Can an English-speaking filmmaker make it in the French-speaking world? And, vice versa, can a French-speaking filmmaker succeed in the English-speaking world? These questions may seem obvious, but finding an answer is not quite so simple. First we must give some serious thought to what makes a filmmaker successful.
In cinema generally, what propels a filmmaker out of the shadows and into the spotlight is a film. The bigger a hit it is, the more well known the director. The success of a single movie can be all it takes to launch a great film career.
Upon closer inspection, a filmmaker's success doesn't necessarily depend on her nationality, and even less on the region she lives or works in. The key to making it is her work. The better it is, the more her reputation will grow. In the movie industry, as all film professionals are well aware, it's the film that opens doors for filmmakers, even those considered out of reach. It doesn't matter, in fact, where they live or what language they speak. What counts above all is the quality of the movies they make. But what exactly makes a good film?
With a heavy dose of subjectivity – as this is how I see things – I would start by saying that a good movie is first and foremost a good story. And a good story means a good screenplay. The filmmaker's expertise does the rest. A talented director will have a strong creative vision and know how to put it into action. Her direction of actors will be faultless. She will also make sure she has an excellent director of photography, a skilled sound engineer… in short, an efficient technical crew.
Once shooting is over and post-production completed, it's time to "sell" the movie. The marketing strategy for a film can be decisive in a filmmaker's career, but it is not the main thing; a bad movie will still be bad no matter how it is promoted.
Money is no guarantee of success either, whether in the English- or French-speaking worlds. Just look at the number of box office bombs – films that fail to cover production, distribution and promotion costs – some of which have caused spectacular financial losses. This was the case for the feature film 47 Ronin directed by Carl Erik Rinsch, with Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ko Shibasaki, the biggest US box office flop in recent years. In France, with a record budget of 78 million euros and a high profile cast, Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques struggled to sell seven million tickets.
Despite their large budgets, these films were a fiasco. The story simply did not attract the movie-going public, or perhaps the screenplay was cobbled together or just plain bad. Given the monumental failure of 47 Ronin (statistics supplied by Wikipedia suggest an abysmal loss of around $150 million), which was made in English, we can safely say that while the "language" factor may have an influence, it is not decisive for the success of a filmmaker in a given context.
So yes, an English-speaking filmmaker can make it in the French-speaking world, as long as he or she makes films that appeal to movie-goers from all backgrounds, including French-speaking. Here too, examples abound. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott are just a few of the English-speaking directors who have risen to stardom in the French-speaking world.
In Africa, the Ethiopian Haile Gerima is as well respected in Ouagadougou, Tunis and Dakar as in Addis Ababa. His film Teza, which won the Yennenga Golden Stallion at Fespaco 2011, met with resounding success everywhere it screened in Africa. And what about Ousmane Sembène, who is equally famous in English-speaking and French-speaking Africa; or Idrissa Ouédraogo, Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, Gaston Kaboré and Safi Faye? These great names of African cinema are adored in the Anglophone parts of the continent because their films have spoken and continue to speak for them.
Ultimately, it is a filmmaker's talent that builds her reputation, regardless of where she works and in what language. Haven't we all heard it said that the language of cinema is universal? Whether you are an English-speaker in a French-speaking context or vice versa, there aren't a thousand ways to make a film. There is only one. Everything else is secondary.
47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsh, fiction, USA, 2013
Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques by Thomas Langmann and Frédéric Forestier, fiction, France, 2008
Teza by Haile Gerima, fiction, Ethiopia/USA/France/Germany, 2011
Journalist and film critic, SANGARE Yacouba
is based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.