Category: Film

The culture that is French

Concern over France’s diminishing importance in world cuisine has prompted the government to create a gourmet university, which it yesterday promised will be nothing less than the “Harvard for the art of French cooking”.

The university will open in October in Reims, in the heart of Champagne country, and admit 70 French and 30 foreign students in its first year, according to Renaud Dutreil, minister for small business and consumption.

And why is French haute cuisine in crisis?

The suicide of Bernard Loiseau, France’s best-known three-star chef, drew attention to the difficulties the best restaurants experience in reconciling innovative menus and silver service with the commercial realities of high wages and massive fixed costs.

Mr Loiseau’s suicide coincided with widespread frustration at international criticism claiming that French chefs have failed to move on from nouvelle cuisine and have fallen far behind Spanish, Italian, American and even British rivals.

… many restaurateurs have been frustrated by the government’s failure to lower VAT on sit-down meals.

The election pledge by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, prime minister, to reduce the rate to 5.5 per cent from the current 19.6 per cent is facing German opposition in Brussels.

Did you get that right? London is now a more interesting dining spot than Paris. The core problems involve an overregulated French labor market and excessively high French taxes. Here is the full story.

On a related note, it is now the case that 35 percent of all French movies are shot outside of France, most commonly in the Czech Republic. French filmmakers are asking their government to set up a specially subsidized studio complex, to restore French cinematic competitiveness. It is time we start realizing that government regulations involve an aesthetic price, not just an economic burden.

Addendum: Here is additional commentary on relative French culinary decline, with useful links.

The continuing rise of the DVD

In 2003 a new DVD issue was released every 57 minutes, giving us over 9000 titles for the year (Entertainment Weekly, Jan.23-30).

The film industry is changing accordingly. Hollywood now has greater incentives to issue movies for male taste. DVDs are often impulse buys, and men are bigger impulse buyers than are women, at least in the DVD market. Movies for children are favored as well, since children love repeat viewings. Note that in 2002 DVD sales and rentals accounted for 62 percent of moviemaking income. At least four-fifths of this sum came from DVD sales.

Fear of losses from piracy is causing accelerated DVD releases. If you wait too long with your DVD, illegal competitors will fill the market. Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, was released on DVD only four months after the film’s release. Video releases, in contrast, used to come after six to twelve months. Some European films have been released simultaneously on DVD and in theatres, despite the protests of rental chains. Some insiders expect simultaneous or near-simultaneous release to be common practice in the future. Simultaneous release, of course, raises fears that one market will cannibalize the other. But one commentator noted: “I’m one of those who believes that ultimately everything will be available at a price. So, if you want to see it at home when it is at the theatres you can, but it will be a premium price.”

The bottom line: I’m psyched. DVDs are a wonderful medium for foreign films, subtitled films, complex films requiring explanation and accompanying disks, historical classics, and action movies. All of these I love. DVDs have opened up the entire world of Bollywood cinema — usually in Hindi — to easy subtitling and thus to American viewers. If these movies are too long for your taste, just flick to your favorite songs and dances, much easier than trying to do the same with a VCR. As the DVD rises in popularity, the quality of the best scene in a movie may become increasingly important.

The further decline of the mass audience

Total U.S. movie box office just barely held its own for 2003, as reported by the January 5-11 issue of Variety (not on-line). The number of moviegoers declined by three percent. A few major movies, such as “Finding Nemo” and “Return of the King” did very well, but the overall picture was flat. Elizabeth Guider writes: “…unleashing dozens of $150 million films aimed at the global mainstream audience is an increasingly losing proposition.” Audiences for network TV have been poor as well.

Where is everyone going? Are you all reading blogs instead? That I doubt. The big cultural winner for this year is the DVD:

Check the year-end reports from the various sectors of the entertainment industry, and it’s clear that DVD stands alone as an unqualified sensation. It’s such a success that it might even be eclipsing – and cutting into – other leisure pursuits.

Total DVD revenue last year hit $17.5 billion – $12.1 billion in sales, $5.4 billion in rentals – according to new industry totals from market tracking firm Adams Media Research. That surpasses the most optimistic expectations and overshadows spending on movie tickets, music CDs and video games.

Here are some numbers from the side of the consumers:

Hours spent with home video increased 18% from 1997 to 2002. For the average person that means an increase to 58 hours each year, while time spent listening to music, watching network TV and reading books, magazines and newspapers dropped.

This year, movie fans spent an estimated 67 hours watching discs; that is expected to jump another 46% over the next four years to about 98 hours per person per year…nearly a DVD a week…Meanwhile, total TV watching is expected to rise only 3% (with network TV dropping 3%) and moviegoing 8%. Listening to music is expected to fall 19%.

So what does this mean for culture? People are watching the same movies over and over again. Over time we can expect movies to stand up better on multiple viewings, which is the whole point of the DVD format. Movies should become deeper. It is an open question whether the number of movies issued will rise or fall, but I am an optimist. On one hand repeated viewings mean less time to sample extra titles. On the other hand, the compact and popular DVD format gives filmmakers a new way of reaching audience. It will benefit the blockbusters, such as Nemo, but also will help niche films. For instance many people now order otherwise unavailable foreign movies through

Addendum: Do you resent your loyalties to DVDs? Here is a lengthy and excellent post, from Michael of, on how to think about and revitalize your reading. However his remarks will spur your further interest in cinema as well.

The end of the French cultural exception?

The French cultural exception may be coming to an end, but not because of American pressure. The EU, that darling of the French, has decided that film subsidies should not be tied so closely to domestic production. After all, that would be discriminatory. Under the new proposal, a government could demand only that fifty percent of the subsidized film, in revenue terms, is made at home. Currently the figure stands at eighty percent. So they could shoot French films in Greece and still get the subsidies. More generally, the proposed change would force French filmmakers into more co-production agreements with other European nations. Here is the full story from the Financial Times.

Many of the French fear that we would get a bland cinematic “Euro-pudding” as a result. Note, however, that the renowned film Amelie was a French-German co-production, yet it retained a distinctive French flavor. The more likely “problem” is that the domestic political coalition behind French subsidies will be disturbed and may not survive in the long run.

The decision is not yet final, but Brussels can strike down the subsidies without approval from the French government and is expected to do so. Several weeks ago Brussels ruled that the French can no longer ban the advertisement of novels on television. The French feared that blockbuster novels, fueled by aggressive TV campaigns, will drive out more serious literature.

It should be clearer than ever that the French will have to give up their vision of the American bogeyman. France and America have many common interests. The real fear of (many of) the French is modernity and commercial culture, not American culture per se. In fact American culture, and the American presence on the world scene, might in the long run give France an appropriate counterweight to an EU that is growing in power and influence.

French revenge on Hollywood?

Henri Crohas’s company, Archos SA, makes a small hand-held device, like a bulky Palm Pilot, that can record and then play back scores of movies, TV shows and digital photos on its color screen or a TV set. The gadget — which in effect does to movies what Apple Computer Inc.’s iPod does to music — already has sold 100,000 units world-wide during the past six months, beating the big consumer electronics makers to the U.S. market.

Archos’s device, which costs about $500 to $900 depending on the model, ignores an anticopying code found on a majority of prerecorded DVDs. That means consumers can plug the Archos device into a DVD player and transfer a movie to it. Users also can transfer recorded TV programs and digital music files to the Archos device.

Yes this item is from a small company in France, here is the full story. Stay tuned for further developments. The bottom line is that the Internet is not the only means of pirating music and movies.

Movie Cramming

So many great films to see, so little time. Return of the King, Mystic River, Monster, House of Sand and Fog – all are Oscar contenders and all are showing now. Roger Ebert rates Monster as the best film of 2003 despite the fact that it opened – in NY and LA only – on December 24. Of the last 25 Best Picture Oscar winners, 12 were released in December and only 3 were released in the first half of the year. Why?

I think the main reason is the pull of the Academy Awards – this year the awards are on Feb. 29 and voting occurs in late January and early February. The studios figure, probably correctly, that Oscar voters have poor memories so a film that opens late in the year has a better chance of winning than one that opens early. (The theory is a little hard to test because of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem but I think there is some truth to it.)

The unfortunate result is to reduce total movie revenues. We and the studios would probably be better off if the good movies were spread throughout the year, giving us more time to see each one, but such a situation is not stable because opening late gives a movie an advantage even if that advantage tends to disappear when all the studios act similarly (the prisoner’s dilemma).

Can the problem be fixed? The Academy could ask for ratings several times a year although this would require rating on absolute scale (like 1 to 10) rather than just voting for the best film. A graduated tax based on release date would do it in theory but I’m not optimistic about the practice. What I’d really like to see is other organizations such as the LA Film Critics go to a fiscal-year award cycle and make their awards in July. I know, it’s an idea only an economist (or an accountant) would like.

House of Sand and Fog and Preferred Children

Economists like to say that behavior reveals preferences. I just finished watching House of Sand and Fog, which reveals a most discomforting preference, albeit in extreme form. Be warned: I’m going spoil the plot, so don’t read any further, unless you’ve seen the film or don’t care to.

The movie is about a woman (Jennifer Connelly) who loses her home as a result of tax delinquency. An Iranian immigrant (Ben Kingsley) buys the home at auction, hoping that the difference between the auction price and the market price will pay for his son’s college tuition. The woman and the Iranian immigrant get into a violent confrontation, resulting in the accidental shooting of the man’s teen age son. Here’s where revealed preference comes into play: When the Iranian man sees that his son has not survived being shot, he kills his wife and himself. The character does not believe life is worth living if his son is dead… however, his newly wed daughter is still alive!! Conclusion: The character believes life is only worth living for his son, not his daughter.

Just another case of twisted movie logic? Maybe not. I’d venture that this is an extreme case of favoring sons over daughters. Steven Landsburg discusses some strong evidence that this is the case, even in contemporary America – census data shows that couples with female children are 5% more likely to divorce. In Viet Nam, having a female child increases the chance of divorce by 25%!! A lot of people seem to believe daughters are not worth sticking around for, and Kingsley’s character takes this to an extreme.

Readers are invited to email me extreme or strange examples of films, or other popular culture, showing characters favoring sons over daughters.

The ten greatest business movies

According to Forbes, that is. Here is the list:

Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Network, The Insider, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tin Men, Modern Times.

Most of these movies portray business in a negative light. See a short comment from Professor Bainbridge and a long comment from Larry Ribstein.

Addendum: Here is some good commentary and some different picks, including a favorite of mine, Joe vs. the Volcano.

The Return of the King, French style

I just saw the third installment of Lord of the Rings in a French cinema, on the Left Bank. The crowd loved it, although they kept on laughing at all the faux endings. (I’m not giving anything away by noting that the movie is longer than it needs to be. In the last fifteen minutes it repeatedly feels as if it is just about to end.) Interestingly, “Frodo,” in the subtitles, is presented as Frodon. You know, like “Napoleon” and “Michelin.” That is just in case you might have thought that Frodon wasn’t French. Yes I know about the silent n, still I thought this was ridiculous.

Full disclosure of commercials?

Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert is complaining that movie theaters do not warn moviegoers about previews and commercials before a movie starts. The fear is that Americans are being tricked into wasting their precious time.

Is anyone so stupid as not to know about commercials and previews? At my favorite theater the preliminaries average between 17 and 18 minutes, I have it down pat and they glad volunteered this information to me.

Furthermore early ads promote efficiency. You can come early, and sit through the ads, and get a better seat. Latecomers miss the ads but have to sit behind a tall person or scrunch up their necks in the front row. In quality-adjusted terms, the theater offers different prices, depending on whether you are willing to endure the ads, and how good a seat you want. This, of course, is price discrimination, which as we know usually increases output. If only the television networks could be so clever.

And of course ads are not required:

According to the Los Angeles Times, New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. don’t allow in-theater advertising before their films.

To the extent there are problems, they follow from poor coordination and violated expectations. Most moviegoers know to expect the ads, if anyone should be nudged toward full disclosure it is the theaters without ads. But of course, if this is a problem, they already have a good incentive to advertise that the movie starts promptly.

Keep in mind also that most moviegoers are the young, and they go in groups. They talk during the ads and determine the future of their social alliances, and thus the future of the world. If the time is wasted, it is not the fault of the advertisers.

Commercial Alert is also trying to regulate neuroscience and television.

Against screen quotas

France, Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico, China, and South Korea are among the countries that set screen quotas for their domestic films. An astute reader/blogger Tony referred me to the following Korean opinion piece, critical of such quotas. The English is at times choppy, but the author is on the mark:

What the screen quota system provides is a shelter without any competition. But it is an age-old truth that true competitiveness is only bred through competition. If the Korean movie industry really wanted the kind of international competitiveness that could take on Hollywood movies, it should break out of its protective shelter and meet the challenge straight in the eye. We will never see the day when our industry will leave behind the danger of being dominated by foreign movies if it keeps on being obsessed with the screen quota system.
Second, supporters of the screen quota system claim that it is the last bulwark protecting Korean culture. Who on earth bestowed the sacred duty of protecting the culture of Korea to the movie industry? Culture is the form of life that every one of us takes part in creating. It is found in our mountains and streams, our cities, our history, culture, art and crafts. This writer finds it hard to believe that the Korean culture has become more refined because a few domestic gangster movies outdid foreign movies at the box office.

The author asks why we should not have comparable quotas for womens’ fashion or for alcoholic drinks, both areas where Korean culture competes against foreign imports. The author also complains of the “the self-righteous and exclusivist advice of the French,” the whole (short) piece makes for lively reading.

Hollywood Heavies

While Hollywood lobbies Congress for protection in the more gentile manner (see Tyler’s post today) the Teamsters have taken direct action. Axium International planned to hold a symposium in LA on the Canadian Tax Credit Incentive for film production. The Teamsters threatened to bring hundreds of supporters and 30-50 trucks to shut the hotel down where the symposium was to be held. Axium backed down, cancelled the lectures and wrote a craven letter to Arnie in Daily Variety – “please exert your utmost through the California legislature, the Governor’s office or the federal government to enact legislation ensuring that the entertainment production business remains, for now and ever, in California.”

Note that I have a bias on this issue – see the post below.

Movie IPOs

An investment firm is raising money to finance movie projects by letting film buffs buy a piece of Ethan Hawke, or at least a share in a project he’s involved with, and trade that as a stock.

This isn’t a pretend Internet stock exchange based on the rise and fall of Hollywood stars. Chicago-based brokerage Civilian Capital is letting investors buy actual shares in a film.

(More here.) Why not? You can own stock in the Green Bay Packers and bonds backed by the music of David Bowie. This is a method of generating buzz, a natural audience, and capital. Thanks for the link go to my brother Nic Tabarrok, a movie producer in Toronto. I once invested in one of his films. I lost money but a lot less than in Webvan – I’d do it again.

What Arnie wants for Hollywood

Privileges and protection, it would seem. Newsmax tells us the following:

Included in the Hollywood wish list is a bill now in a congressional conference committee that could provide about $250 million over five years in incentives for keeping small- and medium-budget productions in the United States.

Under an amendment, films would qualify for a tax deduction if half of the wages paid to actors, producers, directors and others are kept inside the United States.

According to a recent report, the U.S. economy has lost about $4 billion in economic benefits – about 25,000 jobs per year – since Canada began offering tax subsidies in 1998 to film production companies.

It is believed that Arnie can use his bully pulpit to help push the measure into law.

My take: If Canada wishes to subsidize Hollywood cultural exports, and then cry about the supposed decline of cultural diversity, let the production companies take the money and laugh all the way to the bank.


Hey, I wrote a book called In Praise of Commercial Culture, and even I think movies have stunk this year. The only three compelling Hollywood entries I can think of are Finding Nemo, Kill Bill, Part I (for a dissenting opinion, Gregg Easterbrook offers what is about the most negative serious review of a movie I have ever read), and now Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood. See the latter before it disappears from theaters. The celebrity system in Hollywood comes under much attack, but a movie this serious and this expensive probably could not have been made without Clint’s hold on the public imagination.

And, by the way, what would Dirty Harry think of Alex’s recent reassurance, directly below, that the government of Singapore tracks the movements only of “scofflaws”?