favor its movie, television and radio industries with subsidies and minimize foreign competition through quotas. Such protectionism was necessary, it was argued, to prevent Hollywood and a handful of international media giants from imposing their will on the global entertainment market and wiping out all expressions of local culture.

Now alarm bells are again ringing. The World Trade Organization has started negotiations on trade in services, and the United States, Japan and a handful of other countries are eager to reopen the cultural exception debate. But this time the French are no longer alone.

This week, with the support of France and Canada, representatives of professional cultural organizations from 35 countries met at the Louvre to campaign for preservation of the cultural exception and to promote adoption of a global convention on cultural diversity by Unesco as a way to remove culture from the World Trade Organization.

As a measure of the political power of France's arts elite, the three-day meeting was opened on Sunday by France's culture minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, and by Viviane Reding, the European Union's commissioner for education and culture. The entire gathering then went to the Élysée Palace, where President Jacques Chirac spoke to the participants and leading movie directors, actors and writers and strongly endorsed the meeting's objectives.

But he warned that a new battle lay ahead. "With the opening of a round of international trade negotiations," he said, "the champions of unlimited trade liberalization are once again lining up against those who believe that creative works cannot be reduced to the rank of ordinary merchandise."

Mr. Chirac also threw France's weight behind having a convention on cultural diversity.

The meeting at the Louvre highlighted the immense obstacles to taming an American audiovisual industry that already dominates much of the globe. For instance, American productions regularly account for 85 percent of movie audiences worldwide. And in audiovisual trade in 2000 with just the European Union, the United States had an $8.1 billion surplus, divided equally between movies and television rights.

The current round of negotiations, named after Doha, Qatar, where it began in November 2001, is already well advanced. Last June World Trade Organization members filed requests for trade liberalization by other countries or groups of countries. (The 15-member European Union negotiates as a bloc.) By March 31 members must respond with offers of liberalization. And in theory, a consensus will emerge before the deadline, Jan. 1, 2005.

On the audiovisual sector, one of dozens of trade topics covered by the Doha round, the United States has requested what it called a standstill, that is, no expansion of the cultural exception, a move that in practice would bring new Internet-related audiovisual activities into the negotiations. The likely response of the European Union and Canada next month will be to offer nothing in this area in the hope of keeping the entire audiovisual sector off the table.

Professional arts organizations in many other countries, however, are at loggerheads with governments that are willing to make concessions on audiovisual matters in exchange for gains in other trade areas. Further, the United States continues to negotiate bilateral and regional trade accords that often embrace the audiovisual sector, thus opening new markets for American movies and television shows.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who has long experience with this issue, acknowledged the opportunities offered by bilateral agreements but insisted that audiovisual questions should nonetheless be debated by the World Trade Organization.

"There is enough flexibility in the W.T.O. for countries to enact policies that have cultural diversity as a goal," he said in a telephone interview from Washington. "Take subsidies. We don't oppose subsidies. This is one of the best ways of supporting culture. The French pour $400 million into the movie industry every year. We're not opposed."

But he said some aspects of French policies were unfair. For every ticket sold at a French movie theater, a small percentage of the income is channeled into French film production. "So if American films sell 60 percent of tickets, we're paying 60 percent of the production subsidy," he said, "but we have no access to that subsidy."

Thanks to a wide range of government supports, France has a flourishing movie industry, while film production in the rest of Europe is stagnating. In Spain, for instance, domestic films accounted for just 12.5 percent of the 2002 box office, compared with 70 percent for American movies. And in many countries the domestic share was still smaller.

But in seeking to use a convention on cultural diversity to move the debate from the World Trade Organization to Unesco, France and Canada seem certain to face opposition, not least from the United States, which last year announced that it would return to Unesco after an 18-year absence.

"I think it's fair to say we'd oppose it," Mr. Valenti said. "If all sectors are negotiated in the W.T.O., why single out one sector? Once you do that, the whole system unravels."

Even if approved, a convention on cultural diversity could not override existing commitments made through the World Trade Organization.

For France and Canada and their supporters, however, the proposed convention offers an opportunity to raise the stakes in the cultural debate. And for those in France's movie world, this is reassuring. Nine years ago they had to take to the streets to defend their interests. This week they seemed happy to applaud Mr. Chirac.



Return to Top

GlobeNet3 Global Secretariat
Unit 718 CityLand MegaPlaza
Ortigas, Pasig City, PHILIPPINES
Tel: +63-2-687-7481
Telefax: +63-2-687-7482