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France Film History


History of Film Industry

France is considered the most important country in the development of the world film industry AND the development of the movie poster. We will not delve into the early developments of Daguerre, Demeny, Edison, Marey, Muybridge, Niecpe, Reynaud, and many others. Instead we'll start our history with the developments of the Lumiere Brothers and leave earlier developments for our new section under development called Global Cinema.

On February 13, 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumiere patented their first projection machine. On March 28th, the first film Lunch Hour at the Lumiere Factory was shown before the Societe d'Encouragement de L'Industrie Nationale. Nine months later, the cinema in France and the world came into existence.

The first public or paying performance was given on December 28, 1895 at the Grand Cafe, Boulevard des Capucines, in a basement called the Salon Indien. The proprietor of the Grand Cafe, somewhat skeptical, had preferred to charge a rental of 30 francs a day in lieu of the customary 20% of the takings. Admission was one franc. For this sum, audiences saw 10 films, each 50 foot in length and each lasting less that one minute (250 feet of film lasts 4 minutes). The first day's takings were 35 francs. The organizers were rather discouraged. 3 weeks later, without a single line of advertising, the profits had risen to 2000 francs a day.

The films were simple and consisted of scenic views, scenes of people, moving vehicles and the like. As more entrepenieurs made otther presentations, all the big producers of the time began by filming pretty much the same subjects. So while Lumiere released Lunch Hour at the Lumiere Factory, Gaumont released Lunch Hour at the Panhard and Levassor Factories. Gaumont filmed the Fountains of Versailles so Melies filmed the Boulevard des Italiens. There were 10 different versions of Teasing the Gardener, 20 different of a Policeman's Patrol, etc, etc.

Instead of trying to license their equipment (as did Edison in the US), the Lumieres immediately started training cameramen and by the end of 1896, they had given presentations and taken footage in Argentina, Austria, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Yugoslavia.

With this expansion, the way that the camera was used also began to expand. Besides factuals and newsreels, camera equipment moved into the science arena and the military for documentation and training films. Thanks to the Lumiere Brothers, the news and presentation of the cinema had been presented all around the world. However the public began to lose interest and within a couple of years the facination with scenes, newreels declined and the future of cinema looked dim. The Lumieres were soon to cease their presentations and others take up the gauntlet.

Three immerging areas of development had a tremendous impact on the development, direction and revival of cinema. All 3 were started and developed in France from 3 entirely different perspectives and each had a world wide impact. Those 3 were Georges Melies, Alice Guy, and Charles Pathe. These 3 changed the direction of the film industry forever.

In the US, films were moving from summer parks and vaudeville into theaters. The expansion was so rapid and so competitive that US film producers couldn't meet the demand (especially while also fighting Edison's lawsuits) and French production filled in the need. The quality and variety from the French producers, especially Gaumont, Melies and Pathe, were so much better that they became the dominant requested films. US producers started copying the French films and putting them out as their own. Melies' Trip to the Moon was considered the most pirated film ever, and pirating became so bad that in 1903, [put Melies ad] Melies sent his brother Gaston to open an office in New York to try to curtail the circulation of 'bad and fraudulent copies' of Star Films. Pathe, working through Kleine Optical who was their agent in the US, started putting their logo of the red rooster on the frames of film to show that they were Pathe films. They also started a massive advertising campaign. In an interview with Edwin Porter many years later, he stated that when he was first hired by Edison, his first job was copying French films where he learned some of the techniques that he used in his films.

By 1906, the French production companies dominated world film production, AND Pathe dominated Europe's market in motion picture cameras and projectors. It has been estimated that at that time, 60 percent of all films were shot with Pathe equipment.

For the next few years, the French film industry was flying high and when Pathe invented their newsreel in 1908 that was shown in theaters prior to the feature film, it looked like nothing could stop them.

But, over the next few years, French market dominance decreased and with the threat of war, French companies started making made numerous changes and shifts in company offices to anchor themselves.

The French studios had been losing ground rapidly in the US market, but when the war was announced in August 1914, the French film industry came to an abrupt halt. Although Pathe, Gaumont, Eclair and Film d'Art all resumed production in early 1915, wartime restrictions on capital and material forced them to operate at bare minimums and to focus mainly on patriotic films and comedies to help the morale. This reduction in production gave way to new distributors with high quality American films such as the Keystone comedies brought in by Jacques Haik at Western Imports, who had become a distributor just before the war. Monat-Film brought in westerns and mysteries. To compete, Pathe brought in Pearl White serials and other films that its American branch of Pathe had produced. The smaller production companies gave way to the import distributors. Melies' Star Studio was taken by the French government and he never recovered. Gaumont moved their headquarters to London and Pathe moved their headquarters to the US.

After the war, the film industry in France was in shambles. During this time, the US film industry had made major advancements in equipment, organization and quality of film, while all of Europe struggles to rebuild old studios with old equipment, so the market became flooded with American films and with all the problems of reconstruction, audiences demanded quality films that a tattered French industry couldn't produce. The French public demanded entertainment.

The early 20s brought a new era of art films and formations of small independent production companies headed by cinema leaders such as Gance, Delluc, Julien Duvivier, Jean Renoir and Rene Clair. Even though production increased to 130 feature films by 1922, they still only occupied a minority share of the French screens. By the end of the 20s, there were over 4200 theaters in France and an Aubert Palace in every major French city and demand continued to grow.

The arrival of American sound films at first created panic among the European countries who immediately began a resistance to the influx of US films. The language barrier put shackels on the distribution area and collapsed the European Film Union. The French public wouldn't accept films in other languages. The French film industry took the approach to procrastinate and maybe it would go away. The French government strengthened censorship and tariff laws and stopped 'talkies' from being shown in France for 2 years. At first this seem to promote a greater amount of French films being shown in France.

US studios were struggling from the depression in the US and the sudden decline in exported films due to language barriers. After 2 years of resistance, the pressure became too great to stop the foreign films from coming into France.

French distributors scrambled to create adaquate methods of subtitling, because so few theaters had sound equipment.

French directors struggled to make the adjustments to sound productions. By 1935, the French film industry practically disappeared. Controlled by Americans or crippled by the depression, Elair and Gaumont had become insignificant and Pathe-Natan was so riddled with financial scandals that they were ineffective. The few French films that had any relevancy came from the independents which basically carried the French film industry at that time.

World War II divided France into a 'free' zone in the south and an 'occupied' zone in the north, which had a devastating effect on an industry that was just starting to regain some strength. Some film makers fled to the US like Renoir, Duvivier, Gabin and Morgan, while others remained in France and tried to continue to make films.

Since British and American films were banned, French films dominated the operating screens in France. The films during this period have been called 'Vichy' films because a lot of them focus on sacrificial motherhood and patriotism.

Upon the liberation of France, the French cinema immediately responded with a Committee for the Liberation of French Cinema.

In 1946, the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC) was founded to extend the work of the COIC. This laid the foundation for a modern film industry establishing some state control, box-office levy, and help to non-commercial cinema.

Despite all of the new directions, soon problems reappeared. The Blum-Byrnes Trade Agreement of 1946 established a generous import quota to American films as part of a settlement to help with the French war debt to the US. However, by the early 50s, French film production had regained an average of 100-120 feature films a year which stablized the industry. French films continued to gain more dominance in the French market, reaching its peak in 1957 as television was introduced.

The late 50s saw a new era of de Gaulle's modern France and a greater stablization to the film industry. As audience numbers declined, French studios held their ground during the growth of television in the 60s due to this stabilization. A new pattern of international co-production became common that increased the marketability while dividing the expenses.

The 70s expanded co-productions into the standard with expanded marketing to export films to the European market as well as the middle east and Asian markets.

Currently France has a population of 59.3 million and has approximately 4900 theater screens.

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