"Vermin", a horror film about killer spiders invading a run-down apartment block, has become the first hit of the year in France.

The eight-legged critters are not the only surprise in the low-budget film, however, which for once depicts France's ghetto-like suburbs as more than just a den of drug dealers and terrorists.

Instead the block is shown as a place of hard-scrabble solidarity whose problems stem from abandonment by police, media and society in general.

"We want to challenge stereotypes," said Olivier Saby of co-producers Impact Films. The company was set up in 2018 with a mission to bring more diversity to French cinemas.

"The goal is not to make sure there is a black, Arabic or white person in every scene," he told AFP. "We just want films and TV to reflect real life.

"If you walk into, for example, a lawyer's office today, you will find a lot more diversity than when you see one on TV."

- 'Must be improved' -

French cinema has made steady progress in some areas.

French women won two of the last three Palmes d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Three of the five nominees for best director at next month's Cesars (France's Oscars) are women. (The prize has only once gone to a woman, Tonie Marshall, 24 years ago.)

Race is trickier.

Some black actors have become superstars in France, especially "Lupin" star Omar Sy, and comedian Jean-Pascal Zadi, whose sharp satires about racial politics, "Simply Black" and "Represent", have earned awards and been big international hits on Netflix.

But progress is hindered because it remains illegal to gather data on race in France on the grounds that it would perpetuate artificial divisions, said Wale Gbadamosi Oyekanmi, a PR consultant who invests in Impact Film.

"France doesn't really talk about race. You can't monitor the depth of the challenge because you can't measure it" with statistics, he told AFP.

"There are new voices that could be heard, that reflect the country as it is now. It's something that can and must be improved."

Analysts work around the issue by measuring how people are "perceived" rather than directly asking their race.

RTL

Jean-Pascal Zadi's sharp satires about racial politics have won awards and international acclaim / © POOL/AFP

A study of 115 French films released in 2019 by 50/50 Collectif, a campaign group, found 81 percent of lead characters were "perceived as white".

That is not a commercial decision, it said, since the figure dropped to 68 percent for the 15 most popular films of the year.

- 'Perverting creativity' -

But France's cultural gatekeepers still bristle at the idea of mixing social issues with creativity, said Marie-Lou Dulac, founder of diversity consultancy DIRE et Dire.

Many in France see encouraging diversity as a way of "perverting creativity," she said.

"Actually it's a way to renew creativity, to encounter new stories and characters.

"We can't keep making the same old caricature of a French film -- a white professional couple in Paris who are cheating on each other," she added with a laugh.

Impact Films supports films with LGBTQ, disabled or ethnic minority leads, said Saby. It finances documentaries about environmental and social issues, and hires people from under-represented groups to work behind the camera.

It also works with scriptwriters to avoid cliches. "Why are minority actors always playing a drug dealer?" he added. "Does every action hero need to drive a 4x4?"

As in other countries, pushing for change triggers a backlash.

Powerful right-wing businessmen are also moving into film productions, such as last year's "Vaincre ou Mourir" ("Victory or Death") about the peasant counter-revolution of the 1790s, a favourite topic of pro-Catholic, pro-monarchy ultra-conservatives.

It was produced by the company behind the Puy du Fou theme park, owned by far-right former presidential candidate Philippe de Villiers.

The risk of a backlash is no reason to give up, said Saby, with "Vermin" up for two Cesar awards and well on its way to being the most successful French horror flick in nearly 25 years.

"There was always this battle. It's just that only one side was winning up to now," he said.

"There's plenty of room on screen for everyone."