Low-budget French films rake in cash as well as cachet


PARIS -- As French films like TFM's "La Vie en Rose" enjoyed awards season glory stateside last year, back at home, the French film industry is still struggling against Hollywood's boxoffice monopoly and a bipolarization of its own local production.

Ticket sales in France dropped 5.6% in 2007 to 178 million. Last year, 64.9 million tickets for French films were sold, a 22.8% surge from ticket sales for Gallic titles in 2006. American films, however, represented 88.9 million or 49.9% of the tickets sold, a 6.6% jump from the year before. Homegrown fare saw its market share drop from 44.6% in 2006 to just 36.5% in 2007. The top five highest-grossing films last year were all U.S. made: "Ratatouille," "Spider-Man 3," "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Shrek 3." "La Vie en Rose" was the only French film to cross the 5 million admissions mark last year, though Europacorp's "Taxi 4" followed not far behind, selling 4.6 million tickets.

On the production end of things, however, homegrown product is booming, with 228 films made in the territory in 2007, compared with just 203 the year before. This marks the second-highest number of productions in more than a decade, since the 240 films made in 2005. French initiative films, including French majority co-productions and 100% French films, accounted for 185 of the total number of films produced, for a record €1 billion ($1.6 billion) production spend. The number of French majority international co-productions also skyrocketed from just 37 films in 2006 to 52 in 2007.

In 2007, 29 films were made in the midbudget category, representing 16.5% of total investments (including CNC funds, television presales, regional funds and independent producers), compared with the state film body's 11.7% investment in the category in 2006. Despite the promising numbers, the CNC's general director Veronique Cayla emphasized that "the problem was not solved" and that "we need to continue to reinforce our efforts" in that area.

French films are proving to be more expensive all-around, with the average budget per movie amounting to 5.4 million euros ($8.6 million) in 2007, a jump from 5.3 million euros in 2006 and 5 million euros in 2005. However, bigger budgets don't necessarily mean bigger crowds. StudioCanal laid out 30.4 million euros for Jean-Jacques Annaud's "His Majesty Minor," a "mythological comedy" starring Vincent Cassel and Jose Garcia that attracted less than 200,000 filmgoers. Alain Corneau's "The Second Wind," distributed in Gaul by ARP, sold less than 500,000 tickets despite its 21.1 million euros budget, all-star cast and strong ad campaign.

"Asterix at the Olympic Games" is the most expensive French movie made to date, with a total production cost of 78 million euros. Yet the film, which has sold 7 million tickets in six weeks on a record 1,078 screens, has been thrust out of the spotlight by Dany Boon's surprise comedy hit "Welcome to the Land of the Shtis." Made for just 11 million euros, it has already sold more than 15 million tickets.

"We sometimes forget to compare the boxoffice to the production cost," says Margaret Menegoz, president of French film promotion organization Unifrance. Nadine Labaki's France-Lebanon co-pro "Caramel," produced by Les Films des Tournelles for just 1.9 million euros, sold 505,507 tickets, making it this year's second most profitable film in the territory.

"Persepolis," made for a budget of 6.1 million euros, with more than 500,000 tickets sold, earned nominations at this year's Oscars, along with Julian Schnabel's French-made "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Rose." Says Cayla: "The recent awards obtained by French cinema, notably at the Oscars, shows that -- au contraire -- the French language is no longer an insurmountable obstacle to our cinema's influence worldwide and, in particular, in the U.S."