MADRID — Spain’s fragmented exhibition sector has taken a sharp step towards concentration. Two of the most powerful international exhibition loops, Warner Bros. Int. Theatres (WBIT) and United Cinemas Intl. (UCI), have inked an in-principle agreement to create a joint programming operation for their cinema circuits in Spain.

UCI is a joint venture between Paramount and Universal Studios. The deal teams UCI-Cinesa, the brand name for UCI in Spain, with WBIT’s three-way Spanish alliance, Warner Lusomundo Sogecable. Under the terms of the accord, UCI-Cinesa will negotiate film bookings with distribbers for the two circuits. The two exhibbers have already teamed internationally to jointly purchase concessions and cinema equipment.

“As part of our international drive, we’ve been trying to reduce costs and overheads and the joint operation can aid this,” says a WBIT spokesperson. Per Tomas Naranjo, WLS general manager, once details are straightened out, the operation could be up and running in two to three months.

The programming alliance is likely to pass muster with Spanish competition rulings: WLS has 104 screens and Cinesa 252, together repping just 9.5% of Spain’s screen total.

But the deal is a sign of the times for exhibition and distribution in Spain. It follows on similar accords, such as the creation of the 364-screen Central de Actividades y Exhibicion Cinematografica (CAEC) a joint film booking alliance created in 2000 by local exhibbers and lead by Antonio Llorens’ Lauren Cinemas. It won’t be the last. “In the mid-term Spain faces rampant concentration in the exhibition sector,” says one concerned indie booker.

The Spanish exhibition sector looks, in many ways, remarkably like the U.K.’s some two years ago. Beyond concentration, suburbs in major cities are feeling the strain of multiplex saturation. New site construction seems to be slowing. WLS-UCI-Cinesa’s new op is unlikely to push down distributor rentals. Any such thrust would raise a storm, and not just with Spanish distribbers. But it may allow the axis an edge in ensuring more screens for blockbusters. In a scenario which is very reminiscent of the U.S., the B.O. is now dominated by an increasingly small number of increasingly big pics –pics which all exhibbers need to survive.