French Read Signs Of Filmbiz Rebound

Considering the current, uncertain state of the world’s film business, the French are doing quite well, thank you. And predictions are that Gallic vitality will only get stronger.

After years of sagging box office and fears that France may be the next to slump into the cellar of filmmaking, following Spain, Britain and Germany, there are tentative signs of recovery:

* Major studio Gaumont reported its best results in a decade.

* Market share for French films and overall boxoffice rose in 1990 for the first time in nearly 10 years.

* Cash-rich companies are investing millions of dollars in production and exhibition; pay-tv service Canal Plus and concrete king Francis Bouygues have created mini-studios.

* Millionaire financier Jerome Seydoux bought Pathe; his other investments are leading indie distrib, AMLF, and Claude Berri’s successful production firm, Renn.

* Overall French film production was up in 1990 climbing to 144 pics thus leading the Western world outside Hollywood.

* Spearheaded by the Oscar nominations of “Cyrano de Bergerac” a handful of French films are making big international waves. Other films – such as “La Femme Nikita” are subject to a growing trend of remaking French pics.

What’s more, this year’s hot, distrib, AMLF, owned in part by – Seydoux and Berri and helmed by Paul Rassam and Richard Pezet, is expecting a banner 1991, thanks to Yank pickup “Dances With Wolves,” and Berri’s hit French pic, “Uranus.” In addition, Seydoux plans to invest heavily to renovate Pathe’s theater circuit following competitors UGC and Gaumont who are doing likewise.

Despite these positive indications, the industry isn’t out of the woods quite yet. This year a series of big, expensive films – both French and foreign – spectacularly bombed. They included “Le Brasier,” “Lacenaire” and “Godfather III.”

Distributors of non-studio films are feeling the pinch as the boffo biz centers around a shrinking number of titles. Insiders point out that if it hadn’t been for “Dances With Wolves,” 1991 would have started as an overall boxoffice disaster.

Says one distributor: “The risks of putting out a film theatrically are rising dramatically. You’ve got to depend on revenues from television and, to a much lesser extent, video to compensate in the case of weak theatrical results.”

Nevertheless, the biggest thing going for the industry is that the French love the cinema, almost religiously. In addition, filmmakers have a powerful lobbying group and strong political support from the government.

Under the helm of Cultural Minister Jack Lang, the industry is protected, thanks to a gamut of generous tax shelter schemes, subsidies and rules which prevent tv channels from freely programming films. A large number of film festivals and subsidy incentives for discovering new talent also plays a role in keeping the industry fresh and dynamic.

Critics point out that the film community is pampered and over-protected. They also lash out at the quota system which forces French networks – especially Canal Plus- to program Frenchmade films.

This last point, they say, leads to a surplus of films. Canal Plus and the other networks are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to co-produce French pictures. As a result, many theatrically released films are really unambitious telefilms in disguise. Films must be released theatrically in order to benefit from subsidies and tax kickbacks.

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