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France’s love affair with cinema tested by the coronavirus

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Cinema-goers in Paris purchase film tickets following the opening of French theatres as the country moved to ease restrictive Covid-19 measures. AFP

France’s love affair with cinema tested by the coronavirus

‘I am sick of Netflix. I am sick of an algorithm serving me up the same old thing,” said Anne-Sophie Duchamp as she put on her face mask to enter an arthouse cinema on Paris’ Left Bank.

“We’ve been stuck at home for months” because of the lockdown, she added, as she bought her ticket to see British director Mike Leigh’s acerbic 1988 comedy, High Hopes.

“Why should I stay at home any longer when in Paris you can find a whole century of masterpieces showing in little cinemas every day.”

While cinema audiences across the world have been reluctant to venture back into the dark, not for the first time the French were seen as something of an exception.

As one of the most cinephile countries in the world, film-makers and cinema owners have been counting on the French love affair with the silver screen to help save their skins.

Duchamp, who is in her forties, insisted that going to a socially distanced cinema was “no more dangerous than going to the supermarket”.

A poll late last month just before cinemas reopened after an eight-week lockdown showed that 18.7 million people – almost a third of the population – planned to go see a film in the next month.

Hollywood no-shows

But the reality has turned out be rather more disappointing for cinemas, who are only allowed to be half full, with a free seat either side of each filmgoer.

With Hollywood delaying the release of blockbusters like Tom Cruise’s Top Gun 2 and Wonder Woman 1984 that would normally drive summer ticket sales, multiplexes in particular are suffering.

There was a further blow on Thursday when Christopher Nolan’s spy drama Tenet was put back for a third time by Warner Brothers until August 12.

“It is much tougher than we imagined,” said Aurelie Delage, manager of the six-screen Cinemascop Megarama at Garat in western France.

It is so grim in fact that “I am not looking at figures”, she told AFP. “This can’t last.”

Only small arthouse cinemas seemed to be bucking the trend, although there was some good news on Wednesday as weekly admissions broke the one-million mark for the first time since the end of the lockdown, helped by the success of the French comedy Divorce Club.

Encouraging as the 13 per cent week-on-week rise was, it is still only a third of the business cinemas were doing this time last year.

“People have been stuck inside during the lockdown and now they want to be out in the air, on a bar or restaurant terrace when the weather is good,” Delage argued.

Yet the French have been far more enthusiastic than their neighbours, with German cinema entries down to just 17 per cent of normal levels and the situation in Spain even more catastrophic at just 13 per cent.

Chance for small films

Only the Dutch have been as phlegmatic, according to a study by Comscore.

This has given hope to independent film-makers who see a chance of stepping into the gap, insisting that the public are hungry for new movies.

US director Michael Covino will release his cycling bromance The Climb, a big hit at last year’s Cannes film festival, in France next week, having resisted the temptation to put it out on a streaming service.

“The best place to see a comedy is in a cinema with other people,” he said.

The clear run has also probably helped the black comedian Jean-Pascal Zadi’s broad satire Tout simplement noir (Very Simply Black)<.em> become a hit.

Some half a million people have flocked to see him take a hammer to racial stereotypes in a fortnight.

French actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz – who has a walk-on role in the comedy – is also going ahead with the 25th anniversary re-release of his classic La Haine, with race and police violence once again in the spotlight.

Kassovitz is convinced there is pent-up demand “to go out to see films”.

“That is why there is a quite a lot of re-releases this summer to rekindle that desire,” he told AFP.

But what cinema owners across Europe really want, said Marc-Olivier Sebbag of the French Cinemas Federation, is for the big Hollywood studios to start releasing their new movies in Europe without waiting for cinemas on the other side of the Altantic to reopen.

“I hope we will be listened to,” he added.

In the meantime Hugo Benamozig, co-director of the French adventure flick send-up, Terrible Jungle, starring Catherine Deneuve, is gung-ho about its release next week.

If they waited till after the summer, “our film might be drowned” by the dam-bust of US blockbusters which have been held back by the coronavirus, he said.

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