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Directors unite to help arthouse

Georges-Melies cinema hit with legal challenges

LONDON — In a scene reminiscent of a Frank Capra movie, a tiny French arthouse theater is taking on some of the biggest players in the French film biz over its plans to expand.

The Georges-Melies cinema, named after the French film pioneer, has been hit with separate legal challenges by both UGC, the third biggest exhib in France, and mini-major MK2 after it announced it wanted to double its current three screens to six.

UGC’s suit claims the proposed expansion would be “a violation of competition rules,” as the Georges-Melies cinema, in the Paris suburb of Montreuil-Sur-Bois, receives coin from the city’s municipality, classifying it as a public theater.

Some of the biggest names in the art film world have joined the fray by siding with the Georges-Melies cinema, which pulls in some 200,000 admissions during the year, in contrast to a nearby UGC multiplex which attracts 2 million admissions a year.

The likes of David Lynch, Wim Wenders and Wong Kar-Wai, along with a total of 60 helmers from around the world, have signed a petition supporting the theater.

“In these cowardly times where artworks are reduced to consumer products, auteur cinema and enterprising arthouse screens fight the same battle for quality, respect and freedom for directors and filmgoers,” said their statement.

“When you don’t have an audience then there isn’t a problem with UGC and MK2,” says Georges-Melies topper Stephane Goudet. “But when you say you have the ambition to show small films in bigger theaters, that’s when the problems begin.”

For their part, UGC execs are fighting back against depictions of them as the bad guys in the story. While Goudet has claimed in the French press that programming at his cinema was an antidote to commercial Hollywood fare, the Georges-Melies has recently started showing films also available at other cinemas.

“We both showed the same mainstream movie ’99 Francs,’ but while we have to charge 6 Euros for each ticket, they are able to charge only 4 Euros because they receive subsidies from the municipality of Montreuil,” says one senior UGC exec. “This is an inequity. We say that we are the victims even if UGC is not so popular at the moment with the public. It is ok for there to be competition but we see different rules applied… ”

At the heart of the problem appears to be the classification of private, public and independent theaters. UGC, a privately-run company, is accusing Georges-Melies of pretending to be an indie theater when in fact it is a public one, while Georges-Melies owners are casting UGC and MK2 as corporate bullies.

Reps from UGC and Georges-Melies are meeting Oct. 17 in an attempt to iron out the situation. “We will study the problem because the only way is to have a real discussion,” says the UGC exec. “It’s a very French situation.”