B.O. up, but total U.S. tix sold drop 5 mil

PARIS – Exports of French films rose in 1995 but the story from the States was more a case of “Deception,” than “La Vie en Rose.”

While international box office results for Gallic fare hit 1 billion francs ($196 million) last year compared with $171 million in 1994, the number of tickets sold for French pics in the U.S. dropped by 5 million, according to a new report put out by the export group Unifrance.

And while France continues to produce around 100 pics per year, the majority of foreign box office is being taken by just a dozen.

The Unifrance data, which details the performance of French films theatrically and on the international TV scene, reports that Europe remains the strongest market for Gallic fare, repping 32% of tickets sold for French pics, while the U.S. totaled 25.7%. The 5 million-ticket slump in the U.S. was balanced by an equivalent climb in the number of Europeans watching French pics.

The Unifrance figures include French-lingo pics and foreign-language films such as “The Postman” (Il Postino) in which the French production community has invested. The combo of the two explains why U.S. results dropped last year. In 1994, Ciby 2000’s English-lingo pic “The Piano” hit paydirt Stateside, driving up the results of Gallic pics. Although Luc Besson’s English-language “The Professional” did reasonable business in the U.S., it couldn’t hold a candle to the Jane Campion film.

On the upside, however, U.S. box office results for French-language films surged last year, almost doubling ticket sales to 3 million units. That was mostly due to the success of the Miramax re-release “Belle du Jour,” which sold 800,000 tickets on its own, alongside Sony Classics’ “Farinelli” (630,000) and two holdovers from 1994, “Three Colors: Red” (613,000) and “Queen Margot” (418,946) – both distributed by Miramax.

What is still causing concern in France is the relatively small number of Gallic pics that have international legs. Per Unifrance, 46% of foreign entries for French-lingo pics went to five films – Gerard Corbiau’s “Farinelli,” Patrice Chereau’s costumer “Queen Margot,” Krzysztof Kiewslowski’s “Three Colors: Red,” Herve Palud’s comedy “Un Indien dans la Ville” – which Disney has put down the remake path – and Josiane Balasko’s laugher “Gazon Maudit.”

As for non-French-language production, five pics accounted for 76% of international entries, with “The Professional” leading the way from “Highlander III.”

Both producers and sales execs said the dilemma for French producers is that while local comedies such as “Les Visiteurs,” “Les Trois Freres” or “Un Indien dans la Ville” have been performing strongly in the domestic market in recent years, they are often difficult to export.

“When you take the language problem and add the fact that comedy tends to address national sensibilities rather than international ones, you begin to understand the difficulty,” a veteran sales exec noted.

Despite France’s commitment to its own language, embodied in linguistic-based film quotas on French television, the Unifrance stats underline that international audiences are still more attracted to non-French lingo product coming out of France.

Of the 40 million people who saw French films outside France last year, 23.5 million watched projects produced or co-produced by the Gauls, but not in French.

Increasingly, French producers are spreading themselves into English-lingo production, admittedly with mixed results. Gallic major UGC finances Jeremy Thomas’ projects, Jake Ebert’s Allied Filmmakers is in bed with Pathe, and Gaumont funds Besson’s projects, such as “The Professional” or Bruce Willis starrer “The Fifth Element.”

Elsewhere, Ciby 2000 bankrolled Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies,” Paris-based Davis Film produced “Pinocchio” and is prepping the $40 million “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and the hottest indie producer of the moment, Charles Gassot’s Telema, recently announced the creation of a joint venture with Studio Canal Plus to develop and produce pics out of London.

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