French distributors and exhibitors were looking forward to some sort of recovery this summer after 200 days of cinema closures from October 2020 to May 2021 due to a second Covid-19 lockdown. But hopes of a post-Cannes box office bounce have been dashed following the French government’s decision to introduce a ‘health pass’ to enter cinemas on July 21.
The Cannes Film Festival’s successful physical comeback after last year’s hiatus was regarded as a beacon of hope by many in the industry and proof the show could go on against the backdrop of a pandemic.
In the lead-up to the festival, as it became clear that it would definitely go ahead, a number of French distributors took the plunge in early June to date releases of their festival titles that tied in with their Cannes premieres.
Notably, UGC Distribution released Leos Carax’s opening film Annette on July 7; Pathé Films launched Paul Verhoven’s Benedetta on July 9 and Diaphana Distribution opened Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner Titane on July 14.
However, the government made it obligatory to show proof of a full Covid-19 vaccination or a negative PCR or antigen test to enter cultural places including cinemas, theatres and museums from July 21. The ruling is for places that bring together 50 people or more and applies to all adults aged over 18, extending to youngsters aged 12 and over from August 30. The measure is set to be applied to all public places including cafés, restaurants and shopping centres from August 9.
While the French film sector is not against the measure in itself, its sudden introduction, just days after president Emmanuel Macron announced the measure in a televised address, did not give distributors and cinemas time to prepare and has resulted in a sudden drop in cinema attendance.
French exhibitor body La Fédération Nationale des Cinémas Francais (FNCF) puts the fall at around 50-70%, depending on the title.
Titane, for example, had got off to a slow start on July 14 but then saw an uptick in tickets sold following its Palme d’Or victory on July 17. This tailed off dramatically from July 21, with the film registering a 44% drop in admissions from July 21 to 27 against its opening week.
Its admissions stood at 129,000 spectators on July 25, for an approximate gross of $1m, according to figures provided by French box office service CBO. This puts it on track nonetheless to outperform Ducournau’s breakout debut Raw, which drew 149,000 spectators in 2016.
A film like Titane, which has been given a 16 certificate, is particularly hard hit because less than 40% of its target audience of older teenagers and cinemagoers in their 20s and 30s is fully vaccinated. Older cinephiles have been slow to return to the cinema despite their age group having full vaccination rates of between 60%-80%.
More mainstream titles hit by the introduction of the health pass include French director Alexandre Astier’s much-hyped Arthurian legend comedy-drama Kaamelott, and US studio titles Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow, Space Jam: A New Legend and The Croods: A New Age.
Kaamelott managed to hold its own to top the box office and draw an expected one million spectators in its first week on release, but this is believed to be around 30% lower than projections by distributor SND Films. Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow, Space Jam: A New Legend and The Croods: A New Age saw falls of between 60 to 70% in spectator numbers week-on-week.
A number of small independent theatres are managing to circumvent the measure by holding sessions with less than a 50-person capacity. Some cinema programmes listings now detail screenings that do not require a health pass, mostly the quieter morning slots or in very small theatres.
The situation has drawn widespread protest from throughout France’s cinema industry. “It’s the final blow,” declared Michèle Halberstadt, co-founder of distribution label ARP Sélection in an interview with radio news channel France Info. ”We’ve lived through 300 days of closure,” she said, referring to the total number of days French cinemas have been closed since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. “The public were coming back bit by bit but not completely. The over 50s, who are supposedly the most vaccinated, protected, are those who have stayed away the most, and there has been a 50% drop in this public. With the health pass, decided nearly from one day to the next, it’s become impossible.”
She added the company was now considering whether to delay the planned August 25 release of Bruno Dumont’s Palme d’Or contender France, starring Léa Seydoux who was a no-show in Cannes after she caught Covid-19.
“The government could have given us more notice, rather than deciding by a decree and then giving us only until July 21 to get the theatres ready and also decide whether we wanted to change our release plans or the advertising spend,” Le Pacte CEO Jean Labadie told Screen.
The distributor’s release of Un Certain Regard opening film, French director Arthur Harari’s second feature Onoda - 10 000 Nights In The Jungle, on 105 copies coincided with the introduction of the obligatory pass.
“Of course it’s been hit, the box office is down by 70% across the board against an equivalent period in a pre-Covid year,” he said.
The company had decided to maintain its August 3 release for Directors’ Fortnight title A Brighter Tomorrow and had no plans as yet to change its scheduled September 29 release of Sean Penn’s Palme d’Or contender Flag Day.
“For now we’re not moving anything,” he said.
FNCF general manager Marc-Olivier Sebbag echoed Labadie’s frustration. “It’s not that we’re necessarily against the idea of the health pass but rather the speed it was rolled out in cinemas, while other public spaces have been given another three weeks to get ready for its introduction,” he said. “The situation should improve as vaccination rates go up and people get their head around how the pass works, but we should have been given more time.”
The decision to roll out the pass in cultural places before other public places echoes a government decision last year to keep shops and commercial centres open in the run-up Christmas, while cinemas and theatres were forced to stay closed, even though there was no evidence to suggest they posed more of a risk in terms of spreading Covid-19.
The FNCF on Tuesday (July 27) joined a dozen key cinema bodies – including independent distributors associations DIRE and FNEF and directors’ guild La Société des Réalisateur de Films (La SRF) – in a public statement criticising the government’s handling of the introduction of the health pass.
“The dramatic drop in footfall caused by this abrupt and unprepared decision affects our entire industry and destroys the long-awaited recovery that was beginning to materialise,” it read. ”This dramatic drop of 50 to 70% depending on the day, the films and the sites constitutes a new catastrophic shock for our sector. What sector could survive such a drop in revenue, having endured 300 days of complete shutdown?”
France is the first country in Europe to introduce a so-called health pass or Covid passport scheme but a number of other territories are on the verge of introducing or mulling similar measures including the UK, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain.
There was a raft of demonstrations against the move across France last weekend but the government is unlikely to soften its stance. It sees the health pass as a key pole of its strategy to keep the virus in check at the same as getting the economy up and running again and also as a way to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
“Freedom, where I don’t owe anybody anything, doesn’t exist. What is your liberty worth if you tell me you don’t want to get vaccinated and then tomorrow you contaminate your father, your mother or even me. I am a victim of your freedom. That’s not freedom, its irresponsibility, egoism,” Macron told reporters last week in response to the demonstrations.
It is a debate and situation that is likely to be played out across much of Europe over the coming weeks and months, while distributors and exhibitors across the region may well be taking note of the situation at the French box office with trepidation.