‘Potter’ lifts pall at French Box Office

Elections slow ticket sales in 1st half

PARIS “Harry Potter” worked some much-needed magic on the Gallic box office with its record-breaking opening day take of $5.9 million  July 11, after a first semester down nearly 10%. A more exciting-than-usual presidential election and a less commercial Cannes selection were two factors driving down B.O. in the first half of the year.

“Spider-Man 3” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” had limited the damage, but failed to prevent French ticket sales from slumping to $753.3 million, according to recent official figures, while a series of Cannes pics limped their way to meager B.O. returns.

The Spidey sequel, “Pirates” and Gallic hits “La Vie en rose” and “Taxi 4” simply couldn’t counter adverse factors that included an unseasonably warm spring; “not enough attractive films,” in the words of exhibs; and Gaul’s presidential elections.

Hollywood fare took a 45% share of the market.

“During electoral periods people consume less, they don’t go out so much,” theorizes Olivier Snanoudj, director of France’s exhibitors’ org, the Federation National des Cinemas Francais.

The electoral race between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal proved particularly entertaining, and Gallic broadcasters had the last laugh as, for once, political shows drew record audiences.

April admissions were down a steep 44%.

True, the decline was exaggerated by the fact that April was a bumper month last year, distribs having rushed out some of their best pics — among them “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “OSS 117” — to avoid clashing with the summer’s World Cup tournament.

In May and June, several releases gleaned little benefit from their high-profile bows on the Croisette, with the exceptions of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and toon “Persepolis.”

In three weeks on screens, “Ocean’s Thirteen” grossed $11.8 million — leagues away from “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” which cumed $37.6 million and $24 million, respectively. Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” grossed just $5 million, a disappointment considering Gauls have a soft spot for the Palme d’Or-winning auteur.

Cannes’ French selection disappeared from screens with lightning speed. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” winner of Cannes’ director prize for Julian Schnabel; Christophe Honore’s “Les Chansons d’amour,” panned by foreign crix but adored by their Gallic counterparts; and Catherine Breillat’s “Une vieille maitresse”  grossed just $1.7 million, $1.6 million and $534,000, respectively.

“Since Thierry Fremaux has been in charge of the selection, Cannes has programmed more audience-pleasers, but this summer is not like 2006, when we had ‘Volver’ and ‘Marie Antoinette,’ ” says Snanoudj.

Directors’ Fortnight selection “Inside,” a Gallic gore pic starring Beatrice Dalle, was another Cannes also-ran, earning just $415,000 at the local box office, while, without the benefit of a Croisette preem, U.S. gorefest “The Hills Have Eyes 2” grossed a more respectable $2.4 million.

It’s early yet, but Gallic exhibs are hoping the box office will catch up in the second half to match last year’s $1.7 billion. June was up 12.6%, and July is certain to deliver better results than the same month last year, when the World Cup kept the French glued to their TV sets.

“On paper it is looking good for the second semester. There is a rich supply of films coming up,” says Snanoudj.

Hollywood films expected to boost ticket sales include “Transformers,” opening July 25; “Ratatouille,” on Aug. 1; and “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which bows Aug. 8.

Exhibitors are also pinning their hopes on French pics including SND’s “Intimate Enemies,” a “Platoon”-style war actioner from Florent Siri; “Le deuxieme souffle,” Alain Corneau’s remake of the Jean-Pierre Melville classic; Jan Kounen’s Jean Dujardin starrer “99 Francs,” a black comedy based on a bestselling French novel; and the Warners-backed remake of Claude Autant Lara’s “L’Auberge rouge,” starring members of the team from hit comedy “Les Bronzes.”

Another crop of Cannes offerings will include the Romanian Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which bows Aug. 29, and Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” out Sept. 5.

Further ahead, the holiday season will include the Disney-backed “The Fox and the Child,” Luc Jacquet’s fictional follow-up to the hit docu “March of the Penguins,” and Gaumont’s “Big City,” an all-kid Western from Djamel Bensallah.

“The exhibition business is cyclical and since we’ve had two lackluster semesters in a row, we surely must be in for a better second half,”  Snanoudj predicts.

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