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For French film buffs, lure of the silver screen is undimmed by Covid-19 lockdowns

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French moviegoers raced to their cherished cinemas on Wednesday after a six-month shutdown, raising hopes of a brighter future for the big screen despite a boom in film streaming during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some movie buffs began queuing at 6am to get their fix. 

The seven-month wait for “Demon Slayer” ended just like Amadou had hoped: with 800 fellow fans of the Japanese manga cheering and whooping around him in front of the largest silver screen in town.

“Boy, did I need this, after all we’ve been through,” hollered the 28-year-old nurse outside the Grand Rex cinema in Paris, his voice still rippling with excitement.

First due for release last autumn, “Demon Slayer” was postponed when France entered a second nationwide lockdown in October. When sales finally opened earlier this week, the rush for tickets caused the Grand Rex’s website to crash multiple times. 

Amadou and his friends were among the lucky ones to get seats for Wednesday’s grand reopening, 203 days after the pandemic lockdown ushered in a long winter of discontent.

“It had to be today, it had to be the primetime screening – we’ve had enough of waiting,” said 24-year-old Najette. “I’ve got all the streaming platforms at home, but it’s a whole different thrill at the cinema.”

‘Colossal success’

Across France, movie buffs starved of action flocked to the cinemas on Wednesday as cultural venues were finally allowed to reopen at partial capacity after a protracted shutdown. 

The rush of spectators was a boon for a cherished but battered industry, which saw admissions plunge 70 percent last year due to successive lockdowns. Prior to reopening, anxious cinema owners had warned that they would struggle with a 35 percent-capacity limit and a 9pm nationwide curfew, depriving them of the all-important late-evening screenings.

In Saint-Etienne, southwest of Lyon, a long queue could be seen outside the Méliès cinema as early as 6am, while early birds formed similar lines at cinemas in Paris. Among them was 17-year-old Luce, who showed up “not so much for the movie as for the atmosphere, the big screen, that groggy feeling when you step outside at the end”.

At the UGC Les Halles multiplex in central Paris, Europe’s busiest cinema, managers hailed a “colossal success” as they reported an all-time record influx for a Wednesday morning despite the 35 percent audience cap. More than 1,000 tickets had been sold by 9:30am at what is arguably the biggest melting pot in the region, its 27 screens catering to a diverse audience from central Paris and distant suburbs alike.   

Among the numerous screenings that sold out was the premiere of “Garçon chiffon”, a directorial debut for “Call My Agent!” actor Nicolas Maury, who nearly broke into sobs as he thanked the audience for showing up.

Across the boulevard from the Grand Rex, another iconic cinema – the Max Linder Panorama – boasted a full house on Wednesday evening for “Mandibules”, the latest surreal comedy by French director Quentin Dupieux, who attended the screening along with the cast.

“It was heartening to see so many people show up,” said Max Linder head Willy Fonrose, stressing the contrast with France’s first exit from lockdown almost a year ago, when many cinemas struggled to get hold of films to show.

“Back then, wary film distributors had little to offer us. But now we have an abundance of choice – and the longer wait means there is a greater appetite for the movies,” he said.

No time to dine

France’s 2,000-plus cinemas are reopening amid an unprecedented backlog of films, including both international hits and the products of the country’s own prolific film industry, which continued to churn out movies throughout the lockdown. 

As a result, new films are now jostling for space on the silver screen alongside autumn releases that had their runs cut short. The latter include Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” starring Mads Mikkelsen, which has since picked up an Oscar for best foreign film.  

Other Oscar winners to catch up with include best picture winner “Nomadland”, whose lead actress Frances McDormand gave a passionate speech in support of cinemas as she picked up her statuette for best actress, pleading with viewers to watch the movie “on the biggest screen possible”.

Long-delayed Hollywood blockbusters will soon also enter the fray, including superhero slugfests “Black Widow” and “The Suicide Squad” followed in October by the latest installment in the James Bond franchise, “No Time to Die”. 

The profusion of films is a major concern for smaller independent works, which threaten to be lost in the deluge. It is also a mixed blessing for cinema owners, who already have to contend with sanitary protocols, reduced capacity and the evening curfew. 

And then there’s the added challenge of competing with another favourite pastime of the French: drinking, eating and socialising on café terraces, which also reopened on Wednesday after their longest ever closure.

>> Sipping in the rain, Parisians flock to cherished cafés after Covid-19 shutdown

Filmgoers can enjoy both options at Studio 28, the iconic family-run cinema nestled in the streets of Montmartre, which has its own little bar and outdoor terrace, catering primarily to a local – and loyal – audience.

“It’s wonderful to see the joy and relief on people’s faces as they come back after all this time,” said Alain Roulleau, the cinema’s owner. “But let’s not forget we lost a full year of our lives – and it will be several more months before things get back to normal.”

The screening room of Studio 28 in Paris, with its iconic lamps designed by Jean Cocteau.
The screening room of Studio 28 in Paris, with its iconic lamps designed by Jean Cocteau. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

Despite the abundance of films, Roulleau had to battle with distributors to ensure he had enough movies to open on Wednesday – underscoring the unequal competition between the big cinema chains and smaller, independent establishments like his own.

Still, the Studio 28 owner is confident French cinemas will weather the Covid-19 storm, “provided they guarantee quality service, allowing spectators to taste – not binge on – celluloid”.

Nor is he overly concerned about competition from the streaming services that have been bolstered by successive lockdowns. 

“People are itching to get off their couches and step outside,” he said. “Those who loved cinemas before the pandemic will come back for the big screen.”


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