PARIS — Competition from television is forcing the closing of hundreds of movie houses across France, a country that once boasted of 5,000 theaters for its 55 million residents. France still has as many theaters as Britain and West Germany combined, but it also has six rival TV channels beaming feature films at prime time.
The French people's long love affair with the neighborhood cinema has gone stale.
In a country where going to the movies has been a national passion, recent studies show the French are abandoning movie houses en masse and are staying home to watch films on television.
The National Cinema Commission says box-office receipts are down nearly 20% from 1986, forcing the closure of 150 movie theaters since the beginning of the year. Experts predict the disappearance of an additional 300 theaters in the coming months.
Everyone blames television.
Six rival channels compete for viewers by beaming feature films in prime-time slots, 8:30-10:30 p.m., five days a week. Twenty-six movies were shown during one week in September.
"The little screen," as the French call it, seems to satisfy the public's appetite for movies at a fraction of the cost of going out.
"Before I was married, I'd go to the movies four or five times a week," says Brigitte Hildenbrand, 35, the manager of a clothing boutique.
"By the time we park the car and have a coffee, it's just too expensive for me, my husband and son to go to movies. We stay home and watch them on TV."
Movie theater tickets cost about $6. Luxury theaters, with thick-cushioned seats and the latest in high-tech screens and sound systems, cost even more.
There was a time in France when 5,000 theaters catered to 55 million inhabitants. Attendance peaked in the 1950s, stabilized in the 1960s and began to decline in the late 1970s.
In 1968, 450 million tickets were sold. A decade later, the figure dropped to about 200 million. Only half that many are expected to be sold in 1988.
Yet, as Culture Minister Francois Leotard recently noted, "France still has as many movie houses as Britain and West Germany put together."
The French may be going out less, but their interest in film is as high as ever. Market studies revealed that what television viewers wanted most were movies, soccer and game shows, in that order, and weekly TV programs devoted to movies get top ratings.
The Cannes film festival every May is a national event and makes headlines from start to finish. Movie critics are revered and still have the clout to make or break new films.
For Leotard, who has come under fire for what critics call a "lack of cinema policies," film is not in crisis, but movie attendance is.
"There is a change in people's behavior and attitudes toward cultural consumption," he says.
Others cite the boom in videocassette recorders, which have become more affordable in recent years.
Cine Club Video, a two-level cassette rental store in a Right Bank business district, rents around 1,000 cassettes daily. According to store manager Eloy Padilla, that figure skyrockets before the weekend.
Padilla, who admits he hasn't gone to a movie in two years, says that if movie theaters are in trouble it's their own fault.
"They've always taken their clientele for granted," he says. "They've never really catered to the viewer, or questioned their own operations."
He criticized the trend in recent years toward building movie complexes showing more movies in smaller theaters holding fewer viewers.
"If people go to the movies, they want the people, the comfort and the big screen," he says. "That's part of the pleasure.
"Movie theaters will always draw the die-hard cinema buffs, but they've definitely lost the people who went to the movies for a treat."
Theater owners blame the government.
Pierre Pezet, president of the National Cinema Federation, criticized Leotard for having reneged on the policies that made French cinema among the world's best.
In an open letter published in the daily Le Matin, Pezet urged the government to curb the "flood of movies on television," which he called "unprecedented anywhere in the world."
In 1986, the three state-run channels showed 557 films in addition to the 365 films broadcast by Canal Plus, France's pay-cable station.
Yet, that figure pales by comparison to what lies ahead. With the privatization of TF1 and the addition of more films to the schedules of the two newest stations, La Cinq and M6, some 1,400 films will have been shown on television by the end of the year.