In 2021, with the exception of box office revenues, which were slightly down, admissions, the number of French films exhibited, and out on international release were higher than in 2020. While these last two indicators gradually began to approach pre-COVID-19 levels, the same cannot be said for the number of spectators, which was half the average for the decade (40 million, excluding exceptional successes exceeding 10 million admissions). At the end of the year, the film industry was hence in a position to begin a real recovery and, although the films on offer began to align with the past, the challenge was to increase attendance figures by attracting the public to theaters. Encouraging signals came from the success of certain productions on the big screen in 2021, proving the centrality of theaters in a film's exhibition cycle. The return of American studio films especially drove global attendance numbers. While their absence in 2020 left an empty space that benefited film productions from other countries, including France, they returned in force on the international scene. Unsurprisingly, the French global market share dropped to 1.8% of admissions and 2.2% of box office revenues, below 2020 levels (2.2% and 3%), but above 2019 levels (1.6% and 2.1%). French film box office results did not progress as much as at global or American box offices, but France remained a world player.
It is interesting to analyze the distribution of viewers of French films according to title and geographic origin. 2020 witnessed the domination of predominantly French productions (69.4% of admissions) and those in French (77.2%), comedies (32.8%), and European markets (70.1%). 2021 was characterized by completely different trends. Minority-French productions generated an equivalent number of annual admissions as majority-French productions, to the point of reaching their highest level of the decade: 46.7%, or nearly one in two admissions (whereas they have represented an average of one in five since 2012). The three films that brought together more than one million moviegoers, The Father (22.5% of annual admissions), Pinocchio, and Bigfoot Family belong to this category. In addition, between them, they accounted for just under half of the 2021 box office. In terms of language, foreign language films dominated (53.7% of admissions) with the same hold as in years marked by a EuropaCorp hit, thanks to the aforementioned The Father and Pinocchio, and The Wolf and the Lion.
While the distribution of admissions according to genre saw its top three confirmed (comedy, drama, and animation), the balance within it began changing. For the first time in 10 years, drama became the genre that attracted the most spectators internationally, at a rate of one in three! Here too, the presence of The Father in the dramatic genre ranks had an effect. It was a dark year for comedy, which experienced its lowest attendance record of the decade, and was deprived of a super-hit title, while animation lost ground, although consolidating a more important position than in the past. While attracting more moviegoers, the adventure/police/thriller and fantasy/horror/science fiction genres did not return to their recent seasons of glory. No big-budget production with high potential made a splash on the big screen: it was the so-called "middle" productions (with budgets between €5 and €10 million) and those with a budget between €10 and €20 million that did well (accounting for three out of four admissions).
It is well known that French cinema is closely linked to neighboring European markets. For the sixth year since 2012, it was in the European continent that it generated the greatest volume of admissions (56.3%), but the region's weight was down nearly 14 points in one year, and Western Europe was the only geographic area where audiences for French films were down from 2020. It should be noted that many key markets, such as Germany and Italy, only witnessed a return to theaters in the second half of the year. In addition, no high-potential comedies, a genre that has a harder time being exported outside Europe but which performs best there, were offered. Africa and the Near and Middle East, America, Asia, and Oceania were therefore the main players in the increase in international admissions for French titles (however the average ticket price is often lower in these zones than in Europe, which explains the drop in overall revenues), and this thanks to productions with minority-French financing. With the exception of Oceania, history tells us that it is traditionally foreign-language productions, especially action and animation, that score well in these markets. In 2021, that role would go to the Oscar-winning The Father, fantasy feature Pinocchio, and animation film Bigfoot Family.
One should not draw hasty and negative conclusions about French films on offer and their potential. Firstly, French cinema is one of the world's most multicultural and benefits from its identity and the high number of co-productions to exist internationally, not to mention its rich panoply of diverse genres. Secondly, majority-French-language productions built solid careers in 2021 (for example My Donkey, My Lover & I in Oceania, Titane in North America, and Les Trois Lascars in Africa) and others were exported to more than 30 markets (Aline, the Voice of Love, Annette, Benedetta, Around the World in 80 Days, and Titane). Thirdly, the shuttering of French cinemas for more than six months led to a reduction in the supply of new films whose foreign careers were sometimes spread over more than a year: Little Nicholas' Treasure and Petite Maman, released in French theaters in 2021, would achieve their best results in 2022, while Serial (Bad) Weddings 3, whose release had been postponed several times, would boost French box office in European markets. In addition, France's solid heritage catalog continues to be shown on foreign screens, the country is a constant and well-established presence at festivals, and a network of French professionals strive to create and distribute French cinema and cooperate with foreign professionals, many of them Francophiles. The future is indeed uncertain, but French cinema is not giving up and is still awaited by international filmgoers.
For the third time, this annual report includes a study dedicated to the position of French films in international festivals, where the "commercial" life of films often begins. In 2021, organizers had to deal with the reactions of the film industry sector and the measures adopted by governments; in addition, Cannes made its comeback after a year of absence. 2021 was a landmark year for France, as the country held a position that had never been as important among the 10 festivals studied over the past decade. France enjoyed having the most films selected (202, one out of five), the most screenings (287, one out of four) and receiving the highest number of awards (43) in 2021. With the exception of the three North American festivals, it presented more films than the United States at seven festivals and had a particularly strong presence at Cannes, Locarno, and Venice. It would benefit from the increase in the overall volume of titles selected in 2021 (+95 in one year, of which 40% were produced in France) and from a reduction in the number of American titles. This leadership would not be achieved and maintained over the years without taking into account the multicultural nature of French cinema, as three out of four films are the result of co-productions between 2.5 countries on average, for a total of 75 foreign partner countries. France can be proud of two historic results in 2021. Firstly, the number of French films directed by women increased to 33% of the total, thus matching the global average for all nationalities. Second, it won both the Palme d'or and the Golden Lion, a rare phenomenon but not a first: what makes this feat unique is that the winners, respectively Titane and Happening, were directed by two women, Julia Ducournau and Audrey Diwan, who thus made history.
Key indicators for French films abroad in 2021
- 1.8 million admissions and €113.3 million in box office revenues.
- 9.5 million admissions for majority-French productions and 8.2 million for those in the French language.
- 940 films in exhibition and 1,889 new releases.
- Three films registering more than one million admissions and 32 100,000 admissions.
- Western Europe (6.7 million admissions) and China (2.2 million) were respectively the leading geographical zone and leading country in terms of number of spectators.
In international festivals:*
- 202 French films selected and 287 presentations.
- France was the leading country in number of films, presentations, and awards won.
- One French film out of three was directed by a woman.
- One Palme d'or, one Golden Lion, and 41 other official prizes.
* The 10 festivals studied: Bafici, Berlin, Busan, Cannes, Locarno, Rotterdam, San Sebastián, Sundance, Toronto, and Venice.
Since its creation in 1994, Unifrance's annual report collects and analyzes the results of French films abroad, and its content has evolved and been enriched over the years. In 2021, with the expansion of the scope of various studies, the decision was made to separate cinema, short films, and XR works, and audiovisual works in order to devote specific publications to them. The report about French films abroad includes an overall analysis of their results in theaters, 73 country profiles (+3, including 15 or so enhanced with a mini SVOD profile), and an analysis of their presence at international festivals. Among all existing national film industries, none can boast any similar study, making Unifrance's annual report unique.