MONTREAL — Americans who plan to spend a night at the movies here had better brush up their French. "America's Sweethearts" is known as "Le Couple Cheri"; "Scary Movie 2" is advertised as "Le Film de Peur 2" and "Bridget Jones's Diary" is known as "Le Journal de Bridget Jones." In the only French-speaking jurisdiction in North America, dubbing movies has been used for decades as a bulwark against the constant threat of assimilation. And if the actors here have their way, Julia Roberts will soon be speaking with a Quebecois accent.
Because of the overwhelming visibility and clout of the American film industry, Quebec's Francophone government requires that all U.S. films released here be dubbed in French. But a loophole in an agreement between Quebec and the Motion Picture Assn. of America means that more and more Hollywood studios are doing their dubbing in France, depriving actors in Quebec of a once lucrative sideline.
This summer, in the months before the agreement expires, moviegoers may see as many picket lines as ticket lines as actors protest outside cinemas to persuade the government to bring that business back home.
While the voice-over industry brings $15 million (U.S.) a year to the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, Union des Artistes, Montreal's main actors' union, argues that Quebecois dubbing is more a matter of protecting an endangered culture than earning money.
"Hollywood studios put cultural industries in the same category as any other product, and this is wrong," said Sebastien Dhavernas, an actor who has provided the voices of Emilio Estevez and Roger Rabbit in Quebec. "Movies define the culture of a nation."
Despite a long-standing love affair between Quebec and France, their languages are no longer as intertwined as they used to be. In the same way that English spoken in Britain differs from English spoken in the United States, French has evolved differently on either side of the Atlantic.
That's why U.S. movies dubbed in France are often met with disdain by Quebec moviegoers, who prefer local voices. Colloquialisms, slang and accents differ widely from those in France. For example, in France, the slang word \o7 gosses\f7 refers to small children; in Quebec it refers to a man's genitals. The unions argue that the dubbed-in-France versions are full of such \o7 faux pas\f7 .
"France has received an important influx of Arab and African immigrants over the last three decades," Union des Artistes President Pierre Curzi said. "New French expressions are being created every day on both sides of the Atlantic. Time will just accentuate this trend."
With a population and, conceivably, a moviegoing public eight times that of Quebec, France offers a much higher return on investment for dubbing a film that can then be distributed in other countries where French is commonly used. Hollywood studios often figure that outweighs the cost of addressing the cultural nuances in each market.
"By dubbing in Paris, you automatically get a wider audience for the movie," said a representative of Sony Pictures, parent company of Columbia Pictures. "It can easily be shown in different European countries, western Africa, some parts of the Caribbean and of course Canada."
But in their crusade against Hollywood, Quebecois actors, with their strong media presence, have managed to receive the backing of all French-language newspapers in the 7-million-strong province. Two years ago, Union des Artistes cast Warner Bros. in the role of the villain for failing to dub a sufficient number of movies in Quebec. A successful media campaign and a meeting organized by the provincial government with Warner executives compelled Warner to use Quebecois actors to dub all 18 movies it released in the province this year.
And coming to theaters this summer: a campaign against Columbia Pictures, after a sharp drop in its use of Quebecois actors. Columbia dubbed 75% of its films in Quebec in 1999. A year later, that figure dropped to 18%, according to data compiled by the Societe de Developpement des Entreprises Culturelles, a government cultural funding agency. This year, Columbia dubbed only two of its 11 releases here, while posting $25 million in revenues during that same period.
Unlike Hollywood, the local film industry is kept alive by government subsidies as part of a relentless effort to defend and promote the French language. The embryonic French Canadian film industry is too small to support its 900 actors.
"We are concerned that Columbia might set an example that could eventually be followed by other movie studios," said Gilbert Lachance, a Quebecois actor who has done the voices for Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp.
The government is keeping a close watch on Hollywood studios. MGM and DreamWorks, and two major movie distributors here, Blackwatch and Remstar, have dubbed in Quebec a total of two movies out of the 29 they've released over the last two years here, according to a government survey.