U.S. pix this year upstaged by French fare

PARIS — A series of local hit films has ended Hollywood’s 15-year domination of the French box office — and upped admissions by 10% in the first half of this year.

Local pics, culminating with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie From Montmartre,” claimed a 51% market share, while U.S. fare trailed with 39.3%, according to figures from the Centre National de la Cinematographie, which oversees the French film industry.

The last time local films outperformed Hollywood fare was in 1986, when they led by just half a percentage point at 43.7%. Their share of the box office had steadily slipped since then.

A handful of movies are credited with French cinema’s stunning renaissance, starting with Francis Veber’s gay-themed comedy “The Closet,” which has taken more than $27 million since hitting screens earlier this year.

The nostalgia-steeped “Amelie,” to be released in the U.S. by Miramax, has earned nearly $33 million, while homegrown buddy comedy sequel “You Shouldn’t Worry” grossed nearly $41 million.

And Christophe Gans’ StudioCanal-backed swashbuckler “Brotherhood of the Wolf” has inspired local hope that European cinema can beat Hollywood at the blockbuster game. A genre-bending intellectual actioner with an astronomical budget (by French standards) of $29 million, pic became a massive hit with teens and older auds as well, grossing nearly $27 million.

No U.S. film has come close to those earnings; the nearest, the Mel Gibson starrer “What Women Want,” took $17 million.

Spurred on by “Brotherhood’s” perf, many French filmmakers are rushing to bring out their own lavish teen-oriented swashbucklers. For TF1, Philippe Rousselet is producing the Bernie Bonvoisin-directed “Blanche,” with an ensemble cast including Gerard Depardieu. UGC will shortly unveil director Pitof’s Gothic thriller “Vidocq”; StudioCanal’s Richard Grandpierre is developing several big-budget pics, including Gans’ next actioner, “The Adventurer.”

But the industry is bracing itself for a sharp pendulum swing back in favor of American films over the summer, because of French distribs’ deeply ingrained reluctance to release pics when much of the country is on vacation. During this period, American pics have been known to grab more than 90% market share.

This year, the Luc Besson-produced “Kiss of the Dragon” — an English language pic starring Jet Li and Bridget Fonda — is the only big “French” release, despite generous financial incentives to distributors from the Centre National de la Cinematographie. That leaves the field open for Hollywood films like “Planet of the Apes” and “Jurassic Park III.”

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