Exhibs sound off at Gallic confab

Movies blamed for current ticket slump

DEAUVILLE — French theater owners were scarcely in a party mood as they feted their federation’s 60th anniversary in Deauville Sept 27-29.

Bubbly Normandy cider, the local tipple quaffed in generous quantities by some 1,600 attendees, contrasted with the worrying lack of fizz in the biz.

Ticket sales in Gaul are down around 15% so far this year.

French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres offered his sympathy to industryites, telling them: “The problem you are dealing with is real. It is of small comfort knowing that France is not alone in facing these difficulties.”

Listening in the audience were John Fithian, head of the U.S.’ National Assn. of Theater Owners, attending for the first time, along with industry reps from the UK., Norway, Spain, Denmark and Austria.

Gallic exhibbers lay the blame for the current ticket slump squarely on the movies on offer — both Hollywood blockbusters and local fare, despite a few standout hits like the comedy “Brice de Nice,” which boosted admissions by 4 million earlier this year.

“It’s a supply-led business,” says Olivier Snanoudj, director of French National Federation of Cinemas. “When the films are there, so are the audiences. That hasn’t been the case this year.”

Watching promo reels of 180 upcoming releases during the congress’ traditional distributors’ day — Tommy Lee Jones and Asterix inventor Uderzo were among talent in attendance — industryites pinned their hopes on the likes of “King Kong” and the next “Harry Potter” to limit the damage before the year is out. French movies expected to do well include Pathe’s “Top Gun”-style actioner, “Sky Riders.”

In Deauville there was also plenty of talk about structural issues facing the biz. In a rare moment of empowerment, once a year the congress puts even small exhibitors face-to-face with the French film policymakers.

Veronique Cayla, the new head of the Centre National de la Cinematographie, listened patiently to local issues raised by owners of France’s 5,600 screens — in screen count, Gaul ranks fourth in the world after China, the U.S. and India.

Gallic industryites also had their eye on the bigger picture, and matters that are of equal concern to their counterparts in the U.K., Germany or the U.S.

As Fithian told the gathering: “The dominant issues today — digital cinema, piracy, release windows — concern cinema owners everywhere in the world.”

There are differences. In contrast with the U.S., where Disney’s Robert Iger recently petrified theater owners by suggesting it might be a good idea to simultaneously release a movie theatrically and on DVD, in France release windows are fixed by law.

DVD is set at six months after theatrical, pay-per-view after nine months, pay TV after a year and terrestrial TV a year after that.

But France’s already crowded release schedule is about to be compressed to make room for video-on-demand. Both Canal Plus and rival pay TV operator TPS are planning to launch VOD services in the next couple of months. The question is, whose windows will be narrowed to make room? And where is VOD’s rightful place? Sandwiched between DVD and pay-per view? Each segment of the biz is lobbying furiously to protect its interests.

In Deauville, Donnedieu de Vabres soothed theater owners by saying, “The release schedule must be in the general interest, and first and foremost protect a film’s life in theaters, which forges its identity.

“The movie theater is at the heart of the film industry’s economy. It is also the magic of cinema,” he said.

Further down the line, Gallic exhibbers are wondering who is going to foot the bill for digital cinema.

So far fewer than a dozen French screens are equipped and there are no immediate plans to begin wider trials.

But when things do move forward, the solution envisaged in the U.S. — get the majors to pay — cannot work in a country where the film biz is fragmented into dozens of indie players, and where Hollywood fare reps only 50%-60% of ticket sales.

The CNC has been charged with creating a think tank to ponder the problem.

Cayla said “We need to reflect on this together and find a French modal that preserves the diversity of films and ensures arthouse films don’t suffer.”

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