ROMORANTIN-LANTHENAY (France) • The pandemic might not seem like the obvious time to build new movie theatres, but in cine-mad France, it will take more than a virus to dampen passions for the big screen.
The town of Romorantin, deep in the Loire Valley south of Paris, has a population of 17,000 - which, by French standards, makes it ripe for a new multiplex cinema.
One recent morning, forklifts were whirling as workers rushed to complete the five-screen theatre by the end of next month.
It is not the only one.
France saw 22 new cinemas open their doors last year, despite theatres being unable to operate for much of the year.
Several more are under construction or being renovated.
France, the birthplace of moving pictures, has almost always had the highest cinema attendance in Europe.
Even though attendance was down two-thirds last year thanks to 23 weeks of closures and the cancellation of many Hollywood blockbusters, the country weathered the disruption better than most - in part because it could still rely on its prolific, home-grown movie industry.
France is also known for its network of tiny independent cinemas dotted across its villages and small towns.
Some are beautifully quaint, but struggling to attract the next popcorn-guzzling generation.
The new multi-million-euro Cine Sologne complex in Romorantin is being built in an out-of-town carpark. It will replace the old Palais in its mediaeval centre, which attracted some 70,000 spectators a year but lacked the technology and comfort needed to rival home cinema offerings.
"We have to attract people who want to go to the cinema, but look at these small, local theatres and think, 'No thanks'," said Mr Cedric Aubry, head of the construction firm working on the cinema.
Mr Aubry specialises in bringing shiny new complexes to remote locations not considered worthwhile by major chains.
This is his fourth cinema construction since the pandemic began. He says the model is working, with similar remote projects in places like Meuse and Yonne even tripling local theatre attendance.
LIFELINE FOR SMALL TOWNS
For a town like Romorantin, reeling from the closure of a car plant and devastating floods over the past decades, such projects are indispensable, said mayor Jeanny Lorgeoux.
"It's a crucial lifeline for a small town," he said. "It's a social link with others, between generations, and an economic boost."
Since factories disappeared from this region, cinemas have become a rare place where the remnants of the working class rub shoulders with the Loire Valley's "chateau and hunting" set.
Referring to the "gilets jaunes" (yellow vest) protests across rural France in 2018 and 2019, Mr Aubry said: "The message was that people felt abandoned out in the provinces. It's a modest response but clearly, among the 2,000 cinemas of France, many are in dire need of renovation and transformation.
"The cinema is often, especially in small towns, the last important cultural place that still appeals to all people."
It helps to have five screens that can show the latest Fast And Furious movie alongside an existential drama starring Isabelle Huppert.
The pandemic, Mr Aubry added, is no reason to give up. "This crisis has only reinforced how much we miss being around other people."