Many music composers want to break into the French film market, which is known the world over for its steady production stream of art films, as well as its “cultural exception,” aimed at protecting films with a French touch.

What is the state of play? What avenues can music composers explore, in order to be retained as part of the below-the-line crew on French film productions? In this two-part series, we will look at the dynamics of the French film market and how composers might use the French state subsidy system to their advantage.

Follow the Money

In 2012, Vincent Maraval, one of the founders of top dog French production and distribution company Wild Bunch, published a column in Le Monde entitled “French actors are paid too much!” This garnered a lot of attention. In substance, Maraval decried a doomed system, in which the French above-the-line personnel (such as the director, the screenwriter, and the producers) and, in particular, French actors, were benefiting from inflated salaries and remunerations, while the receipts made by French theaters on such French film productions had gone down 10 times in the last year or so.

To prove his point, he cited the payment scale for French film stars (such as Vincent Cassel, Jean Reno, Marion Cotillard, Gad Elmaleh, Guillaume Canet, Audrey Tautou, and Léa Seydoux), ranging from 500,000 to 2 million euros on French film productions, while the same actors command salaries of only 50,000 to 200,000 euros when they work on American film productions. Apparently, French actors are among the best paid in the world, even ahead of most American movie stars. Maraval cited as the culprit the direct subsidy system (pre-sales by public TV channels, advances on receipts, and regional funding), to which French cinema is eligible, but most importantly the indirect subsidy system of mandatory investment by private TV channels.

Seven years down the line, Maraval’s statement still rings true. Nothing has changed: The above-the-line crew, particularly French actors, still syphon most of the available budget of French film productions. Indeed, in order to obtain financing from TV channels, French film producers must prove that bankable and locally popular French actors are attached to their film productions.

The takeaway for film music composers, who are all part of the below-the-line crew and therefore come after French actors in the pecking order, is that the financial pot is tight on French film productions, as far as they are concerned.

Considering the state of the industry, what is the margin of negotiation of film music composers, when schmoozing their way with French film directors and producers, to get a job on set?

Selling Yourself as a Composer for French Film Projects

As brilliantly explained by Anita Elberse in her book “Blockbusters”, the entertainment business works around a “winners take all” economic model, where only the 1 percent thrive. The situation described by Maraval above is a gleaming example of that. As a result, French film projects are uber costly, because not only do producers have to allocate at least 70 percent of their budget to salaries paid to fickle French film stars, but also production costs in France are very high (due to labor costs, prohibitively expensive social security contributions, a 20 percent standard VAT rate, and stiffly work regulations).

As a result, music composers are left to fend for themselves when pitching for work on French film productions. They can only count on their standout back catalogues of music compositions and recordings, to advertise their skillsets, as well as their own gifts of the gab, to become part of the chosen few.

All French actors, with the notable exception of Jean Dujardin who is managed by his own brother and lawyer, are represented by a handful of French agents, who have total and absolute control on the talent acting pool in France. Film music composers, however, struggle to get representation in other European countries and in Hollywood, let alone in France. Indeed, only a handful of French music composers, such as Alexandre Desplat, Nathaniel Méchaly and Evgueni Galperine have proper representation, with agents located both in Paris and Los Angeles. However, the vast majority of composers active on the French film market are unrepresented and can only rely on networking to be given the top music job.

As a result, only 1 percent of the film music composers’ pool available on the French film music market gets to participate in tenders for French film productions, leaving the remaining 99 percent out of reach … and out of their depth.

The Winning Formula

The key to success? Leveraging the French state subsidy system to your advantage.

When approaching French film producers, film music composers—especially foreign ones—need to be completely on top of things, soft funding-wise.

As explained in my daily-read article, “How to Finance Your Film Production,” many nations have attractive tax and investment incentives for filmmakers, whereby individual regional and country legislation enables film producers to subsidize spent costs for production.

France is no exception to that, with tax finance structured in the following manner:

  1. For non-French film productions, the Tax Rebate for International Productions (TRIP) is a tax rebate which applies to projects wholly or partly made in France. It is selectively granted by the French National Centre for Cinema (CNC) to a French production services company. TRIP amounts up to 30 percent of the qualifying expenditures incurred in France: It can total a maximum of 30 million euros per project. The French government refunds the applicant company, which must have its registered office in France. “Thor” (Marvel Studios), “Despicable Me” and “the Minions” (Universal Animation Studios), as well as “Inception” (Warner Bros), have all benefited from TRIP.
  2. For European film co-productions, the Crédit d’Impôt Cinéma et Audiovisuel (CICA) is a tax credit that benefits French producers for expenses incurred in France for the production of films or TV programmers. The CICA tax credit is equal to 20 percent of eligible expenses—increased to 30 percent for films for which the production budget is less than 4 million euros.

To qualify into the TRIP, a film project must:

  • be a fiction film (live action or animation, feature film, TV, web, VR, short film TV special, single or several episodes of a series, or a whole season, etc.);
  • pass a cultural test; and
  • shoot at least 5 days in France for live-action production (unless in VFX or post).

For film music composers, the aspect of TRIP relevant to them is the cultural test: they want to make sure that, should the film producer and director select them as music composer and author on the project, they will fulfill the criteria to pass that TRIP cultural test.

The next installment of this series will discuss the cultural test, the requirements you must meet, and how the French subsidy can help leverage a career in the French film industry.

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Ms. Gauberti is a solicitor of England and Wales, as well as an “avocat à la Cour”, French-qualified lawyer, who focuses her practice on providing legal services, on either contentious or non-contentious matters, to companies and individuals working in the creative industries in general, and the luxury goods, fashion, music, motion picture, television, Internet, multimedia sectors in particular.