While Hollywood tentpoles dominated the French box office once again in 2011, it was a good year for mainstream Gallic comedies, high-profile American indies and a handful of arthouse sleepers hits.

Gaul’s top independent distributor, Pathe, scored with Dany Boon’s “Nothing to Declare,” which topped the B.O. with a $74.5 million gross.

Other high-concept local comedies, notably “Back to Square One” and “Service Entrance,” were some of of the year’s highest-grossing Gallic pics.

While Mars Distribution and Wild Bunch hit B.O. gold with “The King’s Speech” and “Midnight in Paris,” respectively, the two distribs also fared well with local pics, such as Maiwenn’s “Polisse” and Valerie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War.”

Jean Labadie’s arthouse distrib and sales shingle Le Pacte also clinched strong box office figures with two Cannes standouts: “Drive” (co-distributed with Wild Side Films) and “We Have a Pope”Box office was down 2.2% from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30; and the breakdown of admissions was stable compared with 2010 with French pics repping approximately 33.4% and American pics nabbing a 51.3% market share.

“The box office potential for indie films is bigger than in other European countries thanks to the big number of theaters (arthouse and multiplexes) and distributors; that explains why the French market is highly competitive — prices of films tend to get out of control,” says Eric Lagesse, co-topper of Distributeurs Independants Reunis Europeens, the network of independent distributors in Europe. “In France, it’s not uncommon to see a smaller independent film handled by a big distributor play in multiplexes as well as arthouse theaters.”

Meanwhile, the French VOD market is heating up: Canal Plus is rolling out its first subscribtion-based VOD platform, CanalPlay Infinity, while Wild Bunch’s FilmoTV is boosting its offerings with five new film channels and three times more titles.

Distribs across the board agree that VOD revenues have become larger but “they still don’t make up for the declining DVD sales,” says Jean-Phillipe Tirel, topper of Wild Bunch Distribution.

In terms of TV deals, feature debuts and indie pics with no cast are nearly impossible to sell to most free-to-air channels, apart from Franco-German net Arte, says Lagesse. Even paybox Canal Plus, a big backer of French cinema, has become more selective over the past three years. But the upcoming arrival of Canal Plus on the free DTT landscape with two channels — Direct 8 and Direct Star — could energize the TV market and bring more deals oppotunities to indie producers and distribtuors, says Francois Godard at Enders Analysis.

Number of screens: 5,465
Number of 3D screens: 2,212
Top indie distribs and box office*: Pathe ($124.4 million); Mars ($77.2 million); Metropolitan Filmexport ($55.5 million); Wild Bunch ($52.5 million); SND ($47.5 million)
Top exhibition chains for indie films: MK2, UGC Cine Cite, Gaumont, Pathe, MK2, Kinepolis
Typical minimum guarantee paid: $567,000 average
Typical theatrical gross split: 50-50 and the exhibitors’ share grows week after week. It can go up to 70%.
Top indie films: “Nothing to Declare” ($74.5 million); “The King’s Speech” ($26.8 million); “Service Entrance” ($19.3 million); “Back to Square One” ($16 million); “Midnight in Paris” ($14.5 million)
Upcoming indie pickups: “Sinister” (Wild Bunch); “Stone” (Metropolitan Filmexport); “Nero Fiddled” (Mars Distribution); “Seeking Justice” (SND)
*Through Oct. 21, 2011