UGC paying distribs less for unlimited-pass admits

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PARIS -- Cinema membership cards that allow unlimited visits to the theater are at the heart of a brouhaha in France, as UGC president Guy Verrechia and MK2 director Marin Karmitz have announced their intention to reduce the sum theaters pay to distributors for admissions with such passes.

More than 230,000 "carte illimite" members take up 12 million-14 million theater seats per year -- 6-7% of annual admissions, according to state-run regulator the Cinema National de Cinematographic.

The passes allow filmgoers to see an unlimited number of films at UGC theaters for a total of €18 ($23.40) per month, or €19.80 ($25.70) for "Le Pass" access to all MK2, Gaumont and Pathe theaters in the Ile-de-France region, not a bad deal considering that average single-ticket prices are around €10 ($13).

UGC plans to reduce the sum paid to distributors by 15%, to just €4.26 ($5.50) per admission, and MK2 is expected to follow suit.

Karmitz blames the decrease in profitability on the fact that the major theaters offer the cards and are obligated to extend the offer to independent theaters. However, it is only the majors who pay the distributors, making the cards of more interest to state-run and art-house cinemas than the majors, who are rapidly losing money with the offer.

Karmitz's comments on the matter to French newspaper Les Echos have enraged both the Association of Authors, Directors and Playwrights and the Association of Authors, Composers and Playwrights. The organizations charged in a statement that "it is scandalous to place all of the responsibility of the supposed decrease in profitability of the unlimited membership cards on the networks of state-run and art house theaters, tools that are essential to cultural diversity."

French film directors' society the Societe des Realisteurs de Films also has expressed dismay at the major cinemas move against the membership cards, and has offered to support any legislative measures serving to reinforce the unlimited film passes.

The Europalaces group, which encompasses other Gallic cinema giants Gaumont and Pathe, remain mum on their decision to pursue the decrease in ticket remuneration to distributors.

To date, only UGC has officially proposed a specific reduction to the CNC's special commission handling the "cartes illimites."

Even if Europalaces agrees to such a measure, Karmitz doesn't foresee a complete cancellation of the system.

"The unlimited membership cards have allotted for an increase in admissions and have fostered moviegoer loyalty. This, in turn, contributes to the development of cinematographic diversity and production, since at least 50%-60% of cardholders tend to see some of the more difficult titles," he told Les Echos. But he added that the system needs to be equally economically viable for the major theater networks in order to continue to remain in place.

The CNC will have the last word on the matter in March upon the renewal of the agreement on the passes and is in the process of analyzing the "extremely complex" situation, according to a CNC spokesperson.
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