Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky sits at the Balzac in Paris, where popcorn is… (Devorah Lauter / For The…)
Reporting from Paris — The holiday lights on the Champs-Elysees are in full splendor, but right off the avenue, the landmark art house movie palace, the Balzac, has remained dark for days.
Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky, owner of the independent film theater, has shut the doors from Dec. 21 to 28 to protest what he says is an existential threat to his long-standing business by major theater chains, which have increasingly snatched the rights to screen the sort of artistic but popular films that have provided him his baguette et beurre until now.
A sign of explanation outside his gated cinema includes a quote from philosopher Albert Camus: "Everything which degrades culture shortens the path to servitude."
The sign also says that the action — which some might see as a businessman shooting himself in the foot — is meant to protest the theater's lack of "access to art-house movies with a following."
Schpoliansky, 68, said his family-run cinema hasn't closed its doors like this since World War II, when his Jewish clan fled Paris for the south.
"A movie theater is a public service. It has to stay open all year," he said. "If I closed my doors, it's because there was an imperative reason."
Another well-known independent theater in the same district, the Lincoln, has joined the protest and closed for the same week, one that often draws some of the year's largest crowds.
Parisian independent theaters have long been known for discovering little-publicized, artistic movies, or films d'auteurs, but they have increasingly been struggling to compete with major chains.
Typically, unknown directors, snubbed by large theater chains, are welcome at the Balzac, which in return hopes to balance out those smaller sales with exclusive showings in its neighborhood of works by better-established directors it had supported when no one else would.
Schpoliansky said the balance has become increasingly difficult to maintain as larger chains have taken a growing interest in successful art films by major directors. As a result, the Balzac was left with "nothing to show" during the week of Christmas, he said.
This year the Balzac lost 13% of its customers, Schpoliansky said, and has fallen into debt. "If the major chains take more art films with a following, we'll have fewer, and we'll disappear. It's logical. We need films to live."
Still, Schpoliansky refuses to entertain the idea of having to shut the place down for good.
Cinema serves as a means of "developing the critical mind," he said, because, "like a newspaper, when a movie theater disappears, a light of freedom disappears."
"Can you imagine a frozen-food chain in my place?" he asked, citing the French retailer Picard. "It gives me shivers up the spine."
Schpoliansky's office is designed with round windows like a boat (a motif of the Balzac), "because it is a boat … film: a voyage," he said. And Schpoliansky intends to defend his ship.
He organizes about 100 concerts a year around various film projections, as well as "gastronomy" evenings with multi-star French chefs and events for children with free ice cream — all to attract the public.
Also, "popcorn is not allowed" at the Balzac. It is replaced with high-end French teas and gourmet coffee and cookies. "It's a different flavor," he said.
"I try to give a different character to our theaters, a different life," Schpoliansky said. "If you want the Champs-Elysees to be the most beautiful avenue in the world, then you need variety of commerce."
Paris city officials, who help the Balzac make ends meet with an annual subsidy of 40,000 euros, seem to agree. The Balzac represents "the rise of marginalization of theaters" that "project art films and are deprived by powerful competition," said a Dec. 13 City Hall statement. Officials have called on distributors to meet with authorities to balance out film distribution.
Around the corner from the Balzac on the Champs-Elysees, the UGC Normandie, a chain movie theater, was packed with holiday crowds who had come to view two films the Balzac had coveted: "Le Havre," by Aki Kaurismaki, and "A Dangerous Method," by David Cronenberg.
In a recent interview with the French weekly Le Point, distributors for "Le Havre" said the struggle for exclusive rights to show new movies was a complicated negotiating process, and that critically acclaimed art films needed more mass distribution.
Roxane Arnold, director of distribution for Pyramide, said her company chose to distribute "Le Havre" through major chains because the Balzac and the Lincoln refused to share the right to show the same film with a neighboring, major theater.
"It was impossible for us to give the Champs-Elysees copy [of the film] to one single movie theater," she said, adding that negotiations for projection rights can be "difficult power struggles."
Now Schpoliansky is considering sharing first showing rights in his neighborhood. He said he understood that it could be positive for directors to be sought after by major movie house chains, and he didn't want a "monopoly" on art films.
"Of course everyone should be able to have everything," he said. "But we don't go looking for films we don't want. We only look for art in films. We won't go after 'Mission Impossible' or 'Intouchables.' We stay in our category of films we like to defend."
That habit, Schpoliansky implied, should still go both ways.
Lauter is a special correspondent.