With No U.S. Blockbusters in Sight, French Cinemas Stay Afloat With a Rich Local Offering

After an underwhelming start to the year, France has redeemed its status as Europe’s largest nation of cinemagoers, with the national box office bolstered by a tide of local movies that have sustained admissions despite the near absence of big Hollywood movies.

So far, 2020 has been a banner year for French fare, and local distributors — who were initially reluctant to release movies when theaters reopened in June after a three-month shutdown — have taken note. Upon news of Universal’s postponement of James Bond film “No Time to Die” to next spring, Gaumont immediately scheduled in the freshly vacant Nov. 11 Bond slot “Aline” (pictured), Valerie Lemercier’s anticipated movie about Celine Dion. Gaumont will give “Aline” a wide release, treating it as a French blockbuster.

Among the French and European sleeper hits that have been driving the box office are family movies like “Les blagues de Toto,” “Bigfoot Superstar,” French comedies “How to be a Good Wife,” “Le Divorce Club,” “Delete History,” “Mama Weed,” “My Cousin,” “My Donkey, My Lover & I,” and indies like “Mr Jones.”

The early months of 2020, however, were rough for the French theatrical market. “France’s box office had a very bad start this year; we were down 25% when all other countries — save Mexico — were up during the first quarter,” said Eric Marti of Comscore. That explains why, over the first nine months of 2020, cinema admissions were down 62% in France, on par with Germany and Italy (-60%) and Spain (-67%) which had a strong first quarter, but is now struggling, in contrast to France where the restart, when it came in July and August, was strong. Countries where B.O. took the biggest hit this year include the U.K. (-70%) and Brazil (-72%).

One of the key factors behind the upward trend in French releases is the incentive launched by France’s National Film Board (CNC) in late June to encourage local distributors and producers to release their films. The scheme was initially in place until the end of August and was recently extended to the end of the year. Local exhibitors are also protected by a pair of newly-launched funds: one of €50 million ($58.8 million) which covers box office losses, and another of €34.3 million ($40.3 million) aimed at helping theaters stay afloat.

“It’s clearly not ‘la vie en rose’ right now, but it’s okay,” said Nathanael Karmitz, CEO of MK2, a leading arthouse cinema chain in Paris. “We’re missing the market share that American movies usually take up, but the rest of the offer, French and foreign cinema titles, are performing well,” said Karmitz.

In 2019, France’s top 10 films comprised 7 American movies and only 2 French movies. In contrast, there are so far 6 French movies in the top 10 for 2020, and as many as 14 local films in the top 25, said Marti. As of Oct. 8, the box office is dominated by “Tenet,” “1917” and “Sonic The Hedgehog,” the only American movies in the top 10.

Karmitz said France was less impacted than other countries like Spain, where MK2 also operates a cinema chain, due to the strength of local movies. “This COVID-19 crisis has raised questions about our dependence on American movies and the place of European movies in our culture,” said Karmitz.

“Exhibitors who have been focusing on Hollywood movies are rightfully feeling betrayed by the studios — and the studios are shooting themselves in the foot with a short-term vision that’s weakening the exhibition sector,” said Karmitz. Admissions across MK2’s 12 cinemas are down 36% compared with 2019 levels, said the executive.

Meanwhile, Jocelyn Bouyssy, CEO of CGR Cinemas, France’s second biggest theater chain, said the dearth of U.S. blockbusters has had a disastrous impact on admissions, which have been down between 50% and 60% every week since reopening.

“We’re taking hits in the head every day with U.S. studios, and the postponing of [‘No Time to Die’] was a very big blow to our morale,” said Bouyssy, adding that although he’s not planning on closing down theaters, he has frozen ongoing investments. “We were in the process of investing in new venues and updating our equipment, but we have stopped all of that for now,” he said.

With no U.S. blockbusters coming up, Bouyssy said CGR intends to “turn the spotlight on the raft of good French movies coming up.”

Besides “Aline,” other hot new domestic titles include Albert Dupontel’s “Dieu les cons” and Quentin Dupieux’s “Mandibules,” as well as Maiwenn’s “DNA.”

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