Ever since brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière screened the first program of films to a paying audience at Paris' Grand Cafe in 1895, the French have viewed film as an art form to be protected from the worst excesses of crass commercialism. But now the French film industry says that l'exception culturelle is facing its biggest threat. This time the source of the challenge is not heathen Hollywood, or even bureaucratic Brussels, but the carte illimitee, an unlimited-access pass offered by the country's biggest cinema chain, Union Generale Cinematographique (UGC).
The pass, available for an annual subscription paid in monthly installments of $14, was introduced by UGC in March as part of a marketing push to get more people into its 43 cinemas. Chairman Guy Verecchia told French daily Le Monde at the time that "if French people went to the cinema as frequently as Spaniards do, we would sell 200 million tickets a year. I don't think the card will bring in that many people on its own, but it will go a long way toward it."
Verecchia suspended the offer six weeks later after Culture Minister Catherine Tasca expressed concern about its potential effect on her country's highly regulated film industry. But two weeks ago UGC resumed selling the pass after a cautious nod from the Conseil de la concurrence. France's competition watchdog had rejected a request by five independent operators for a court order that would prevent UCG from selling the pass, but has yet to rule on whether the chain has abused its dominant position in Paris.
UGC still faces vociferous opposition from France's filmmakers and distributors, who charge that the multipass will damage the quantity and quality of French productions. In 1999, France made 181 films — compared to Italy's 108 and the U.K.'s 103 — partly subsidized through a levy of 11% on every ticket sold. Last year $80 million went into a special film producers' fund set up by the Centre national de la cinematographie (CNC). Cheaper or unpriced tickets mean less revenue, which means fewer films will be made, say the critics.
Worse still, they warn, films will be drained of their cultural content and turned into a basic consumer product. "Movies will become loss-leaders for selling ice-creams and advertisements. They won't be seen as art for much longer," mourns Michel Gomez, a representative at the Societe Civile des Auteurs, Realisateurs et Producteurs (ARP), the trade association of screenwriters, producers and directors.
In its defense, UGC claims that the multipass is not intended to siphon moviegoers from small cinemas. That's probably true for art houses, whose patrons are not likely to abandon Jean-Luc Godard for George Lucas. But independent commercial operators may be at risk in the long run. Philippe Aigle, manager of small Paris-based chain MK2, predicts that in a year's time, "some small operators will already be dead."
And the chain denies that producers will lose out financially. A levy will be applied on a $4.75 ticket price every time a pass holder sees a movie. But that is still a price cut too far for Culture Minister Tasca, who has asked the cnc to impose sanctions on UGC, which could mean a fine of up to 20% of the company's revenues or even the closure of some cinemas for anything from a week to a year.
UGC and rival chain Pathe, which introduced a similar ticket plan in its multiplex in Nantes a week ago, evidently think the risk is worth taking. UGC is well on its way to signing up the 100,000 subscribers it needs to break even in the program's first year; in fact, 65,000 joined between March 29 and May 10. And despite a pending legal battle with British film distributors UIP, UGC is continuing to roll out its Unlimited Card in the U.K. and Ireland, where it runs 343 screens following its acquisition of Virgin Cinemas last year. The card costs $32 a month in London and $16 in other areas.
There's no doubt that the multipass has increased holders' appetite for films: the CNC estimates that it could have accounted for 1.4% of ticket sales in its first six weeks. With cinema tickets costing up to $13 in London and $8 in Paris, pass holders will save money if they go to the cinema more than twice a month. That could prove an incentive for seeing films that are not backed by blockbuster promotion budgets.
Such films include most French productions, which make up between a fifth and a quarter of the films shown at UGC's Paris cinemas. They are rarely commercial successes: in 1998, only three out of 130 films made in France turned a profit, while another 20 barely broke even. If the multipass can help to improve those figures, UGC may have found a way to support, not sabotage, l'exception culturelle.
With reporting by François Messier/Paris