The coronavirus outbreak is set to trigger a brutal reality check for the French film industry. With theaters shut down, film and TV shoots halted and movie releases canceled, the country’s rigid window release schedule, lack of proper piracy law and struggling independent distributors are facing epic challenges.
For a number of days now, France has been in lockdown with schools, restaurants, shops and movie theaters shut down, along with the Eiffel Tower, Versaille Palace and the Louvre Museum. Many people in the French industry didn’t anticipate the drastic new measures unveiled Saturday by the prime minister Edouard Philippe, especially exhibitors who had been told two days earlier that they would be allowed to remain open with a cap of 100 admissions per auditorium.
“We didn’t have great expectations since we hardly had any new movies to show, but we still managed to sell more than 30,000 tickets on Saturday, which wasn’t bad,” said Jocelyn Bouyssy, the president of CGR Cinemas, France’s second largest multiplex chain.
He added that last year, on the same day, CGR Cinemas had sold more than 90,000 tickets, but it wasn’t comparable due to this year’s situation. Indeed, more than 25 film releases were postponed last week.
France boasts Europe’s largest theatrical market, with last year’s B.O. breaking a 50-year record with 213 million ticket sold across the country’s 2,000 screens. Those ticket sales are levied by the National Film Board and last year brought in €145 million ($162 million) to the org’s annual budget — estimated at €670 million ($752 million) in 2019 — which is used to pump funding into nearly aspect of the film world. The rest of the budget is made up of taxes collected from distributors, TV groups and streaming services.
A lack of revenues from ticket sales for weeks or months will therefore have a large impact on the CNC’s funding, which could prove crucial to help an industry devastated by coronavirus.
For the French economy, the film industry also plays a big role. French cinema contributes more to the country’s GDP than the automobile or pharmaceutical industries, according to a report by French deputy Aurore Berger in 2018.
Besides U.S. movies such as “Mulan,” “No Time to Die,” “Trolls 3” and “A Quiet Place 2,” the postponed releases also include European movies marketed by vertically-integrated groups such as Studiocanal with “The Secret Garden,” a raft of anticipated French movies such as “Mama Weed” with Isabelle Huppert, and the Berlinale-winning films “Ondine,” which earned Paula Beer the best actress nod, and the Silver Bear-winning “Delete History” — both of which are being handled by French independent distribution companies Le Pacte, Les Films du Losange and Ad Vitam, respectively.
These three outfits are among a dozen mid-size distributors in France that may end up being the most hurt by the coronavirus crisis because they are not vertically-integrated like Studiocanal, TF1, SND or backed by a theater circuit like Pathe.
They’ve also been spending large sums in P&A to promote critically acclaimed or buzzed-about prestige films, and won’t be able to recoup their investment if movies end up being released amid a clutter of postponed releases.
Bouyssy admitted he was worried about the prospect of carnage if all the films come out around September and October.
Memento Films Distribution, meanwhile, took the risk of releasing its film “The Good Wife” with Juliette Binoche on March 11. The film ranked first before Saturday’s shut down of theaters. Alexandre Mallet-Guy, president of Memento Films Distribution (“The Salesman”), said on Twitter that the film was the company’s largest release to date and he hoped to be allowed to re-release the film once theaters reopen.
Window releasing schedule poses challenges
The current window releasing schedule doesn’t permit films to be released straight to VOD if they have been financed by French TV channels, as is the case with “The Good Wife.” The transactional VOD window is set at three months if a film sells less than 100,000 admissions, or four months, while the subscription-based window is set at 17 months for local services and a staggering 36 months for global platforms such as Netflix.
With theaters closed down and so many film releases in limbo, many in the industry have questioned whether it could be time for a one-off rule change that allows these movies to be made available on VOD right away.
France’s independent distribution sector was already in bad shape before coronavirus. Mars Distribution, once a leading indie banner, has been put under financial restructuring and could soon disappear, EuropaCorp stopped its distribution activities last year, and several other distribution companies have folded.
As it stood, this year’s box office already couldn’t withstand a global pandemic — around 25% down before the epidemic hit, according to Comscore France.
Jean Labadi, the president of Le Pacte, said France’s rampant piracy is hurting distributors because they can no longer rely on secondary markets if their movies fail in theaters.
“Nothing has been done to fight against piracy, in spite of the promises that have been made by (France President Emmanuel) Macron and the culture minister,” said Labadi, who released the Oscar-nominated “Les Miserables” in France.
The country’s current piracy law doesn’t target and sanction consumers of pirated content as in Germany, for instance. The bill was supposed to be toughened (as part of the broadcasting law) but “the minister of culture, Franck Riester, refused the principle of punishing the pirates, which is only way to stop piracy, and pushed back the draft proposal of (Aurore) Bergé who comes from his own party,” said Labadi.
Labadi also said measures unveiled by the National Film Board to help the industry won’t be enough to salvage the “economical disaster which is ahead of (them). “The CNC won’t have the necessary resources unless the States decides to step in.”
The CNC outlined several measures to help exhibitors and distributors ride out the coronavirus storm last week, such as allowing a postponement in the payment of social charges and giving them access to loans and options to repay their existing credits.
The government has also vowed to help companies forced to reduce their workforce or slow down their activity by covering part of the indemnities given to employees who have either lost their jobs or are working reduced hours.
A long list of movies and TV series which were scheduled to start shooting within the next few weeks or months have also been postponed, such as Christophe Barratier’s “Envole-moi” with Gerard Lanvin and Francois Ozon’s next film with Sophie Marceau, or in other cases halted, such as Netflix’ “Arsene Lupin” with Omar Sy or the second season of “Family Business.”
Although France’s current ban on gatherings of more than 100 people doesn’t apply to most of these shoots, productions companies in France are deciding to delay them for sanitary reasons and also due to the fact that they are not covered by their insurance policies.
Dimitri Rassam, the French producer of “Envole-moi,” wrote a letter posted on social media to explain that his company Chapter 2 decided to stop the last three weeks of shoot because it was “impossible to pursue the filming while following the guidelines of social distancing that are imperative due to the (pandemic).”
As in other countries, French insurance companies don’t cover any kinds of cancellations or damages due to coronavirus, as with other epidemics and pandemics.
The halting and postponing of shoots has also put film and TV crews in dire straits. The FICAM, which is the syndicate of French technicians, released an alarming statement Friday citing the raft of shoots that have been canceled, asking help from the government and the National Film Board. The French film industry employs approximately 127,395 people, most of which have permanent jobs.
Besides the shoots of French productions that have been stopped or delayed, a raft of big-budget U.S. movies such as Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” have been paused or postponed due to coronavirus.
“The entire film sector will need to receive institutional support to survive what is undoubtedly an economic cataclysm,” said Rassam.