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Country Focus: France

France - The DVD boom (Janaury 2003)


In the current climate of turbulence, the Digital Video Disc is a ray of brilliant sunshine. The format enjoyed a 20 per cent increase in market penetration in France.

The DVD Revolution

In the current climate of turbulence that typifies the French and European film and audiovisual industries, DVD - the Digital Video Disc - is the technological equivalent of a ray of brilliant sunshine. The format enjoyed a 20 per cent increase in market penetration in France. It turned misconceptions regarding poor sound and picture quality on their head and consumers welcomed the not-so-hidden extras to such a degree that DVD heralded the advent of a completely new form of filmmaking. However, the chain reactions generated by the exponential growth of this format have yet to be clearly delineated and identified.
Is DVD a threat to cinema? Or an improvement that will allow cinema to evolve? An overview of this singular phenomenon.

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A burgeoning market

The DVD or "digital versatile disc" first hit French consumers when the Montparnasse publishing company released Microcosmos and Les Enfants de Lumière. All it took was five short years for this high quality revolutionary format to shoot to the top of the home video market. 2002 was the year when DVD overtook VHS with 40m units sold against just 28m of the videotape format. This exponential growth went hand-in-hand with an equally rapid increase in the number of available titles : currently 6000 films can be accessed in DVD. According to recent data published by the International Video Federation, the French proliferation is a true reflection of what is happening elsewhere in Europe where more than 122million DVD units worth an estimated Euros3b were sold in 2001 (compared to a total expenditure for this format in 2000 of Euros 1.4b). This upward trend appears to be limited to France, Germany and the United Kingdom where fully 65 per cent of all European DVD sales took place.
The most significant aspect of this phenomenal market penetration is the speed with which DVD captivated consumers and became one of the most popular products ever. Initially considered a luxury item for film fans hungry for the last cry in technology, DVD soon reached the masses. In January 2003, almost a quarter of all French households owned a DVD player ; a market penetration that is 2.5 per cent higher than that reported for CD players five years after they first became available. There is still the potential for expansion given that 80 per cent of all French households that have TV sets also own a VHS player.
According to Yves Caillaud, the president of the Video Publishers’ Guild (SEV), the popularity of the DVD format is largely due to the relatively low cost of players (they start at around Euros100) and of the discs themselves (between Euros20 and Euros30). However, it is important to view this market from a wider perspective: that of the global film industry. Around 50 per cent of all revenue for Hollywood productions is generated by the home video market (and mainly DVD). This sector generates more cash than theatrical distribution, the sale of TV broadcasting rights and other forms of commercialisation. As for other sectors, Europe is fast following in the USA’s footsteps. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, revenue from video sales and rentals is higher than theatrical box office takings. In France, for example, the total theatrical box office take in 2001 was Euros1b while that for the home video market was estimated at Euros 1.4b. A trend which has to be carefully monitored and is also a source of worry to some.

DVD and cinema : friends or enemies ?

Since its invention, DVD has generated doubt and anxiety amongst exhibitors who did not welcome the advent of this new form of "home cinema" ; they were worried that the technical potential of this format would discourage people from going to their cinemas. However a number of studies have diminished this fear : those who go to the cinema most often also happen to be the biggest consumers of DVDs (in Europe, the average of 10 times a year and in France, five times a year). Thus the advent of the DVD contributed to the cultural habits of European filmgoers and did not, as feared, replace their love of going to the local cinema.
Furthermore, 85 per cent of films released in DVD are features and publishers insist that the theatrical release of a film is the first vitally important showcase that determines the success or failure of that film because the impact the theatrical release generates has a knock-on effect on the rest of that film’s life cycle. This complimentary rather than competitive role continues to influence DVD publishers, who are entering the production flow chart at a much higher level than in the past so as to unite the theatrical release with the DVD, and importantly to share in the pre-financing of a number of films so as to guarantee a minimum investment.
The film theatre continues to maintain its position as the market leader since French legislation does not permit the release of titles in the home video format until six months after their theatrical release. That is not the case in the United States, Japan or Germany where films are released virtually day-and-date both theatrically and in DVD. Some French video publishers would like to see the six-month embargo shortened for features which are taken down early, but it is unlikely that the relevant legislation will be changed. As a consequence, the launch strategies adopted for DVDs is largely based on the level obtained by the theatrical release, and publishers exploit the quality of the format to influence consumers and film fans’ choice and thus gradually and very subtly modify their approach to cinema.
A survey carried out by SEV found that the main reasons why people buy DVDs were, for 40 per cent of those consulted, “to see a film again”, while 33 per cent wanted “to own a DVD copy of a certain film” that 15 per cent of whom already owned in VHS.
Those are some of the reasons why DVD is first and foremost a product that is sold (10 DVDs are sold for every 3 that are rented out) while VHS sales and rentals balance. It follows that the much-vaunted “bonuses” that accompany DVDs do not encourage the sale, except for collectors. However, directors have sat up and taken note: DVDs that also contain makings of and scenes that were edited out of the original, or shot from a variety of angles are bound to influence individual filmmaking styles.

Dangers and promises

The DVD was developed to optimise the sound and picture quality of home video products and DVD versions of action films like Matrix, Spider-Man and The 5th Element sell particularly well. That is not good news for the overwhelming majority of European auteur-driven titles, and the exceptions are few and far between : 8 Women [+see also:
film profile
. In order to make a faster return on their investments, video publishers tend to release just 15 French films a year and as a consequence, the Gallic film heritage in the DVD format is under-represented. However, that is justified to a degree by the still elevated cost of producing DVDs (around Euros10,000 for a master copy compared with Euros250 in VHS), plus all the extras and the delicate issue of film restoration. StudioCanal thus spent Euros300 000 to restore Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion .
At present, five French video publishers are specialised in the classic French film field: Gaumont, StudioCanal, Opening Distribution, Arte Vidéo and MK2 Editions, although their efforts are not considered sufficiently good by most film fans. For example, if one wanted to get hold of a DVD of Marcel Carné’s Enfants du Paradis, one would have to travel to the US or Japan. Companies such as MK2 keep coming up with new sales strategies like the DVD release of a French classic four weeks after its theatrical release: Charlie Chaplin’s The Little Dictator in October 2002.
Aside from the high cost of buying the video rights to a film, another major problem associated with the DVD format is piracy. During the last meeting of PEVE (perspectives de édition vidéo européenne) in Avignon on 27 and 28 November 2002, the association that was set up to fight video piracy revealed the existence of at least eight illegal DVD factories in Russia.
The exponential growth of the DVD market opened up a whole new set of possibilities for the circulation of European films in Europe. Laura Casto of Metro Tartan Distribution said that a small number of European features ever get a theatrical distribution outside of London, so most European features are only ever seen in the provinces on DVD. That is their only chance of reaching a whole new potential audience. David Kessler, the managing director of the National Film Center, at PEVE for the very first time, agreed with Casto: “The time has long gone when cinema considered video as a danger. Video should not be thought of as a market but rather as an instrument that favours cultual diversity.”

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