Local pix losing ground at the box office in 2006

MONTREAL — The Fete Nationale, Quebec’s heavily nationalist annual birthday celebration, will be paying tribute to Quebec film this year. But the organizers of the June 24 holiday bash couldn’t have worse timing.

After years of rapid-fire growth, French-Canadian film is losing ground at the box office in 2006. So far this year, locally produced French-language Canuck pics have accounted for just 8% of overall ticket sales in Quebec. That’s down from a record-breaking 18% of all Quebec ticket sales last year.

It’s still far better than English-language Canadian film, which continues to languish at roughly 1% of overall box office action across Canada. But Quebecois film has been booming for years now, with major surges every year, and this is the first significant box office dip since the early 1990s.

Christian Larouche, one of Quebec’s leading distributors, says the drop in ticket sales is causing no small consternation among Quebec industryites.

“We’re starting to make less films,” says Larouche, president of Montreal-based Christal Films, which has released some of the top Quebec hits in recent years, including the “Les Boys” series of hockey comedies. “We have less money available and our budgets are going up.”

Larouche notes that it looks like Quebec will make only about 10 films this year, that total lacking the critical mass to fuel the boom. “The whole industry is very worried because we don’t know where we’re going. It’s bad because we were on the right track and we might not be able to surf on it because we don’t have enough movies.”

There has been only one local hit so far this year, the Quebec-produced Rwandan-set drama “A Sunday in Kigali,” which has sold just over C$1 million ($898,000) worth of tickets for distributor Equinoxe Films. The other Quebec pics have done only so-so business, with both “Angel’s Rage,” a gritty street-kids drama, and “Histoire de Famille,” a period piece, doing about $360,000 each at the cash register.

Simon Beaudry, president of Montreal-based box-office tracking firm Cineac, says it is likely that the lack of hits in the first five months — coupled with fewer high-profile Quebec pics — ensures that Quebec films will be down overall for the year.

But there are some promising pics coming, which has some hopeful sales will pick up in the second half. Christal’s romantic comedy “Duo” gets a big launch June 16, and “Le Secret de Ma Mere,” a July 7 release starring local icon Ginette Reno, is also much anticipated. Bilingual action-comedy “Bon Cop/Bad Cop” should do well in la belle province as well given that it features hot Quebec comic-turned-thesp Patrick Huard.

“It’s too early to tell,” says Michele Laroche, head of distribution at Equinoxe Films. “On paper, there’s some major stuff coming. But you can’t have a record year every year. I think last year was exceptional.”

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