CineEurope 2024 Icon Award: Nicolas Seydoux

By FRANCESCA MANTOVANI/GALLIMARD, via Film Expo Group

Nicolas Seydoux is the 2024 recipient of the CineEurope Icon Award, presented by Boxoffice Pro and given in recognition of his career and accomplishments. At the helm of Gaumont for over half a century, Seydoux’s unrivaled dedication to the film industry and relentless fight against piracy through his 15 years as chairman of French Anti-Piracy Audiovisual Association (ALPA) makes him an emblematic figure in the cinema industry. His commitment to the sector has shone through his promotion of film culture in his writing, public speeches, philanthropic actions, and, more recently, his memoirs, Le cinéma, 50 ans de passion “Cinema: 50 Years of Passion”. The CineEurope Icon Award recognizes Nicolas Seydoux’s exceptional career, passion for cinema, and invaluable contributions to the French and international film industry. Boxoffice Pro France spoke with the executive ahead of his recognition at CineEurope, going over his career and legacy in the cinema industry.

You recently came out with a book in France that could be best described as a professional biography. What motivated you to share those experiences with the public?

If we don’t know where we come from, we won’t know where we’re going. All these experiences I’ve gone through in the industry are things today’s employees at Gaumont don’t know. I figured it would be good for me to share these stories since I’ve lived through them. I wrote the book with our employees at Gaumont in mind as the primary audience.

I arrived at Gaumont in 1974, and the following year, we recorded 182 million spectators in French cinemas. For context, Italy registered 514 million moviegoers that year. By 2019, France finished the year with 213 million admissions. Even after the pandemic, France could still recover to 181 million admissions. Italy, on the other hand, has had its struggles. France is one of the few European countries that has been able to save its cinema industry.

Some would say it’s in large part due to public support…

That support is not a state subsidy. It’s the spectator’s money, the television industry’s money, and—very recently—a small share of the streaming platforms’ money. Our cinemas aren’t funded by taxpayers but by the people who go to the cinema and watch television. That tax is managed by a particular government body, the CNC (National Center for Cinema). French cinemas do a lot more than simply entertain their audience; they are creators of wealth and jobs, with an excellent record in exporting their films internationally. We must dispel this idea that rich kids funded by government subsidies comprise the French cinema sector.

The story of French cinema over the last five decades is also somewhat the story of the Seydoux family. What drove you to work in the family business?

I’ve often considered this question, and I still don’t have an answer. My siblings and I were lucky to be raised in a family where painting, writing, and culture were very present. When I was 7, my grandmother took me to see my first film, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, in a cinema near the Saint-Lazare train station. My younger brother, Michel, was the first to enter the cinema business. I decided to change sectors in 1970 while working in an investment bank in the United States. At that time, the French film industry was weak in terms of American box office. That was the era when prognosticators were convinced that television would end up killing the cinema—But what would TV viewers watch on that screen? Movies, of course. It was like saying that the paperback would kill the hardcover book. Cinema had a monopoly on the moving image as far back as 1895. In the United States, it became a duopoly with television in the postwar era, around 1945-1946, and in Europe, with the coronation of the queen of England in 1953. From there, cinema attendance dropped.

Some countries reacted very quickly, especially the United States, where studios began producing television series in tandem with films. The power of the Hollywood studios is all the more exceptional when you consider their films are made to appeal to a country built on immigrants—Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and, more recently, Latin American. When you make films for such a diverse domestic audience, it stands to reason they would have an intrinsically global appeal.

How did the arrival of television impact the rest of the cinema industry?

In the United Kingdom, the BBC had nothing to do with cinema, whereas RAI supported Italian cinema. But, there isn’t a great Italian film that isn’t a French coproduction—and every one in two or three important French films of the time was an Italian coproduction. Actors like Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren, and Marcello Mastroianni were more well-known in Paris than in Rome or Milan.

What was the determining factor in helping the French cinema compete with television during that era?

After securing public funding after the war, it became crucial to persuade the television industry to participate in financing the cinema industry. Canal+ was born in 1984 with a revolutionary idea for the time: to participate in that financing by devoting a percentage of its revenue to French cinema. If Canal+ failed, cinemas could not blame it for stealing away moviegoers. If Canal+ succeeded, those viewers would help drive funding for the cinema industry. That balance worked to the benefit of French cinemas. 1992 and 1993 were dramatic years for our theaters, each recording fewer than 120 million admissions. The funding during that period allowed French exhibitors to invest in improving their sites to better appeal to moviegoers. We saw those improvements across the entire network of French circuits, which today is one of the most dynamic markets in the global exhibition industry—appealing to audiences across various concepts and prices.

Do you believe this is why the French cinema sector has recovered quicker than other markets since the pandemic?

If attendance is much better in France than in neighboring countries, it’s also largely due to the availability of films—particularly French titles, which hold a market share of around 40 percent. That’s at least twice as much as the market share of national cinema from our friends in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Those countries felt the effects of the American writers’ and actors’ strikes much more acutely than we did. I believe the repercussions of this six-month work stoppage in Hollywood from last year will be felt for at least the next 18 months. For that reason, 2024 will likely be a complicated year, but I’m very optimistic for 2025.

The future of cinema is not only as an art form but also as an industry.

Yes, but not an industry in serial manufacturing inherited from the Henry Ford model, so admirably expressed by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. With an average cost of nearly 5 million euros to make a film, cinema investments indeed fall within the industrial domain. Yet, industry corresponds to a need; cinema, conversely, corresponds to a desire. The beauty of cinema is not in retelling the same story for the twentieth time, with minor alterations; it’s to find new, totally original stories to share.

When I arrived at Gaumont, everyone was talking about a film with a man-eating shark, but the artificial shark posed a problem during production because its head would turn right but not left. That situation eventually gave us Jaws. What about the idea of making a film about the largest civilian maritime disaster, which led to 1,500 deaths, cast with no established stars, and shot with a budget that ballooned from $80 million to $250 million? In the end, that gave us Titanic. And who could have imagined that a French movie like Les Intouchables, the story of someone who broke his spine in a hang-gliding accident, would become the greatest global success of our national cinema? What saves cinema is audacity, powered by imagination.

The history of cinema, including your own history within the industry, isn’t a history of success building on more success …

No successful path is made up of success alone; we only learn from our failures. Moreover, a film with no viewers is undoubtedly a failure—but that’s not what determines the quality of a movie. In this regard, Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni [produced by Gaumont in 1978] had the ambition to bring the excellence of this opera to the broadest audience via an adaptation with the best artists. The economic bet was that this film would have universal appeal—exportable even to the USSR without the threat of censorship and that it would be regularly broadcast on all European television channels. In France, upon its release, the film gathered 800,000 viewers, equivalent to more than a million today. The gamble paid off domestically. But internationally, it was a total failure for reasons I still don’t understand. I am nevertheless very proud that we made that movie.

Another significant element of your career is your involvement in the fight against piracy. What role does piracy play in the industry today?

I became the president of the Association for the Fight Against Piracy in 2002 because I was afraid to see cinema go through what was happening in the music industry. It should be noted that in France today, there are twice as few young singer-songwriters being recorded as there were 20 years ago. The fact that anyone can download any piece of music or film without being penalized is astonishing.

Throughout your 50 years in this industry, is there a screening of one of Gaumont’s releases that stands out the most for you?

The screening of The Big Blue at Cannes in May 1988. If the screening left us with a cool reception, the dinner that followed it was ice cold. One of my friends asked me, “But Nicolas, how can you target a film with three suicides in it to a teenage audience?” I remember replying, “We didn’t see the same film.” Fortunately, David, the son of Daniel Toscan du Plantier, 23 years old at the time, was very enthusiastic about it and went back to see it the next day—like all the teenagers of his generation. Their enthusiasm was such that we had many parents accompanying their kids to see the film, which would end up attracting more than 9 million spectators in France.

By FRANCESCA MANTOVANI/GALLIMARD, via Film Expo Group
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