Calling themselves the film industry's 'poor relation', French exhibitors worried very vocally about the future of their business last week at a meeting held during the 58th annual exhibitors' conference in Deauville.

The event, organised by the National Cinema Federation (FNCF), is similar to Show West in the US and is a time for distributors to trot out their upcoming films replete with appearances by some big names.

Despite the growing momentum for the three-day event, exhibitors lamented the current state of affairs in France and made it clear that the past year's decline in ticket sales could have potentially serious consequences.

France has singularly lacked one single locomotive film at the box office this year such as Amelie, Asterix or Les Visiteurs. 2003 is the first year since 1986 that no French film has surpassed the seven million tickets sold mark. In the year to September, admissions stood at 113 million tickets sold - a drop of 7.5% on 2002.

Citing the popularity of the DVD, which has made converts of many regular filmgoers, the lack of strong showings for French film and internet piracy, FNCF president Jean Labe said, "Our efforts to win over the public are not well enough understood or supported by the government."

Noting that exhibitors had put themselves into serious debt as France has modernised and expanded its cinema landscape, Labe said, "Today this debt must be taken into account by the government...because if this drop in attendance continues next year it could put certain exhibitors in danger."

Speaking by proxy, culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon underlined the lack of successful French films: "When these big successes begin to be missed it's the whole network that becomes fragile."

Exhibitors also voiced concerns about DVDs which have seen their release window narrow to six months following theatrical and which also benefit from TV advertising.

Piracy is also an issue with Labe and Gaumont president Nicolas Seydoux overseeing an anti-piracy association aiming to establish serious measures to combat the situation. Seydoux noted: "We don't know what happens on the internet. The most frightening part is that our enemy is not some sort of mafia but your children, your nephews who are downloading things right now."

On a more positive note, box office champion Claude Zidi, director of Asterix And Obelix vs Cesar and The Ripoux films, was feted early in the conference, while a sneak preview of Jan Kounen's upcoming Blueberry was presented by star Vincent Cassel. Cassel was in town with wife Monica Bellucci with whom he co-stars in Frederic Schoendoerffer's hotly anticipated Agents Secrets.

Also in town were Jose Garcia, Catherine Jacob, Josiane Balasko, Benoit Poelvorde and Pascal Legitimus.