French films give Hollywood strong competition

Local fare almost closed the gap on Hollywood in 2006 as a slew of hits helped French cinema achieve its best performance in two decades, driving a 7% uptick in overall ticket sales.

Seven French films were among the year’s top 10 performers, led by “Les Bronzes” sequel “Friends Forever,” which grossed $81 million.

Distributed by Warner Bros., pic made up for some of that studio’s under-performing Hollywood fare this year.

Second-placed Pathe release “Camping,” another holiday-themed Gallic laffer, grossed $42 million. In its second week in April, pic held onto the top spot at the B.O., relegating new release “Mission Impossible III” to second place.

The Tom Cruise starrer managed a $14.7 million cume, becoming one of several Hollywood blockbusters that failed to ignite.

While Gallic comedies ruled — Francis Veber’s “The Valet” and spy spoof “OSS 117″ were standouts for Gaumont — the range of genres was wide among top-performing French films, many of which unashamedly encroached upon Hollywood’s turf.

Luc Besson’s live-action/animated kid’s film “Arthur” (aka “Arthur and the Invisibles”) still playing to packed theaters at the end of the year, proved that big-budget CGI pics are not beyond the scope, or purse, of Gallic production.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, the unlikeliest hit of the year was low-cost hick pic “You Are so Handsome,” another Gaumont release.

Story about love on a French farm grossed $27 million, outperforming “X Men 3″ ($22 million) and “Casino Royale” ($18 million).

A similar sum was garnered by Alain Chabat-Charlotte Gainsbourg starrer “I Do,” a Mars Distribution release, part of a romantic comedy phenom in Gaul along with Gad Elmaleh-Audrey Tautou starrer “Priceless,” released by TFM, and thesp Roschdy Zem’s helming debut “Bad Faith,” starring Zem and Cecile de France, handled by Wild Bunch.

To differing degrees all three pics borrowed from U.S. conventions — and profited from the lack of English-lingo offerings in the same genre.

In another vein, thesp-helmer Guillaume Canet provided French cinema with a hit thriller, Europacorp release “Tell No One,” adapted from the Harlan Coben novel of the same name and as stylish as many similar Yank offerings in the genre.

The Mars Distribution release “Days of Glory” ($23 million) showed French cinema could also do shoot-em-up war actioners. Pic, helmed by Rachid Bouchareb and starring a clutch of North African-origin Gallic talent (collective winners of best actor at the Cannes Film Festival) is Algeria’s candidate for the foreign-language Oscar.

With all that local fare out there, the Gallic B.O. chart had little room for Hollywood, with three key exceptions: “Pirates of the Caribbean 2,” “Ice Age 2″ and “The Da Vinci Code.”

Lackluster U.S. performers were more numerous.

“Poseidon” sank without a trace after grossing a mere $4.7 million.

Below par were “Miami Vice” ($12 million), “Superman Returns” ($11.5 million), “Cars” and “Happy Feet.”

“A lot of American blockbusters no longer respond to what audiences want,” says Olivier Snanoudj, director of the Gallic exhib org Federation Nationale des Cinemas Francais. “Special effects are not enough. People want to be entertained but they also want quality.”

English-lingo films that fell into that category included “The Devil Wears Prada,” ($16.7 million) “Brokeback Mountain” ($10.1 million), Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” ($6.9 million) and “Little Miss Sunshine” ($6.7 million).

Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” found favor with the French public and grossed a respectable $9.2 million; distrib Pathe did even better with Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” ($17.6 million).

In 2006 not every Gallic pic hit the spot. Disappointments included Besson’s “Angel A” — a film kept so under wraps that when it came it out, it went unnoticed — and the period actioner “The Tiger Brigades.”

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