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American French Film Festival opens to concern over falling audiences

The American French Film Festival opened Monday in Hollywood, marked by concerns over the sharp drop in theater attendance in France and the United States since the pandemic.

“There’s no hiding the fact: cinema is experiencing a real upheaval,” director Jean-Jacques Annaud told AFP at the 26th edition of the festival intended to show Hollywood the best of French productions.

Between inflation eating away at leisure budgets and “people who have equipped themselves with large screens during confinement… cinemas are in great difficulty and the industry is in the process of switching to (streaming) platforms,” he said before the first screening of his latest film “Notre-Dame On Fire” in North America.

Ultimately, “there is a whole category of so-called intermediate films which risk no longer having their place on the big screen,” he said.

On both sides of the Atlantic, movie theaters are struggling to attract an audience.

In the United States, about 500 theaters have closed since the pandemic according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

And Cineworld, the British group that owns Regal Cinemas, the second-largest movie theater chain in the United States, seems set for major restructuring as it prepares to file for bankruptcy, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In France, attendance had its worst September since 1980, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Cinema, with ticket sales down 34 percent compared to September 2019, before the pandemic.

“It’s always worrying to see that attendance has dropped and it’s struggling to pick up again,” director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, who is presenting her film “Divertimento” at the festival, told AFP.

“We have to go find our audience,” she added. “The emotion we have in a movie theater will never be the same as in front of a TV or a telephone.”

For its 26th edition, the festival (formerly known as COLCOA) offers 75 French films and television series, many screened for the first time in North America.

In the United States, digital platforms allow French works to find a new audience, according to festival director Francois Truffart.

“There is a whole new generation that loves French films and European and Asian series,” he said.

This year’s programming particularly includes streaming films such as “Hawa” by Maimouna Doucoure and “Athena” by Romain Gavras, produced for Netflix.

On the series side, comedienne Melha Bedia will present “Miskina, Poor Thing,” broadcast on Amazon Prime Video, and director Olivier Assayas will screen “Irma Vep,” a mini-series produced by HBO.