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Top French TV Drama Is Behind the Scenes

Media: Firing of Canal Plus channel's chairman is seen as an attack on creativity led by a renegade countryman.

April 21, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and LORENZA MUNOZ and ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PARIS — One is a Saturday matinee popcorn movie replete with bare-chested musclemen, deadly swordplay, scantily attired damsels and ancient desert kingdoms vividly created through the magic of 21st century computer graphics.

The other is an irreverent Muppet-like pay television show that takes delight in skewering the French ruling class with scathing wit and nimble political humor.

Both are products of global entertainment giant Vivendi Universal.

But in their vast differences, the new action film "The Scorpion King" that hit American megaplexes this weekend and the French TV program "Les Guignols de l'Info" vividly illustrate the wide gap between Hollywood and French culture.

It is this gap that has fueled tensions between Vivendi Universal and its pay television unit, Canal Plus, sparking a protest last week that sent about 1,000 people onto the street near the Champs-Elysees, inspired passionate editorials in leading newspapers, prompted movie stars to sign petitions and worked its way into the debate leading up to today's presidential election--all over the firing of an executive at France's money-losing pay TV channel.

The fallout over the firing of Pierre Lescure, the chairman of Canal Plus, is expected to intensify this week, with the Vivendi annual shareholder meeting in Paris on Wednesday. Canal Plus employees are planning a strike to protest the firing of Lescure by another Frenchman, Vivendi Universal's chairman, Jean-Marie Messier.

In some ways, the drama is a predictable reminder of the resistance to globalization that periodically surfaces in country after country as trade barriers come down. But the howl that went up in France after Messier axed Lescure is, in many ways, unique to this country, where French culture is jealously guarded and the encroachment of Hollywood movies and television is viewed with some alarm.

Indeed, the dumping of Lescure was seen as an attack on a bastion of French creativity and independence by corporate sharks--led by a fellow countryman, no less--intent on spreading crass, bottom-line materialism.

"French product and French films do well in France while other European countries are overwhelmed with Hollywood product," said Moritz Borman, chief executive of Intermedia, a Los Angeles-based film financing company with European roots. "They see Messier as Americanizing a French institution. They view it as, 'This Americanized person that has left us is now messing with French cinema.' That is what everybody is worrying about."

Canal Plus is the leading pay television channel in continental western Europe. By law, it also underwrites the French film industry, accounting for 80% of all film financing in that country.

Paradoxically, in view of the current brouhaha, it also has funded its share of the Hollywood blockbusters deplored by some of the cultural defenders most incensed by l'affaire Lescure.

Along with hundreds of French movies, Canal Plus has financed such high-profile Hollywood films as "Basic Instinct," "JFK" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

But the emphasis in this cultural skirmish is on Canal Plus' other endeavors.

It is known for financing films and promoting new cinematic talents. It has had recent success with home-grown French blockbusters "Amelie" and "Brotherhood of the Wolf." It is the home of cultural fixtures such as "Les Guignols," the program dedicated to political satire, and even owns the popular Paris St. Germain soccer team.

To Americans, the sight of employees marching on the headquarters of Vivendi a block from the Arc de Triomphe and unfurling banners that read "Messier you have had it. Canal+ is in the streets" might seem baffling. Why such outrage over the firing of a TV executive?

But in France, Lescure's ouster could best be compared to a network firing a beloved figure like former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite in the U.S., Borman said.

"It's as if CBS [in Cronkite's heyday] would have decided to just cancel Cronkite's evening news," explained Borman, who is German. "In that time and date, I think the American public would have reacted much more violently than it would today."

Borman noted that within Europe, the French are the most active supporters of native film industries. Not only do they produce more home-grown movies a year than any other European country, averaging more than 100 annually, but their audience is also wide enough to support the industry--a rare feat when Hollywood movies tend to monopolize world screens. (In 2000, 46% of Hollywood studios' revenues came from international box office sales.)

"This is a battle where they are protecting themselves against the influence and onslaught of American film and culture," said Cedomir Kolar, a French citizen who produced this year's Oscar-winning foreign language film "No Man's Land."

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