By Irish standards, the battle so far between UCI and the Abbey Film Group has been a very genteel affair, hardly more than a polite quarrel.

It began in November 1990, when the U.K.-based United Cinemas Intl. group opened a new 12-screen complex in Tallaght. A few miles southwest of Dublin, Tallaght has grown in 20 years from a sleepy village to a bustling town of 100,000 people.

In response to that growth, a new town center was constructed at a cost of 90 million Irish pounds ($160 million). Called The Square, it now draws an average of 400,000 customers a week, and a very important unit in The Square is the UCI multiplex.

Leo Ward’s Abbey Film Group runs three major cinemas in downtown Dublin with a total of 10 screens: five at the Savoy, three at the College Screen and two at the O’Connell Screen. The Ward group also runs a six-screen cinema in Cork, a five-screener in Limerick and various other multis in both Northern Ireland and the south.

Charges of favoritism

But Ward is unhappy, not only about the Tallaght multiplex but also about the second hardtop UCI expects to open next summer at Coolock, also on the fringe of Dublin.

“UCI is getting preferential treatment,” Ward says, “and that’s not fair trading.”

UCI’s strength, he notes, comes from its American parents, Paramount and MCA/Universal, and that allows it more ready access to firstrun features for screens in outlying communities. It’s hard for a small operator to compete with that, he says.

A pinch in time

The Tallaght complex has not affected Ward’s business in Dublin center, although, he says, “My takings are not going through the roof.” But he foresees that it’s just a matter of time before he feels the pinch.

A spokesman for Paddy Kelly, the Dublin manager for United Intl. Pictures, belittles the unfairtrade claim. He is high on multiplexes and believes Ireland is ready for them.

“People are definitely going back to the cinema in Ireland,” he says, “and that’s because of the cineplexes.” Indeed, a recent survey notes that in 1989, cinema admissions in Ireland were up by almost 17% over the previous year.

Barry Hartigan of UCI-Tallaght says the new multi needs at least six months’ business to know if it is a viable operation. But there’s no doubt in his mind that the complex has not only generated a new audience but has induced the lapsed cinemagoer to return.

In the meantime, there is a rumor that still another multi is to open in Santry, another suburban Dublin community. So the polite little quarrel may heat up.

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