Paris cinemas protest at the degradation of culture

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Two of the best-known independent cinemas in Paris have “abolished Christmas” to protest against the monopolisation of popular “art” films by the big, French cinema chains.

Le Balzac, a celebrated art-house cinema just off the Champs Elysées, has closed its three screens until 28 December. The frontage has been draped with a large banner, complaining that the family-owned cinema has been given no films worth showing for the Christmas period. “Everything which degrades culture shortens the path to servitude,” says the banner, quoting the existentialist writer, Albert Camus.

Just down the avenue, another independent cinema, the Elysées-Lincoln, has closed two of its three screens in solidarity with the Balzac. Its director, Jean-Francois Merle, says that the future of both cinemas is threatened because “artistic but popular” movies are being diverted to big, multi-screen cinemas nearby.

“It is our role to support first time directors and other original work,” he said. “But we can only survive if we have occasional access to films by directors who are now popular but might never have been discovered without cinemas like us.”

The row may seem surprising in a country which prides itself in retaining a strong film industry and promoting “film d’auteur”, or “art film”, rather than purely commercial cinema. However, family-owned and independent cinemas throughout France have been complaining for years that the four large cinema-owning companies – Gaumont, MK2, UGC and Pathé – unfairly dominate the film-distribution system.

In recent years, they say, the big chains, faced with problems of their own, have invaded the popular end of the “art” market.  They have taken first showing rights not only to Hollywood blockbusters and commercial French movies but also to the best “films d’auteur” and “experimental” films.

Jean-Jacques Schpolansky, whose family has owned Le Balzac since 1935, said: “The system is just not working any more. Our ticket-sales are at their lowest ever level. We are being allocated too few films with minimum commercial potential. The company is in the red. We had to do something.”

The Balzac, in a prime site just off the Champs- Elysées and a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe, is one of the most popular “art-house” cinemas in Paris. Mr Schpolansky has created a kind of movie-club atmosphere by giving talks before film and offering drinks and meetings with directors.

He says the Balzac, by showing experimental work in the heart of the capital’s entertainment district, has played an important role in the history of French cinema. “The question is whether a cinema like the Balzac is still wanted and valued,” he said.      

The last straw for Mr Schpolansky was the decision to give two big cinemas on the Champs- Elysées the opening rights this week to the critically-acclaimed movie “Le Havre” by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. The Franco-Finnish movie, about a down-and-out writer who befriends an illegal immigrant boy, is the kind of “serious but popular” film which was once Le Balzac’s life blood.

Mr Schpolansky appealed unsuccessfully to the government’s film distribution ombudsman. He has now called on the French government to hold talks on a fairer system for film distribution. It remains to be seen whether the Culture ministry – headed by Frédéric Mitterrand, who was the manager of the Balzac from 1980 to 1984 – will intervene.