A wave of paralyzing strikes and subzero temperatures has left the French entertainment industry facing a Christmas season decidedly lacking in comfort and joy.
With the capital’s metro subway system locked shut for the past two weeks and no buses in Paris, the City of Light has entered total gridlock, forcing commuters either to stay at home or spend hours walking to their offices.
“Given that everyone is struggling to get around town, I suppose it’s normal that attendance has dropped heavily,” noted one exec at Gallic major Gaumont. “If the strikes go on for another week or even two, a lot of film companies are going to feel the squeeze.”
With hardtops reporting a 25% drop in business compared to last year, the alarm bells are starting to ring. Hardest hit have been the prestige screens on the Champs Elysees and in the trendy Les Halles district.
Attendance seems to be holding up in areas where people can walk from their homes. But as the Champs Elysees is mainly offices, audiences have been very poor. “Pocahontas” sold 140 tickets Dec. 6 on the Champs.
For distributors, especially those with pics skedded to hit the screen this week, the subway lockout is a major setback. Ad campaigns rely heavily on metro and bus posters. Both outlets have been unavailable for the past two weeks.
“We haven’t been able to use the metro billboards and we aren’t paying for the space we had reserved,” noted one exec at indie distributor Bac Films, which launched Etienne Chatiliez’s long-awaited comedy “Le Bonheur est dans le Pre” on Dec. 6.
Despite the relatively limited ad campaign and the problem of getting people to screens, the Chatiliez pic held up well on its opening day, selling 21,000 tickets on 47 Paris screens and more than 70,000 nationwide.
“I think ‘Le Bonheur’ has escaped the worst because it’s new and a comedy. People are avoiding anything that is depressing and tending to go for event films. The smaller pictures are taking the worst of the flak,” said the Gaumont exec.
While hardtop owners questioned by Variety say they are not planning to introduce special pricing policies in an attempt to attract punters, legit execs already have been forced to bite the bullet.
At the popular Lucernaire theatre, management is offering locals the chance of buying tickets at around $17 instead of the normal $28. Attendance is still down 50%.
Some shows, however, have survived the transport turmoil. Actress Valerie Lemercier, who was part of the team in the hit Gallic film “Les Visiteurs,” is still playing to full houses at the Theatre de Paris.
Lemercier is lucky enough to have a youth following and when Variety ventured to the north-central venue, the sidewalk was packed with motor-scooters, skateboarders and roller-skaters.
“It’s great,” laughed one Lemercier fan, skates over his shoulder. “We can cruise through the traffic and nobody hassles us. If we tried this normally we would have the flics (police) on us immediately.”
Next door the news is not so good. The Petit Theatre de Paris is playing to a decidedly older audience which would probably look at a skateboard only if it were chauffeur-driven. Result: “La Chambre d’Amis” is virtually empty.
Film distribution execs now say their worst nightmare is if the trucking companies get hit by union action. “Normally we get copies around the country by rail, but as there haven’t been any trains for the last two weeks we have had to turn to road transport. If the truckers come out on strike it will be a disaster. I can hardly bicycle around the country with 300 copies strapped to my back,” says one veteran distributor.
Although the numbers-crunchers still have to work out the cost of the strikes to the entertainment industry, some legit theater owners already are worried.
At the prestigious Theatre Mogador, the current run of the English-language “My Fair Lady,” starring Richard Chamberlain, is playing to half-full houses. Mogador management told Variety, “We would expect to have 75% of the (1,700) seats filled. Obviously the strikes are hurting us. If they go on another week we will be in real trouble.”
There were similar tales right across town. At the 1,800 seater Palais des Congres in west Paris, rock opera “Starmania” is beginning to feel the pinch.
Some venue managers say they are having to steel their nerves for future events, particularly during the Christmas holiday. “We would normally start getting bookings for future shows months before they take place, but bookings are virtually non-existant at the moment,” says Jean-Michel Boris of music venue Olympia.
Cancellations also have become rife, according to Boris, who is currently hosting a series of Paolo Conte concerts. “I’d say attendance is down 30% on what we expected and thank God we have Paolo Conte.”
One of the few entertainment operations to have escaped the worst of the strikes is the giant Disneyland Paris theme park east of Paris. Despite the fact that the rail link to the French capital is shut, park execs say that attendance is comparable to last year.
Disneyland Paris has been lucky because the December period is not a peak season for foreign visitors. “Our winter clients are mainly French and a lot of them are from outside Paris, so they can still get to us by car. If the strikes had been in August it would not have been funny,” added the spokesman.
With few of the French venturing out at night, TV audiences have been high, but as prices for primetime slots were negotiated before the strike, the webs have been unable to make a fast franc by upping their ad tariffs.