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France remains a safe haven for independent distribution, but is showing vulnerability. It’s Europe’s biggest film market by admissions and box office, but the first-quarter results of 2009 show that while B.O. has been relatively stable in Paris and its suburbs, even enjoying a 3% bump, it has dropped by 40% in rural areas and 27% in medium-sized cities. The drop is partly caused by the Dany Boon Effect: Last year, his blockbuster “Welcome to the Sticks” brought rural auds to the theaters in droves, says Renaud Davy, Wild Bunch’s sales and distribution topper.

But there is no “Welcome” across France this year. “Theater admissions are still strong in big cities, but we know that the recession is slowly catching up with the film industry,” says Philippe Desandre, StudioCanal’s distribution topper. “And smaller exhibitors are the first affected.”

Local industryites are concerned about filling the gap, since these rural towns are home to 40% of French screens — Paris has only 18%.

“The key to achieve a B.O. success in France is to reach deep in rural areas,” says Francois Clerc, Gaumont’s distribution topper. “Popular family comedies are the best vehicle to take between 4 million and 5 million admissions, but so far this year it’s been lacking.”

Gaumont’s laffer “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” nabbed 911,000 admissions since bowing April 15, but most of that number came from Paris and major urban centers.

Even laffers that have topped the B.O. over the first quarter, like Pathe’s “LOL” (3.6 million admissions) and StudioCanal’s “Coco” (2.9 million), performed best in Paris and suburbs.

CINEMA STATS

Total 2008 box office: $1.3 billion

Total 2008 releases: 555

Biggest indie hit: “Welcome to the Sticks” ($157 million)

Local breakout for 2009: “Le petit Nicolas”

PICKUPS:

  • “Mary and Max” (Gaumont)

  • “The Box” (Wild Bunch)

  • “Divorce” (StudioCanal)

  • “Rwanda, April 7, 1994” (MK2)