In France They Kiss on Netflix

What does the French version of Netflix look like? How much gratuitous nudity can you expect to find in the French Netflix catalogue? Isn’t “French movie” code for “mild erotica”, anyway?

One year after being launched in France, it’s time to assess Netflix’s impact on French popular culture (or the other way around). I couldn’t find any better title than this reference to a 1975 Joni Mitchell song, “In France They Kiss on Main Street”, because if you log on to your Netflix account in France, you’re bound to see a lot of kissing — and more. But more on that later.

First I need to take you through the short history of Netflix in France, a little less than one year after its launch on this side of the pond. Did it change our viewing habits and save us from endless Columbo repeats on TV? Did the celebrated streaming service change its policy and its catalogue to fit Gallic viewers’ expectations? Was Netflix obliged to translate everything in its catalogue, including its own name (Le Netfilm, anyone?). And, more importantly, just how much gratuitous nudity can you expect to find in the French Netflix catalogue? Isn’t “French movie” code for “mild erotica” anyway? I will try and provide answers to all these equally pressing questions.

Netflix was (finally!) launched in France on 13 September last year, following a number of successful forays into other European markets such as the United Kingdom, Ireland and Scandinavia (all in 2012) and the Netherlands in 2013. Today, the service is said to boast half a million subscribers in France, according to official figures released by the company and published by the New York Times. A figure of 500,000 subscribers is a tad below expectations for a nation of 70 million, especially when compared to the number of customers in Britain (3.3 million in a country with a comparable population, despite the presence of rival VOD services like Amazon Instant Video), but such a gap can be justified by the fact that those lucky Brits got a two-year head-start and are currently sampling a library that is three times as big as the French selection, with more than 3,000 titles available.

Why did it take so long for the celebrated streaming service to get a shot at being a drag on my country’s bandwidth usage? Well, several reasons come to mind.

The French market had long been deemed — and perhaps rightly so — unfit for a subscription-based video streaming service due to the country’s “media chronology law” imposed by the national media watchdog (CSA, the National Audio-visual Council). The law stipulates that, after its theatrical release, it will take a movie four months to be released on DVD or to be made available as an on-demand rental. The rest of the chronology goes as follows after initial release: ten months for a cable broadcast, 22 months for a free TV broadcast, and a whopping three years for subscription-based streaming service like Netflix. Yes, this means that the most recent movies on French Netflix were released in theaters in 2012. Imagine a world where Avengers has no sequel, where The Dark Knight does not rise, where Star Trek has not gone into darkness yet, and where the most recent, exciting movie is Mall Cop.

Negotiations are under way to alter this chronology but the CSA seems stiffly unwilling to change. Interestingly, Netflix chose to initially install its French HQ in Luxembourg, and then to move to the Netherlands, so as to avoid France’s stringent tax laws. As a sop to the French government, Netflix indicated that it would still abide by the national media chronology system, while its decision not to formally incorporate in France initially gave it the possibility to avoid French taxation requirements such as the obligation to fund the French Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC, a public institution which collects funds for the French movie industry through taxes on movie tickets, TV channels and most media companies). The CNC later extended its taxation powers so as to include foreign-based companies with French customers, like Netflix. Also by operation out of Luxembourg, the streaming giant was nonetheless able to avoid the legal obligation to include 40 percent of French-language material in its catalogue, as is already the case for French TV and radio stations.

The media chronology law is slightly more vague when it comes to material that was not theatrically released, as with TV shows. There seems to be no time-based limitation, but the main obstacle is, of course, for Netflix to secure agreements with networks and studios before the other main players on the French media market. You would logically expect original series produced by Netflix to be made available in France at the same time as in other countries because, well, they belong to Netflix. You would be right, but with notable exceptions.

Thankfully, we have been able to enjoy the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bloodline and Daredevil (among others) for a few months now, but a notable exception has to be underlined since House of Cards, though the first and arguably most successful Netflix original, is not included in the French Netflix catalogue because French premium cable channel Canal Plus owned the rights to broadcast the political drama before Netflix made its move into France.

Canal Plus is one of the most influential players in French media and cinema markets (through its StudioCanal branch), and its preeminence certainly constituted a sizeable obstacle to Netflix’s arrival in France. In 2011, the media giant had preemptively launched its own streaming service (Canal Play) offering a seemingly vast catalogue of movies and series, and remains to this day one of Netflix’s main rivals, while a handful of other subscription-based services exist but are restricted to smaller, niche-type catalogues.

The legal shenanigans surrounding Netflix’s French venture show that the streaming company had to find some compromise and adapt itself to the requirements of the French “cultural exception”, at least from a business point of view. But just how different is French Netflix from its American counterpart? Well, the catalogue is undeniably restricted here, with a little over 1,000 titles as opposed to more than 8,000 in the United States (granted — Netflix has been around in the US for a lot longer, thus making it possible to assemble a massive database of films and series). It also has to be said that, over the past few months, there have been several very welcome additions to our streaming libraries, including the aforementioned Netflix originals, several British shows (Sherlock, Skins, Doctor Who, Top Gear, Downton Abbey) as well as several American “classics” or, to say the least, shows as would be considered “classics” by a French audience because of their success in France (Gossip Girl, Chuck, Lost, How I Met Your Mother, House, The Big Bang Theory, Dexter, Prison Break, Breaking Bad).

Call me picky but I think that some titles have been added somewhat randomly and I wonder how the Gallic public would relate to, for example, Kevin Hart’s, Chelsea Peretti’s or Aziz Ansari’s stand-up acts — all available here, with French subtitles (as is the case with the entire catalogue, kudos to the translators!) — even though they are not by any means famous around here, except to a group of faithful American expats who try their best to watch Parks and Recreation through more or less legal means. Conversely, I wouldn’t expect to find any French stand-up comedians to be included in the American catalogue, that would be a. weird, and b. nearly impossible to translate.

Now for what I believe to be missing… Well, there are plenty of glaringly unacceptable omissions: Friends and The Office are absent from the catalogue, the latter both in its British and American versions. I have also noticed the absence of a few shows which were broadcast by NBC in the United States (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Seinfeld) but one can only hope that these shows will be added at some point in order to introduce the French public to classic American comedy, to which it has hardly been exposed yet.

Seinfeld, for example, only ever made its way to French cable channels and hasn’t been aired for at least a decade now. 30 Rock was briefly broadcast on Canal Plus but then dropped, presumably because it was hard for French audiences to relate to the show if they had no clue what Saturday Night Live was. Sadly, great comedy can remain out of reach for certain audiences not only due to the language barrier but also to the cultural one.

All in all, I think within one year the catalogue has expanded to a respectable size and makes it possible to binge-watch quite an impressive number of TV shows. I would tend to say the movie catalogue is a little under-par but still very acceptable as it keeps growing. In recent weeks, classic trilogies like The Matrix and Back to the Future have been added; now all we need is Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings and we shall be have a respectable base. If server space is needed, they can probably delete the last two Matrix movies; it’s not like anyone will notice.

But what is most interesting is the French content that is indeed available on Netflix, featuring movies, series, documentaries, as well as some animated series for children. It has to be said that the “French movie” section does look a little like the “adult” section in your long-gone video rental store. Here is, for example, a screen grab from said section but first, a couple of important disclaimers in case my children (or worse, my students) somehow stumble upon this article: a. I did not photoshop this, and b. I’ve sacrificed my Netflix queue for the sake of reporting. Let’s hope that the almighty Netflix algorithms will be forgiving.

It would, however, be unfair to dismiss Netflix’s French-language content as erotica under cover of social commentary, and several critically-acclaimed movies are available as well, including but not limited to François Truffaut’s Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, Indochine (featuring Vincent Perez and Catherine Deneuve), A Very Long Engagement (featuring Amélie’s Audrey Tautou), and L’Auberge Espagnole (Pot Luck). The French-language TV show catalogue is, nevertheless, extremely thin, featuring only a handful of shows such as Un Village Français, depicting the lives of a community under nazi rule in WW2.

Fear not, once again France will be saved by its prodigal son: Gérard Depardieu. A French-language Netflix original series, simply entitled Marseille, is coming soon and it will feature Depardieu as the mayor of France’s second city. So, while American viewers have been able to watch Kevin Spacey jog his way into the Oval Office in House of Cards, French viewers will have to content themselves with Gérard Depardieu who, since he’s quite unlikely to do any jogging, will probably be seen playing bocce ball in front of city hall, cocktail in hand. It may seem like a cheap knock-off, but hey, at least it’s made in France.