French in dispute over movie cards

Discount passes cause controversey

PARIS — Movie discount cards have caused controversy in several European countries, but the dispute in France has become more divisive in the wake of the recent partnership between the UGC and MK2 cinema chains.

The new UGC/MK2 unlimited pass costs E19.80 ($28.60) per month and requires a one year contract. France’s ardent moviegoers can’t lose — they can see as many movies as they want, and in Paris have access to 70% of the screens.

But distributors and producers complain that while the price of the new UGC/MK2 unlimited card has increased more than 30% since the first unlimited cards were introduced in 2000, the “reference price” — the amount counted for each card admission when calculating rentals, has remained at $7.24. This is already well below the country’s average ticket price of $8.70 and far below the full $13 price.

Major studios are making their complaints heard, while smaller French independents don’t have the clout to speak up.

At the beginning of a release, ticket prices are generally split 50/50, between exhibs and distribs. The distribs, who bank P&A, and since last year pay to run previews and have posters in UGC theaters, say their cut of the reference price is not enough.

Says one studio’s local head of distribution: “The average theatrical run, especially for American films, is only three weeks. Most films don’t have time to make the release profitable.”

“There are a lot of small French distributors who cannot say no, otherwise, they are dead,” says Michel Gomez, director of the producer/director’s union L’Arp. “Only the Americans can say no.”

French talent unions L’Arp and SACD, the authors’ union, whose members get a cut of ticket prices, are lobbying with American and French distribs to negotiate a new reference price between the exhibitors and the distributors’ union.

But exhibitors UGC, MK2, Gaumont and Pathe, the largest of France’s theater chains, are also producers and distributors, and thus members of that union.

Jean Marie Dura, director of exhibition at UGC, claims it’s the exhibs who foot the bill to keep cinemas open no matter how many times passholders go to the movies. “Every time a card holder goes to the movies, I pay. They can go 20 times a month.”

UGC claims discount cards have led to the 30% increase in French B.O. over the last 10 years and to the increased success of homegrown fare.

According to Karmitz, topper of MK2, unlimited cards account for 25% of their admissions, but no one actually knows how many cards are in circulation. This is another bone of contention for distribs and producers, who are asking for greater transparency.

Says Dura: “The distributors’ only concern should be the amount of money made on each print. They don’t ask the other theater owners to get naked.”

The matter is being reviewed by France’s competition commission. The talent unions anticipate the issue of transparency to be resolved by the end of the year.

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