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CANNES — U.S. exhibition giant AMC’s two-year effort to set up a 20-screen multiplex in the suburbs of the French city Toulouse has been blocked at the 11th hour.

AMC Europe president Bruno Frydman described the situation as “like something out of Kafka.”

Frydman has been working with the Toulouse mayor’s office for the past two years to bring the project to fruition. AMC planned to invest some $42 million in the plex, which was to have been built at Saint Martin du Touch, west of Toulouse.

Indications are that AMC Europe had the support of Toulouse mayor Dominique Baudis right up until a May 14 vote by the Commission Departementale d’Equipement Cinematographique (CDEC), which has to greenlight new plexes.

Baudis has two votes on the seven-vote CDEC, but abstained on the AMC project, thus preventing AMC from getting CDEC approval. That means that AMC either has to walk away or wait to see if it can put its dossier in front of the CDEC at a future date.

Under the second scenario, it’s a safe bet that French exhibitor UGC will also lobby to get the contract. France’s big three exhibitors — Gaumont, UGC and Pathe — have a vise-like grip on French cinemas and have done their best to block foreign competition.

Frydman admitted to being baffled by Baudis’ attitude, given that he had considered the mayor a partner in the project for the last two years.

In a statement, Frydman notes, “Today we are asking ourselves about the reasons that motivated the abstentions … and we are waiting for the mayor to clarify his position on whether or not he wants to see the St. Martin du Touch project take place and, if so, when?”

It’s clear that Baudis came under considerable pressure from Gallic major Gaumont and from the local shopkeepers association.

Gaumont had threatened to halt plans to expand its center city Gaumont Wilson plex from eight screens to 14 if the CDEC greenlit the AMC plan. Gaumont argued that a major suburban plex would drain entries from the center of town, making the Wilson plex financially unviable. Gaumont’s proposals to expand Wilson got a 7-0 vote in favor.

While AMC Europe continues to be frustrated in Toulouse, the company finally got a break in France this week when Frydman was able to officially announce that building will start June 30 on a 20-screen multiplex and entertainment center in Dunkirk.

The plex will be AMC’s first in France and is set to cost around $30 million. Frydman said the project should be open for business in December 1999.