Total admissions abroad declined 22% last year

PARIS — Liam Neeson starrer “Taken” claimed France’s film export crown last year, and propped up total international takings for French films.

Rolling off its $145 million U.S. B.O. trawl, “Taken” grossed a total Euros 121.4 million ($173.6 million) and 22.2 million admissions outside France last year, according to French export board Unifrance.

Helmed by Pierre Morel and written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, “Taken” also become the second- biggest Gallic hit ever abroad, its total 31 million tix sold, including multiple 2008 foreign bows, has only been bettered by Besson’s own “The Fifth Element” with 35 million admissions.

Led by “Taken,” “Transporter 3″ (16.5 million tix sold) and “Transporter 2″ (12.7 million), EuropaCorp accounts for seven of the top 20 most-seen Gallic films outside France last decade.

Despite the success of “Taken,” French pics’ tix sold abroad last year plunged 22% to 66 million vs. 2008’s 84.2 million — a best ever result since Unifrance began tallying results in 1990.

Compared with 2008, few big Gallic pics opened internationally in 2008. Best performers were “Transformer 3,” another 2008 bow in many territories, with $48 million, “Coco Before Channel,” the top French-language title, with $41.3 million, and Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Class” ($12.1 million).

The U.S., propelled by “Taken,” was easily Gaul’s biggest export market boasting 23.9 million admissions. Europe, however, accounted for the next four best-performing territories, with Germany ranking second, with around 5 million admissions.

All in all, however, France didn’t have an excessively bad year. Au contraire: figures were still impressive by European standards. But foreign revs returned to just below pre-2008 spike levels.

Average annual admissions abroad for French films, 2005-09, was 71 million, up 34% on 2000-2004, which saw 53 million.

“2008 was an exceptional year with four films that made large box-office abroad: ‘Taken,’ ‘Transporter 3,’ “Babylon A.D.’ and ‘Asterix at the Olympic Games,'” Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, who replaced Margaret Menegoz as Unifance prexy last January, said at a Unifrance press conference Friday.

The global crisis has also hit international biz, postponing releases.

“But annual figures must be placed in a longer-term context. And, compared with other countries in continental Europe, France’s 2009 results are still somewhat better,” Clermont-Tonnerre added.

That may be a diplomatic understatement.

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