It was Italian writer and film critic Ricciotto Canudo who introduced the concept of the septième art in the early 20th century.
Canudo, who mainly lived in France, was referring to cinema and filmmaking and secured their place in the list of the arts, alongside architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, and theatre/dance.
Frenchman shot first ever film in Leeds, UK
Film is an industry that France has pioneered since 1888 when Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince directed a two-second movie called Roundhay Garden Scene.
The Frenchman’s work, shot in Leeds in the UK, is generally believed to be the first film.
Guinness World Records considers it the earliest surviving motion picture.
Cinema started in France
Seven years later, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière presented the short silent documentary La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon at a private screening.
It was the Lumière brothers, on December 28, 1895, who first screened a programme of several films at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, which the public paid to see.
The Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) notes this as the official start of ‘cinema’.
The CNC was created on October 25, 1946, and its first mission was to restore cinemas damaged during the war and to support the development of cinematographic works.
The latter is something it continues to do today, as well as promoting other audio-visual, video and multimedia arts, including video games.
French go to cinema more than other Europeans
Sarah Drouhaud, director of communication at CNC, said: “We can congratulate ourselves that despite the current crisis, cinema remains the favourite cultural outing of the French. It should be remembered that before the crisis began, annual cinema admissions in France amounted to more than 213 million.
“In 2021, we experienced a drop due to the closure of cinemas during the first months of the year, but attendance, with 96 million admissions, still remains the highest in Europe.”
One of the reasons the industry has remained so buoyant is the level of support it receives, according to Lisa Nesselson, president of the Académie des Lumières, which is made up of members of the international press and was created in 1995 to celebrate French cinema.
Ticket sales fund new French films
Ms Nesselson explained that 25% of all cinemas in Europe are in France and the government provided more than €300million during lockdown to ensure that none went out of business.
“The French funding system is a magnificent, virtuous circle,” she said.
“Every time somebody decides to go to a movie, whether an American Hollywood Marvel extravaganza or two people talking in a room in Stockholm, almost 11% of their ticket price – roughly just under €1 – goes into a fund to make more French films.
“So if a Hollywood movie, for example Spider-Man, is a huge hit, that is terrific. It means so much more money to make French films in the years to come.”
Cinema integrated into French life
The TSA, or taxe sur les entrées en salles de spectacles cinématographiques, that Ms Nesselson is referring to was introduced in 1948 to ensure automatic support for film production and exhibition.
It is added to other resources to build up a fund collected by the CNC and then distributed to the film and audio-visual industry.
“I think the French system is incredible. It is self-sustaining. It makes it possible for everybody, unless they live in a teeny-tiny village in a valley, to have access to some sort of place that shows films.
“There are a lot of festivals and programmes for children as young as six months because the French stopped to think ‘Well, where are the film-goers of the future going to come from?’,” said Ms Nesselson.
Indeed, cinema is integrated into a child’s life from the start, including during school.
Numerous government-supported partnerships with the CNC ensure students can become fully immersed in the world of film during their studies, including workshops and opportunities within glamorous award ceremonies, such as the prestigious César awards – the national film awards of France, held every February.
French films popular worldwide
More than 120 years after it all started, it is good news to see that French films are internationally popular too.
In January, UniFrance announced that French film exports were up 5.5% in 2021, generating €91.4million, with western Europe the leading market for the sixth consecutive year.
Mainly funded through the CNC, UniFrance is an association that incorporates producers, directors, actors, screenwriters and agents, and is responsible for promoting French cinema abroad.
Its director of cinema, Gilles Renouard, said: “France produces a lot of films and a great diversity of genres. It makes good comedies, amazing animation films, many dramas which are selected in festivals all around the world, but also thrillers, horror and documentaries.
“It is a big asset when you come to the foreign markets because Russians and Germans love comedies, the Japanese are fond of French romantic films, Mexicans like animations and horror films.
“All the audiences in the world can find a way to love French cinema.”
Drama is top French film export
UniFrance says drama pulled in the greatest number of admissions outside of France last year (just over four million), mainly thanks to the French-British co-production The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins, which was made by French writer/director Florian Zeller and co-produced by a French producer.
For the first time in two years, comedy fell to second place.
“Comedy is usually the first genre for French cinema abroad, as it is in France,” said Mr Renouard.
“2021 was a very specific year due to the pandemic and the distribution of films was completely disrupted.
“The audience might not have been in the mood to see comedies, as they used to in a normal year.”
Celebrating 100 years of cinema
There are a great number of ways to tap into the septième art in France.
Cinemas will often commemorate anniversaries, people or eras by hosting screenings of classic films, associations support film festivals, and records and archives are available to students, teachers, researchers and film enthusiasts.
To mark a century since the beginning of cinema, the culture minister tasked the CNC with restoring and indexing almost all of the original Lumière negatives from its catalogue as part of Projet Lumière.
In 2004, it was registered in Unesco’s Memory of the World, a compendium of documents, manuscripts, oral traditions, audio-visual materials, and library and archival holdings of universal value.
The CNC has a huge and diverse archive, including works from Jean Vivié, Roland Lesaffre, Alexandre Alexeieff and Abel Gance.
The Musée Lumière in Lyon also celebrates the pioneering brothers and has the Bibliothèque Raymond Chirat, housing 41,000 film files and iconographic documents including 17,000 photo files, as well as other archive materials.
Preserving French cinema history
In a similar vein, the Cinémathèque française was created in Paris in 1936 by Henri Langlois, who is considered to be a pioneer of film preservation.
The organisation has 40,000 old and modern films – one of the largest collections in the world – 23,000 posters, 30,000 archive files, 500,000 photographs, and more than 2,000 objects.
More recently, Paris’ Fondation Jérôme-Seydoux-Pathé was created in 2006 and houses pieces of film equipment, photographs, printed documents and other objects dating back to Pathé’s creation in 1896.
The French are preserving the septième art in more ways than one, while still looking to the future.