Audience for French pics drops in '06

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PARIS -- Admissions for French films abroad fell 23% in 2006 to 55.8 million, with audience revenue of €300 million ($388 million), according to interim estimates from Unifrance, the state-funded body that promotes French cinema across the globe.

Unifrance hopes that final boxoffice totals will reach 60 million admissions and €322 million ($422 million) in income.

In 2005, French films fared better at the international boxoffice than they did in France, with 73.6 million tickets sold worldwide for a gross of €369 million ($477 million).

Last year, however, French films performed well at home, taking a nearly 44% market share with 189 million ticket sales, though Gallic cinema suffered overseas.

"Asterix and the Vikings" and "Cache" topped the international boxoffice charts along with the English-language "Bandidas," "Silent Hill" and continued release of documentary hit "March of the Penguins."

298 French films were released in international territories last year compared to 322 in 2005. Europe accounts for nearly 50% of the figures for French films abroad, with 27 million ticket sales.

Germany was tops among the European territories in French film admissions, followed by Spain and then Italy and Belgium.

Despite last year's record haul of €125 million ($161 million) for French cinema in the U.S., thanks in no small part to "Penguins," 2006 boxoffice figures dropped to €75 million ($96.9 million) in the U.S., which accounts for 25% of French ticket sales abroad.

English-language French films once again marked the strongest performances in the U.S., with "Silent Hill" coming in at No. 1 in the territory with sales of €39.5 million ($51 million), followed by "The Queen," a French minority co-production, with €22.4 million ($28.9 million). Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" clocked in at No. 3 with €3.7 million ($4.8 million), followed by "Cache" and "District B13," with €2.6 million ($3.3 million) and €1 million ($1.29 million), respectively.

Despite a plunge in Japanese ticket sales to €1.5 million ($1.9 million), down from €2 million last year and €3 million in 2004, China emerged this year as a key market for Gallic cinema, with close to 3 million spectators for the 10 French films released commercially in the territory.

"When we consider that the Chinese market is very strict, with several import quotas, I consider this performance to be a success," Unifrance president Margaret Menegoz said at a press conference Friday.

Menegoz blames the paucity of movie theaters in Japan for the significant drop in admissions and aims to take steps to ameliorate distribution of French films in the territory this year, including a March showcase where 15 French films will screen for Japanese distributors.

"It's more and more difficult to distribute auteur films in France because commercial films take up more place in theaters. Abroad, it's the opposite. Auteur films are French cinema's strongest exports," Menegoz said.

Menegoz hopes that many of the films that performed well in France this year will increase boxoffice figures for Gallic cinema abroad when they are released overseas. These include "Arthur and the Invisibles," "Tell No One," "The Valet," "Days of Glory" and "I Do -- How to Get Married and Stay Single."

"We must consider that, with less films distributed abroad, we can't attract the same number of spectators. The market share for French films domestically was exceptional this year and these films will have strong careers abroad in 2007," Menegoz said.
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