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Hollywood Unseats French Competition

U.S. filmmakers score a summer box-office knockout with 7 of the 8 most popular movies in France. Most domestic releases sink after a week.

August 25, 2000|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — In 1895, a bunch of Parisians handed over a few francs to descend into the basement of a cafe near the Opera and become the first paying movie audience in history. On the bill: shorts by cinema pioneer Louis Lumiere.

It's possible that since that initial audience of 38 more than a century ago, French cinema hasn't had a more miserable summer. A score of home-produced movies hit the screens here in time for most people's vacations. Virtually all proved to be what the French call "turnips"--turkeys.

The summer box-office winner, and by a knockout, was Hollywood. In the week ending Aug. 20, seven of the eight most popular movies in France were American (Bryan Singer's "X-Men" grabbed the No. 1 spot by selling 800,000 tickets in five days.)

The second-most-popular film was French, and that may salve national pride in this country that likes to believe that it carries the banner of European "cultural exception" in the face of the U.S. entertainment juggernaut. "Harry, a Friend Who Wishes You Well," a word-of-mouth favorite at the Cannes Film Festival, was seen by 300,000 people in the first week of its commercial run.

Nonetheless, Le Parisien, a popular tabloid, termed summer 2000 the same sort of ordeal for French movie-making that the disastrous Battle of Berezina was for Napoleon's army as it retreated across the frozen Russian wastes from Moscow.

French movies accounted for only a dismal 7% of total tickets sold here during Aug. 9-15, versus 91% for U.S. films, including "The Perfect Storm," "Gladiator" and "Mission Impossible 2." Most new French releases sank after only a week in the theaters.

The reason, hazarded Le Parisien's Philippe Duval and Alain Grasset, was that most French productions, which benefit from generous subsidies, wallow in "navel-gazing," or contain heavy doses of despair and death.

In contrast, the most popular French film during the past 12 months, "Taxi 2," is a U.S.-style action flick in which a taxi driver from Marseilles, played by Samy Naceri, cheerfully outraces and outfoxes criminals from the Japanese yakuza.

Among the 20 French productions that flopped was a feminist "chick flick" so heavy on violence and sex that the Council of State took the unprecedented step of banning it from theaters. (Its title cannot be given within the guidelines of newspaper propriety.) Fewer than 25,000 Parisians wanted to see "The Cow and the President," a calf-meets-orphan love story. Appearing in "Amazon," aging New Wave idol Jean-Paul Belmondo did even worse.

According to Thierry Cheze of the movie magazine Studio, the woes of French cinema are predictable and may last only the season. In summer, he said, the TV and radio programs that French movie makers depend on to spread the word for free mostly shut down.

France's cinema establishment also traditionally brings out its weakest vehicles in warm months, when many people would rather be at the beach or the mountains.

"Here, we're a little behind," Cheze said. Increasingly, he said, French people take two weeks' vacation in the summer, instead of a month, and scatter short breaks throughout the rest of the year. That means increasing summer demand for new releases.

This year's Cesars, France's equivalent of the Oscars, were a fairly gloomy affair, with receipts for new French films at their worst yearly level ever and Hollywood gobbling up more than two-thirds of the national market. According to Cheze, French moviedom is eagerly looking forward to this fall and the latest release from director Mathieu Kassovitz.

Last year, 181 films were made in France. In 1998, the total was 120--and it was revealed this year that only four made a profit in theaters. "We now depend on three or four big successes to keep our market share," Cheze said.

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