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Paris Art-House Cinema On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Amid fierce competition in the global film capital, a big movie chain opens an art-house theater in Paris that raises questions about the feasibility of independent cinema itself.

Paris's Les Fauvettes art-house movie theater
Paris's Les Fauvettes art-house movie theater
Clarisse Fabre

PARIS — A new cinematic hub is emerging in Paris, along Avenue des Gobelins in the 13th arrondissement. It's not exactly Broadway, but insiders are keeping a close watch on the neighborhood for signs of the industry's future.

In early November, after extensive work, the Gaumont-Pathé cinema reopened in the area, and Les Fauvettes (formerly Gaumont Gobelins) has assigned five devoted theaters to restored films. That number will soon expand to 11 screens as part of a project of the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation that aims to preserve films to educate young audiences.

Located between Place d'Italie and the Latin Quarter, the question is whether the shopping street at Les Gobelins will become the new place to go for moviegoers in the French capital, following the Halles in the city center and its conglomeration of shiny new cinemas that some have dubbed "ticket vacuum cleaners."

The imagery says a great deal about the industry's atmosphere in the capital: aggressive and highly competitive. Paris is now a full-fledged consumer city where even art-house films and original-language offerings are no longer confined to niche cinemas.

Theaters and multiplexes owned by the big chains project high-brow fare, which allows, for example, UGC's unlimited cardholders in Paris to see the latest from the likes of (Italy's) Nanni Moretti or (Spain's) Pedro Almodovar, or even the latest opus of the irreverent Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster.

More than 400 screens in Paris

Speaking of lobster, let's talk more about the claws of the big players in Paris. Gaumont-Pathé, UGC and MK2 are topping 85% of the capital's admissions, a figure confirmed by Michel Gomez, a Paris city official overseeing the film industry. "I don't know of any other business where there is no written contract," he says. "The promises that are made are not always fulfilled."

Old postcard of Paris's La Fauvette cinema — Source: Les Fauvettes official Facebook page

Paris officials recently set a condition for the expansion of the UGC Gobelins cinema: The movie theater must commit to preserving access to movies in the nearby art-house cinema room, L'Escurial. With over 400 screens and envied around the world as a mecca for cinema, the Parisian showcase is starting to crack. Is there still room for a newcomer?

Jerome Seydoux, owner of Les Fauvettes, is betting that there are spectators who will want to go to the theater to see cult movies, which already appear on television and the Internet. So the new cinema opened its doors with The Sucker (1965) directed by Gerard Oury, with Bourvil and Louis de Funes, which has already been broadcast on TV a dozen times since 1990, and gathered 5.7 million viewers when it was shown in 2013. Last month, Les Fauvettes featured the full lineup of Pixar movies, Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese, and the cycle devoted to the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai.

Vincent Paul Boncour, a pioneer in the distribution of restored movies, a director and co-founder of Carlotta Films, says Les Fauvettes might be a "prototype" that could be copied elsewhere. "It's the first time that a chain is investing in a cinema dedicated to repertory movies," he says.

Still, he says, Paris is already home to "the unique programming of revival movies in the world." There are classic movie houses in the Latin Quarter (Le Champo, La Filmotheque, Grand Action), the Max Linder on the Grand Boulevards, the French Cinematheque at Bercy, the Forum des Images at the Halles.

Will Les Fauvettes undermine their standing? Concern is all the greater as the industry is facing the challenge of digital and television distribution. At the Filmotheque at Rue Champollion, close to the Sorbonne, father-and-son Jean-Max and François Causse are cautious about the big chains stepping into their corner of the market. "A movie brings in four to five times less at the box office than 30 years ago," says François Causse. "Perhaps Les Fauvettes will generate a new and less specialized audience who will then discover our films?"

The rocket's second stage

Some of the "indie" houses have begun to organize among themselves. Twenty-two institutions — totaling 39 screens — are already among the association of Independent Cinemas in Paris (CIP).

"Pluralism is what creates diversity," says Renaud Laville, general delegate of the French association of arthouse cinemas, which counts some 1,300 across France.

But simply casting the independent cinemas on one side of the fight and the chains on the other doesn't reflect the complexity of the situation, says Julien Rejl, head of Capricci distribution and vice president of the union of independent distributors.

"Certain specialized movies are often turned down because they don't find a place either in the arthouse cinemas or with the chains," Rejl says. "Sometimes, operators haven't even watched the movies. Of 12 or 13 movies released every week, there are four or five that everyone asks for. The offer in Paris has become standardized. We sometimes wonder if the films themselves are still at the heart of the programming."

Such is the brutal reality on display in the international capital of cinema.

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