Theater chain takes action against Century, studios

Flagship Theaters filed a new suit Wednesday alleging unfair booking practices by Century Theaters, Sony and Universal, claiming that Flagship’s location in Palm Desert is being shut off from firstrun films like “The Da Vinci Code.”

The long-running dispute between Flagship and Century concerns competition within the zone that contains Flagship’s Cinemas Palme d’Or and Century’s the River at Rancho Mirage.

Steve Mason, a partner in Flagship, said the theater has not booked a firstrun Universal film since 2004’s “Ray” (Flagship partner Alise Benjamin was among the producers on the biopic), and in the last two years, the only Sony bookings have been underperformers “Oliver Twist” and “The Gospel.”

The reason for the lack of product from the two studios, the suit alleges, is that Century, which operates more than 1,000 screens in more than 80 locations in the U.S., uses its circuit clout to win studio bookings that exclude the Palme d’Or.

In the suit filed in L.A. Superior Court, plaintiffs allege that “defendant Century has threatened distributors with retaliatory action and has dictated anti-competitive clearances and exclusivity provisions in order to obtain the continued agreement by distributors not to license films for exhibition by the Flagship Theater.”

Suit seeks compensatory damages for lost business at the Palme, as well as a finding that the current booking practices by Century, Sony and U violate anticompetition laws.

Century execs did not respond to requests for comment, while U officials declined to speak about the suit. At Sony, a rep said the company had not seen the latest complaint, but the studio is familiar with the matter, adding, “We believe the case against us has no merit whatsoever.”

Earlier this year, Flagship sought to book “Da Vinci” for the Palme but was turned down. It offered to guarantee a film rental of at least $125,000 (which Mason says would imply a box office gross of $210,000 before the theater took its share) as well as guaranteeing to play the pic on at least three screens for eight weeks and two screens through the 12th week of release.

In the correspondence over “Da Vinci” posted on the Palme’s Web site, Sony Western division distrib head Adrian Smith responded, “We have reviewed your proposed terms and determined that, in our independent business judgment, it is in Sony Picture Releasing Corporation’s … best interest to license this film to another theater in this area.”

After Sony turned down the offer, Mason says “Da Vinci” grossed $190,000 at Century’s River. “Here’s a case where they made a choice to make less money on ‘Da Vinci Code’ in the area,” Mason said. “This is a studio choosing to make a circuit deal with Century as opposed to what’s in the best interest for the film and their shareholders.”

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