Here’s something you don’t see very often in France, the home of cinéma d’auteur. As the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches on December 16, some of France’s art house theater owners are up in arms about not being able to program the film on their screens. In turn, the indie producers union (SPI) is not siding with its brethren and is instead concerned that if Star Wars screens in indie cinemas, it will take up space it feels should go to less mainstream films. “What is happening to cinematic diversity on our screens?,” the group exclaimed in a statement last night.
Star Wars? Art house? As it happens, the art house certification can be somewhat misleading. There are different categories of art house, but the main one says those theaters bearing the designation (which entitles them to state subsidies) are obliged to ensure that 70% of their screenings are of films with an art house label as delivered by a special committee. They must also be shown in the original language with French subtitles. What often happens is that the other 30% is rounded out by more commercial fare (my local art house cinema in Aix-en-Provence, for example, has recently been the only nearby place to see Spectre in English).
Disney says it has set over 280 art house theaters throughout the country, but theater owners in some cities say they’ve been squeezed out of contention. And they want a piece of the Force, for both love and money.
Notably, there’s the Méliès cinema in Saint-Etienne in the Loire region whose director Sylvain Pichon started a petition on Change.org late last month. It accuses Disney of “boycotting art house cinemas in large cities in favor of multiplexes or cinemas belonging to the big groups like UGC, Pathé and Gaumont.” More than 16,000 people have signed the petition which contends that the Star Wars saga “is an integral part of our culture and is not ‘mass audience’ but ‘all audience’… To refuse us a copy… is to marginalize us… Why should multiplex audiences alone have the right to discover the new opus upon its national release? Why should art house cinemas and their loyal audiences have to wait until January before seeing the event film of the year?”
Walt Disney France responded earlier this month saying, “We are surprised to learn that some exhibitors from major French cities claim that there is a boycott of the art house cinemas as Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be released December 16, 2015 in nearly 282 art house theaters in France. Disney has worked in France for a long time with all the exhibitors including art house cinemas and strongly respect their work.” The film, which has broken pre-sale records here, is currently expected in 535 cinemas throughout the country at open.
Pichon tells me that currently there are “three or four copies” of The Force Awakens planned for Saint-Etienne which are all going to the local multiplex. He says he doesn’t expect Disney to widen its release, but “why not give us one copy?” Art house theaters are often not equipped with the same technology and the screens are often smaller so it makes sense Disney wants people to see it in the best possible conditions, but Pichon says his cinema has an audiotirum that would lend itself to the film. Disney, he says, has offered them the film on December 30. But he believes this will result in a loss of potential revenue and street cred. “Our audiences want to see this film at our theater when it opens, they won’t understand why we don’t have it… This film belongs to everyone. We are a young team here and this is the movie we want to see.”
Pichon met with attorneys for Disney on Tuesday during a mediation session in which each side presented their arguments and proposed solutions. The process is ongoing. There are some other cinemas involved, but I understand it’s a very small number compared to the overall whole of art house theaters in France.
Amid all of this, the French independent producers guild has weighed in — and it’s not on the side of the cinemas concerned. The union’s worry is that if JJ Abrams’ reboot of the classic franchise does take up art house screens, it will be to the detriment of other indie films which will not be seen over the holiday period.
SPI said in part, “Of course everyone will tell us this corresponds to the specificity of their profession: the exhibitors to keep an economic balance in their theaters and the distributors to maximize the receipts of their film. But isn’t each forgetting their responsiblities and the common vision of a regulated sector in favor of an immediate return? For our part, we see only a phenomenon of concentration of screens and admissions that grows each day. This week, the top two films were released on 31% of all French screens and the top five made up 63.6%. With an increasingly regular rhythm of release of these ‘blockbusters’, what is happening to cinematic diversity on our screens? Isn’t this battle to program Star Wars also to the detriment of programming many other films?”
To that Pichon says, “What right do they have to insinuate themselves into our affairs? We don’t tell them what to do.”