French admissions for the first two months of 2003 have taken a serious dive, according to the national film body CNC.

Most seriously, February - which is traditionally one of the strongest months for film-going in France - saw a decline of 18.1% compared with 2002, to 19 million tickets sold.

January saw a drop of 13.1% from 2002 and overall, estimates are that box-office has been down for the past 12 months by 4.1%. Total box-office since January 1 stands at 33 million tickets sold, approximately $184.8m. Last year's tally for the same time period was 39.6 million tickets sold for $221.8m.

In further bad news, French films' market share was down to 43% for the first two months of 2003 from 51% in 2002. American films showed a strong increase to 42.5% of the market from 31.1% last year.

These are worrying figures for the local industry, given that the Luc Besson-produced Taxi 3 is far and away the year's early winner with over $32m in business so far.

However, apart from Taxi 3, the only French films to break the 1 million ticket barrier were Rire Et Chatiment (also produced by Besson's Europa Corp.) Bac's 18 Ans Apres and Pathe's La Beuze.

American films, on the other hand, have been more consistently strong, but without an obvious break-out hit. Jungle Book 2 and Catch Me If You Can were at the top of the Hollywood list so far with $15.4m and $14.5m respectively.

At the same time, Gangs of New York, released at the beginning of 2003 and Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, released in late 2002, were also strong early performers.

American films set to open in the next month include Oscar-nominated films like Far From Heaven, Adaptation and The Hours. On April 9, Luc Besson unleashes another potential break-away hit, Fanfan La Tulipe from Taxi 2 and Taxi 3 director Gerard Krawczyk.

Meanwhile, in Germany, cinema admissions during January fell 7.3% to 15.2 million, compared to 2002's 16.4 million for the same period.

In the UK, however, January's admissions rose 8% on last year to 16.3 million - prompting the Cinema Advertising Association to predict an annual total of 182 million for the whole of 2003, the highest total since 1971.