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Exhibs examine B.O. decline

French biz sees 9% drop for the first 9 months of 2003

DEAUVILLE — A fireworks display and party hosted by Warner Bros. France did little to dispel unease among Gallic exhibitors at their annual confab in the seaside resort of Deauville, which wrapped Oct. 2. Warner nabbed the industry’s “Golden Ticket” for “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” which achieved the highest ticket sales in France over the past year.

Worried exhibitors’ minds were on the 9% drop in admissions for the first nine months of 2003. “People are going out less and there haven’t been enough strong, crowd-pulling films to get them into theaters,” said Erwan Bonthonneau, an indie exhibitor from Cannes.

The provinces have been the hardest hit by France’s admissions slump. While ticket sales in Paris were down 4%, in Bordeaux and Toulouse they fell 15%, and in Lille they were down 11%.

However, upcoming releases like “Finding Nemo” “The Matrix Revolutions” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” as well as French comedies, Francis Veber’s “Ruby and Quentin” and Claude Zidi’s “Ripoux 3,” could help roughly halve the decline nationally by the end of the year, according to the French National Exhibitors Federation. “Our sector is suffering, but it’s not a catastrophe, yet,” said FNCF prexy Jean Labe.

The industry is still busy analyzing the reasons behind a decline for the second year in a row — after a decade of growth.

They range from the state of the economy, the growth of the DVD market and an increase in the range of leisure activities, to a spate of strikes this year and good weather. The August heat wave sent the French rushing to the beach rather than air-conditioned movie theaters.

And then there were the films. While an array of middle-ranking French pics performed respectably, there was no overwhelming local blockbuster comparable to last year’s “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” or 2001’s “Amelie.”

“Taxi 3,” the Gallic pic which seemed to have the greatest box office promise, sold just over 6 million tickets, well below its predecessors. Meanwhile, a whole series of U.S. tentpoles that should have set the Gallic box office alight this summer — “Hulk,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” turned out to be non-starters.

“Many did OK in their first week but then collapsed in the second, like they do in the United States,” FNCF’s prexy Jean Labe says. “That’s unusual here in France.”

So far this year, the U.S. has slightly upped its share of the Gallic box office to 51%, compared with 38% for French films.

In Deauville, the mood picked up on distributors day, a 7-hour marathon in which some 27 distributors, from the majors to the smallest indie, unveiled their lineups for the months ahead. Stars including Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel and Josiane Balasko put in an appearance to promote some of the 175 trailered pics that seemed to offer more promise than last year’s selection.

“We saw some good-looking things,” commented Emmanuel Delesse, director of one of France’s busiest multiplexes, the UGC Cine Cite Bercy, in eastern Paris.

Gallic exhibitors, who are used to June being one of their quietest months, view the release of the next “Harry Potter” installment in June as manna from heaven. In terms of French movies, there was enthusiasm for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Two Brothers” and Alain Resnais’ “Not on the Mouth,” among other pics.

But the footage that excited exhibitors the most was from the unlikely sounding comedy “Podium,” a first film by Yann Moix about an impersonator of the 1970s Gallic pop icon Claude Francois, played by Benoit Poelvoorde. There were admiring gasps and rapturous applause as computer trickery enabled the two to sing a kitsch duet of “Comme d’habitude” (the original French “My Way”) which the pop singer composed.

There may be hope for the Gallic box office after all.

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