DEAUVILLE, France -- When the American Film Festival began here in this old horsey-set beach resort 18 years ago, it was mainly a collection of French film nuts who had a passion for Hollywood.
"It was small and quaint," remembered Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and a regular attendee, "a festival on the picture-postcard Normandy coast of France dedicated to the showing of American films."
But in recent years, the 10-day festival, set not far from Omaha Beach and the World War II battlegrounds and cemeteries, has developed as an important political beachhead for the American film industry -- and a staging ground for the drive into the increasingly important European market.
"As the years went by," Mr. Valenti said in an interview, "business in the United States stabilized. Western Europe became an important growth area."
When the festival began in 1974, only 20 percent of American movie revenues came from abroad. This year, he said, foreign revenues top 40 percent of the American total -- and 55 percent of that comes from Europe. Behind Japan and Britain, France is the third most important national market for American films.
And, slowly, the internationalization of the American film industry has changed the character of the Deauville Festival. Once reluctant to spend money and time on the small all-American festival on the rainy Normandy coast, U.S. movie moguls now come here readily.
Unlike the better-known international film festival in Cannes, Deauville offers a showcase for American films without the clamor of the movie marketplace and international rivalries of the competition at Cannes.
At Deauville, the American industry gets essentially a free ride in the French press, full of fawning interviews with U.S. stars and directors in the key days after the French population returns en masse from summer vacation. Because of the wartime contact with U.S. troops, Normandy has long been the most pro-American of French regions. What better place for the American film industry, under attack in Paris and other regions for "cultural imperialism," to set up its advance European reconnaissance positions?
The role Deauville plays for American films has not been lost on local officials, many of whom have come under attack from political leaders in Paris for catering too enthusiastically to American interests. Deauville Mayor Anne d'Ornano, who once worked as a nurse in the United States, helped the American cause here recently by pushing for construction of a new glass-and-marble $55-million convention center with 1,500-seat theater that serves as the festival's centerpiece.
Despite the increased capacity of the new theater, a near riot occurred Saturday night at the gala opening, featuring the new Clint Eastwood Western, "Unforgiven." More than 3,000 people, many in tuxedos, showed up outside the building hoping to attend.
The largest-ever crowd at the festival, said organizer Andre Halimi, represented the paradox of the French public and its love-hate relationship with American films.
French intellectuals and artists complain that the dominant American film industry threatens the indigenous French industry with extinction. "But the same French wait in line to see American films," said Mr. Halimi, ". . . it just makes them feel guilty."
Ms. d'Ornano and other local officials were delighted to host the festival, held every year in September, because it helped extend the short season of the aging casino and beach resort where King Farouk, among other high rollers, gambled away their fortunes.
Deauville and its upper-class sister resorts in Le Toqueville and Biarritz could no longer survive on the brief, rich season of racing, polo and gambling to carry them all year.
As part of its effort to build a year-round convention business, the Deauville city government put up the money (about $400,000 this year, Ms. d'Ornano said) to host the film festival. The late French casino czar Lucien Barriere, owner of the three grand hotels in town, began the tradition of giving free suites to visiting American film stars and directors. That leaves American film studios with the cost, estimated by Mr. Valenti at about $50,000 per studio, of transporting their stars to Deauville.
Festival organizers claim it has never been very difficult to persuade American talent to visit.
This year, the American stars here include Mr. Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Jack Lemmon, Ray Liotta, Steve Martin, Joe Pesci, Jason Robards, Tim Robbins, James Coburn, Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda. Directors include Joseph Mankiewicz, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, Stanley Kramer and Michael Apted.
So far, Mr. Apted's American Indian police thriller "Thunderheart" and Penelope Spheeris' "Wayne's World" have been crowd favorites among the 28 films to be shown at the festival.