Regulating Multiplexes: The French State between Corporatism and Globalization

By Hayes, Graeme | French Politics, Culture and Society, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Regulating Multiplexes: The French State between Corporatism and Globalization


Hayes, Graeme, French Politics, Culture and Society


Since the mid-1980s, the growth of multiplex cinemas has transformed the social, industrial, and spatial logics of film exhibition across western Europe. Pioneered in the United States, where they were developed in the mid-1970s as "destination anchors" in suburban retail centers, multiplexes first appeared in Europe in Belgium (as early as 1975), Sweden (1980), and the United Kingdom (1985). In France, multiplex development started comparatively late; a first wave of comprehensive theater modernization and rationalization, launched in the 1960s, had already created a distinctive national model of multiscreen complexes (such that one observer was moved to argue that, by the late 1980s, "without false modesty, France's film theaters are the most attractive in Europe and among the best in the world"). (1) Nonetheless, France's new theaters--the vast majority of which had been created by dividing existing auditoriums--were often small and uncomfortable and had little effect on the seemingly irreversible decline in audience figures. In 1993, however, Pathe reacted to the seemingly inexorable decline in cinema audiences by championing a new type of complex, launching a second wave of cinema modernization. In June, the Grand-Ciel at La Garde in the suburbs of Toulon became France's first multiplex, followed three months later by the Belle-Epine, at Thiais in the Val de Marne. Since then, multiplexes have brought remarkable levels of financial and technical investment to French film exhibition, transforming the geography and experience of cinema-going. Indeed, so comprehensive has this second wave been that, as of June 2005, 130 multiplexes had been constructed across France, with every conurbation of 100,000 inhabitants or more equipped with at least one such cinema. Multiplexes now account for slightly under half of all cinema tickets sold, and slightly over half of total box office receipts. Moreover, as elsewhere in Europe, this radical modernization of the conditions of supply has stimulated consumer demand, heralding a remarkable renaissance in cinema-going; from a trough of 124 million in 1994, admissions in France steadily rose to reach a twenty-year peak of 194 million in 2004.

Yet despite these successes, the spread of multiplexes across the Hexagon has also proved controversial. In the wake of the battle over GATT, the perceived Americanization of French film culture implied by the multiplex model has been met with widespread and continuing resistance from public, political, and professional figures and organizations and was translated by the introduction in 1996 of a highly politicized regulatory procedure specifically designed to make it more difficult for such cinemas to secure planning permission. This article accordingly addresses the causes and the consequences of the state's attempt to regulate the growth of multiplexes. I will argue that the exception culturelle sets the dominant frame for our understanding of the spread of multiplexes in France, as it does more widely for public film policy; yet I will also argue that it does so at the price of a misunderstanding of the key consequences of multiplexes and of attendant developments in the structure of the French film industry, whereby the exhibition sector has led a series of rationalizing and concentrating changes. The first section sets out the parameters of the debate on multiplexes in France, linking the framing of the debate to the form of the authorization process introduced in 1996. A second section will then show how, despite being caught on the back foot, the central state has taken control of the regulatory procedure and pursued a policy of systematic intervention in order to subordinate licensing decisions to national cultural policy objectives. A final section then argues that these objectives have serious potential consequences for the pluralism of exhibition and distribution. Indeed, far from defending pluralism, French film policy has implicitly signaled a return to a "national champions" strategy privileging national industrial performance.

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