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French box office hits 20-year record

Trio of pics largely responsible for outstanding performance

PARIS — The French box office broke a 20-year record in February as, in a complete reversal of the usual trends, home-grown movies triumphed over Hollywood product.

Having been dominated by U.S. imports last year, French cinema got its revenge, claiming a staggering 60% of the box office — or 14 million out of 25 million ticket sales, while Hollywood movies were left with a measly 35% share.

Admissions were up a whopping 42% on the same month last year, France’s Centre National de la Cinematographie said March 1.

While February is traditionally one of the best periods of the year in terms of cinema attendance, the CNC said this was the best total more than 20 years.

The massive success of “All-you-can-see” cinema passes, launched last year by UGC and Gaumont, has played its part in France’s audience upsurge.

But three films are largely responsible for the outstanding performance of local product.

First came Francis Veber’s Gaumont-backed comedy “The Closet,” which has racked up $24 million in 6 weeks.

A week later, the Studio Canal backed action thriller “Brotherhood of the Wolf” by Christophe Gans, burst onto French screens, and has taken $23.4 million at the last count.

But the biggest hit of all has been “The Truth as I Lie 2” (La Verite si je mens 2), a buddy comedy set among Paris’ Jewish rag-trade community. Hollywood can console itself that at least co-producer Warner Bros. gets a share of the $30 million box office the film has taken since its release three weeks ago.

There is no single explanation for the success of this trio of hits.

“The Closet” is the latest in a string of box office comedy smashes by Francis Veber, director of “The Dinner Game,” whom audiences clearly know will deliver the laughs.

“La Verite … ,” a sequel, benefited from a huge pre-release buzz generated by the enormous success of the first film, and the public’s familiarity with its cast of characters.

“Brotherhood of the Wolf,” a costume action thriller in the vein of “Sleepy Hollow,” was far less of a sure bet. But an aggressive ad campaign aimed at the film’s teenage target audience paid dividends, and the film’s references to French history helped pull in an even wider audience than expected.

Happily for the rest of French cinema, these three hits seem to have revived French audiences’ appetite for homegrown fare.

Two recent releases, Bruno Chiche’s social comedy “Barnie et ses petites contrarietes” and Francois Ozon’s auteur film “Under the Sand,” starring Charlotte Rampling, have both done well at the box office.

French film folk are knocking on wood that the trend will continue. It will be down to a series of big budget potential audience-pleasers to deliver the goods in the coming weeks — among them the “Towering Inferno” spoof “La Tour Montparnasse Infernale,” the historical thriller “Belphegor” and “Just Visiting,” Gaumont’s slow-in-coming English language, French cast version of its smash hit “The Visitors.”

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