While the global pandemic caused cinema theaters in France to close for the first time ever (“Even the war didn’t close down cinemas!” exclaimed Lumière Festival director Thierry Frémaux on opening night), it did mean people had more time to watch movies. Classics, in particular, enjoyed a come-back during lockdown.

Nine out of 10 people in France watch heritage films on a regular basis, according to data collected by the CNC, the French agency responsible for the production and promotion of cinematic and audiovisual arts. After free TV, the second most popular source is videos, with more than 18,000 heritage titles on offer in France.

While video sales have suffered a decline over recent years, in line with global trends, heritage films represent a growing part of sales in France, jumping to 35% in 2019 compared to 27% 10 years ago. France’s niche market of video publishers specialized in classic films is a small but highly dynamic industry, intent on dusting off and jazzing up the image of heritage cinema and determined to seduce younger audiences.

Well-established in the sector, Potemkine Films started out as a DVD boutique in 2006, before going into video publishing in 2007 and theatrical distribution in 2012. It boasts an eclectic catalog exceeding 400 titles, ranging from Soviet-era masters – bestsellers include Elem Klimov’s cult title “Come and See” (1985) and beautifully-crafted Andrei Tarkovsky box sets – to French Nouvelle Vague classics and more recent works by David Lynch or Lars Von Trier.

Part of Potemkine’s offer includes bonus material of interviews with trendy, contemporary filmmakers about the influence of classic films on their work, but more recently the company has ventured into new territory, with two bonus editions aimed at very young audiences, including Chaplin’s “The Dictator,” targeting 8-to-15-year olds, released last month.

“It’s not aimed at the kids’ parents but at the kids themselves,” explains Natacha Missoffe, head of video publishing. “So we created this dialogue between a child and an adult who are watching the film together, and they can stop it anytime, go back and comment on the things they see and how they feel. It’s very engaging for children and a lot of fun.”

The other kids’ bonus edition is part of a box set on Abbas Kiarostami’s Kanoon years, set for release in April 2021. “We worked together with a publisher specialized in children’s content, who makes radio shows for kids, and we have created bonus content for all three films (“The Bread and Alley,” 1970; “Experience,” 1973; and “The Passenger,” 1974).”

Companies like Potemkine take their role very seriously as vessels of heritage cinema. Asked what their target audience is, Missoffe says: “Rather than an age range, we want to reach out to all kinds of people. We want to widen access to culture to people who don’t have access to it. It’s up to us to demystify so-called “old films” and challenge stereotypes.”

Ellen Schafer, head of classic libraries for City Films and Argos Films, the 70-year old company behind classics like Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” (1956), echoes these thoughts.

“You have to think outside the box, sometimes it’s about putting a film into a different setting, like a school program. When we restored “La Première Nuit” (1958) by Georges Franju and introduced it to schools, it was incredibly successful. It brought in an exceptional amount of money that we would never imagine for a black and white film. Kids were not at all daunted by that, they just watched this amazing story about a kid who spends the night exploring the Paris metro, it works perfectly.”

Upcoming projects include bringing restored shorts by African directors from the 1960s to children in Paris’ suburbs as part of Africa 2020, a cultural event launched by the French government.

“We’ll be using a new platform called Cinewax. The idea is to embrace larger circles of audience and not just the intellectual Parisian crowds, go to the suburbs and say to the kids: ‘You can do something with your iPhone, look at what other people did before you.’”

To help absorb the high cost of restoration, Argos welcomes the CNC’s new patronage program – delayed by the lockdown but now up and running – under which sponsors can enjoy tax breaks of up to 60%. Since 2012, the CNC has restored 1,200 films at a cost of €68 million ($80 million) under its restoration program, set to resume with €2.8 million ($3.3 million) earmarked for 2021.

Video publishers in France have also been allocated an exceptional fund of €0.8 million ($0.9 million) as part of the CNC’s €165 million ($193 million) stimulus package to deal with the effects of the lockdown, and have welcomed news that its €4.4 million ($5.1 million) annual funding scheme for the video publishing industry will resume after cuts had been feared earlier this year.

It comes in the wake of a petition launched by more than 70 video publishers nationwide and supported by heavyweights in the cinema industry such as Frémaux, calling for increased support for the industry which took a heavy blow in the lockdown, with a drop in revenue of more than 25% in the first quarter of 2020.