From 1960 to 1993 France was Europe's leading filmmaking country, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Although attendances fell over the period, they held up much better than in other countries, even after the home video market took off in the late 1980s. In 1991, for example, France made more feature films (156), had more screens in operation (4,531), and sold more tickets (117. 5 m.) than any other western country except the USA. There are three main, and interrelated, reasons for the French cinema's good health: a state-inspired industrial structure that assists film production at every stage, from project to distribution, through its governing body the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC); a large reservoir of talent in every department of film-making; and a very receptive public and a lively film culture.
The period falls naturally into three broad phases, each beginning with a major politico-cultural event: the New Wave; May 1968; and the arrival of the Socialist government in 1981.
Several mechanisms helped to bring in the New Wave, which took the industry by surprise in 1959 (the term had been coined a year earlier by Françoise Giroud in the weekly L'Express). The political context was favourable: the newly installed Gaullist regime, keen to promote a homegrown industry to counter what it saw as the cultural menace of Hollywood and its large slice of box-office revenues, introduced the avance sur recettes system. This film subsidy, funded by a levy on ticket sales and repayable by a percentage of the film's takings, enabled many unknowns to get their first directing chance. That chance was eagerly seized on by a group of dynamic critics centred on the magazine Cahiers du cinéma, who carried many other new directors in their wake. Technical developments such as faster film stock and lighter cameras and sound recording equipment facilitated the location shooting, improvisation, and experimentation that were the hallmark of the New Wave directors. Another factor was the attitude of producers: the box-office success of And God Created Woman (Et Dieu créa . . . la femme, 1956), directed by 28-year-old Roger Vadim, had helped convince them of the viability of young film-makers.
In the aftermath of the May 1968 'events' the production system changed considerably. The avance sur recettes subsidy was reformed so that not only producers but directors could apply for it; membership of the eligibility committee was broadened to include industry representatives and prominent cultural figures instead of civil servants alone. A special fund was set up for first-time directors, and exhibitors got tax-breaks if they showed 'quality' French films.
Beginning in the early 1980s, even more comprehensive changes aimed at helping French film production were introduced by the Socialist Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, as part of his campaign against American'cultural imperialism'. He appreciably increased the avance sur recettes fund, helped distributors to modernize theatres, and in 1983 implemented a tax-shelter system which enabled individuals or companies to invest indirectly in film productions through financial vehicles called soficas.Sofica money went to about a third of all films produced in 1991. Television was encouraged to produce or co-produce films, and by the beginning of the 1990s the film branch of the television channel Canal Plus was investing more in the film industry even than the CNC. A new tax-break aid system was introduced for films with budgets over FF50m., and the number of expensive films being made increased. Changes of government during the 1980s and the election of a right-wing government in 1993 made little difference to the general drift of film policy. In 1993 the CNC's aid fund was further boosted by a 2 per cent tax on the sales of videocassettes; even more dramatically, the new French government fought hard during the 1993 GATT negotiations to secure a better share of the market for French (and other European) films in the struggle against Hollywood domination.
Although the traditional genres of French cinema -- poliders, comedies, social dramas, costume films, etc. -- continued to thrive throughout the period, and have held up on the whole much better than their equivalents in other European cinemas, the most striking development in French cinema has been the proliferation of auteur films, particularly in the years of the New Wave.