(Publication) To be or not to be: does making the choice of an alternative type of programming mean weaving a special relationship with a group of artistic works?

Bourgatte, M. (2006). To be or not to be: does making the choice of an alternative type of programming mean weaving a special relationship with a group of artistic works? In Proceedings of the XIX Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, p. 372-376.


Avignon is the most movie-loving city in France with a higher average rate of cinema-going than Paris. This average rate is about 14 outings per year and per person against 13 in the French capital. Moreover, these results are much higher than the national average rate which is close to only 3 annual outings per person. The city has five cinema complexes (for a total of 25 screens): three traditional independent cinemas, a multiplex under the management of a multinational and an independent art cinema-theater. If we consider that a rate of cinema-going and the diversity of an offer are closely linked and increase simultaneously, then these exceptional results make Avignon a very interesting case to study if we want to examine the programming of different cinema-houses in the same town.
An analysis of the programming of the only independent art cinema in the city named Utopia gives us a lead to this question of the programming and to see what role it plays in the construction of a cultural identity which depends, on the one hand, on building a particular identity and, on the other hand, on finding its place in the range of local cinematographic offer.
Firstly, we need to measure the level of legitimacy in the programming at Utopia cinema by examining the French art-movie classification which participates in the construction of a national definition of cinema legitimacy. Secondly, we need to weigh the importance of the free, private newspaper published by Utopia and named La Gazette which is both an informative magazine on the programs and a « tool of propaganda ». By looking at the above, it will be possible to evaluate in what ways this system of selection in cinema-works influences human perception.

1. Making the choice of an alternative programming.

The founding of the cinema Utopia in 1976 was a challenge in the beginning. At that time, the instigators of the project wanted to establish a new proposal in terms of cinematographic offer in a sector deserted by a particular type of cinematography: art cinema. It was an important moment in the cinematographic life of Avignon’s inhabitants and particularly in the life of the city because it brought about a discontinuity by the increase and the diversification in cinema offer. The decision would feed the arguments of Utopia’s detractors. But by making this distinctive choice (all the while conforming to the logic of the cinema-house business, in particular in economic terms), Utopia shaped an identity which still remains intact 30 years later. This identity rests on the setting up of a particular device of programming and promotion of film works.
The cinematographic proposals made in this cinema have a basic rule: to propose only films recognized as having artistic, patrimonial and educational interest. The criteria adopted here are those stated by the national authorities of Art Cinema. The films must always be presented in original version, subtitled and projected autonomously, without any commercial advertising. Occasionally, they are accompanied by a short film or a trailer. They are sometimes followed by a debate in the presence of the director, members of the Utopia team or guests (generally from militant associations).
To make the choice of art film exhibiting amounts to being part of the counter-current that confronts exclusively mercantile cinema. By banishing the majority of the most profitable films, in particular the Hollywood blockbusters, Utopia is deprived of an important revenue, but offers a form of coherence in its programming around the following idea: to promote a cinema that is in a process of creation, a renewal of forms and a construction of cinematographic art. This coherent choice reveals a strong identity which also takes part in the development of the loyalty of an audience that believes in the values held and promoted by this cinema-house. As testifies the remarkable rates of attendance recorded by the establishment: these rates oscillate between 250.000 and 280.000 annual entries, about a quarter of Avignon’s cinema attendance, and that, only in a cinematographic segment which does not traditionally dominate in terms of attendance.
Let us start from a study of the programming over the period October 26 to November 29, 2005. The five screens of the establishment will accommodate during these five weeks a series of 36 films (outside of exceptional events). Among them, only two were not classified as Art movies: Combien tu m’aimes ? whose programming rests unquestionably on the authority of its director Bertrand Blier (a director Utopia trusts implicitly) and Poniente, a 2002 Spanish film by Chus Guttierez whose single screening was in the context of an event in favour of cultural exchanges in the Mediterranean basin.
Among the 34 films recommended by the Art Classification and shown over this period, two of them were part of a local Contemporary Art event, one was a single screening within the framework of a meeting on the question of humans right in Africa, four came under the (re)discovery of cinematographic inheritance and two were intended for young audiences. The other films projected over this period all fit into the ordinary cinematographic releases and answer more precisely to the artistic and pedagogical concerns which preoccupy Utopia exhibitors in their choice of works. To attest further to these objectives, a statistical study using classification given each week to movies by the French magazine Télérama highlights the cinematographic proposals of this cinema-theatre. Ranking goes from 1 to 5 and is symbolized by small characters with more or less delighted faces. Of a series of 25 films, one notes that 23 of them have average or above average ranking which means that 92% of Utopia’s programming is recognized by the editors of this weekly as being satisfactory or even very satisfactory.
It is quite remarkable to see such a qualitative coherence in terms of screening of art movies. But beyond the work itself, it is the subjects and their inscription in a vaster social context which dominates. We saw how important it is for this cinema to engage in causes like intercultural exchanges or protection of individual rights. We will now look at how Utopia, through a key element in its device: La Gazette, renders their programming coherent.

2. La Gazette: a model of construction of a discursive identity.

The principal component of the success of Utopia and the central element of promotion of the cinematographic works is unquestionably La Gazette, a free-sheet presented by its foundes as a « hybrid mixture of soixante-huitarde (revolutionary) naivety and of cold, advanced, liberal effectiveness ».
This tool finds a space of communication between the management who maintains a reference frame through this tool and, to do that, reproduces from one issue to the next a communication plan with the second authority: the « spectator/readers ». These interlocutors will renew their loyalty with the cinema provided that the programming does not derogate systematically from the deictic rules which were set up. Thus its operation and its success are based on the multiplication of ritual acts and the permanent reiteration of processes having as an objective to distinguish the program from others and to seal a complicity between the cinema and its audience. La Gazette, which conceals the idea of a contract of visibility or legibility, is entirely designed to create certain spectator habits. This scenography is at the same time spacial, temporal and discursive. Concerning the first two dimensions, we note that the architecture of the discursive space is fixed. We find in particular the presentation of films and a detailed grid presenting the days and the schedules of their screenings. Its publication is done at regular intervals, generally every four or five weeks. It should be also noted that this newspaper does not have a particular manner of reading so as to show us how important it is to be militant against the establishment, standardization and the codes imposed by our society. Without a front or back page, La Gazette then has two front pages making it possible to promote two films rather than only one.
In addition, all the film critiques are very committed as are the feature articles that one finds on both sides of the program and which generally cover topical subjects. All these are marked by a particular verbalization that results in a very personalised tone, strongly characteristic of this newspaper. This practice definitively ratifies the position of mediating authority occupied by La Gazette: a mediator accomplice to the spectator who, at every moment, seems to entice him to come and like a particular film in turn just as it was loved by the members of the Utopia team. This is how La Gazette distinguishes itself from a number of other sources of information (magazines, articles on the Internet, etc.) who work more on the level of the educated mediator with a posture of guide and recommend one film rather than another. This is what the aforementioned newspaper Télérama does extremely well.
The Gazette thus fulfills a process of legitimizing works that are not taken individually but that form part of a whole: the programming. The articles presenting films are generally spread out over a half-page (the other half-page being reserved for a photograph) and are built quasi-systematically around three axes: emphasizing the intrinsic qualities of the work, the clarification of its contents and its inscription in its social context of production and/or screening. Randomly let us take two examples in La Gazette n°258 dating to the period time previously mentioned. First, « Le petit lieutenant » by Xavier Beauvois. The presentation of this film that one finds on the one cover initially tries to place the work in the universe of the cinematographic « whodunnit » to which it is supposed to belong. Then, it presents the ground-work carried out by the film-director which confers on the movie a dimension of authenticity without moving it away from the fictional sphere. The text finishes with a foretaste of what is to come at the beginning of the film. What did you do in the war, daddy ? by Blake Edwards is a relevant second example. The author of the text (a member of the Utopia staff as usual) tells us how he discovered this 1966 film during a recent film festival. He deplores the general ignorance of this work and accuses ironically (of course !) the American State of having tried to make this burlesque film, released in the middle of the Vietnam War, disappear. He speaks about the « neo cons (conservatives/idiots ?) of Bush already at work behind the scenes » (taken from a sentence which clearly connects the political and social context of the film with today’s context and its current screening). The qualities of the film are underlined by a comparison with Blake Edwards’ other works, perhaps better known by the audience (in particular « The Party » with Peter Sellers). The film presentation concludes with a short summary of the plot.

3. Developing particular links with the audience.

Utopia is characterized by its involvement in a process of opposition to standardization which uses targeted and organized programming as well as intense topical activities. So, we can truly speak about an alternative proposal. From Utopia’s own historical point of view, as we have seen, making the choice of an alternative programming implies an initial risk-taking before this progressively turns into a contractual framework between the cinema and its audience. But how does the programming participate in the development of a relationship between the organisation and the spectators ?
This cinema-theather offers a form of guarantee to its audience through the permanent renewal of the programming rules. So, the specific programming becomes the principal element that contributes to building up the loyalty of the audience because it constitutes a sign of recognition and identification (and finally an element of membership to a community) even if one does not feel bound by any exclusive contract. To be linked to is not to depend on. Erwin Goffman (1974) presents this type of proposal as a promise, that he describes as tacit, Utopia staff committing itself to respecting the expectations that it, itself, created. The spectators are then more or less prepared for the tone of the films which they see there on each of their outings.
Finally, we can affirm that the love and knowledge of the types of films proposed in this cinema, the respect of certain principles (like seeing films with the original soundtrack) or even the feeling of wellbeing that is generated there lead almost all the spectators to remain attached to the establishment. This attachment is conditioned by a cinematographic taste that one can define by taking into account four axes of which the first remains, obviously, the attraction for the value of the films themselves and their artistic and reflexive qualities. The Utopia spectators go there, above all, to see films that have a cultural interest as well as a social dimension offering them a window on the world.
This leads to acquiring a taste for the conditions under which film-works are viewed as well as a conscious desire to do things together which is accompanied by a need to feel and to share effects felt by other bodies. Indeed, « there is no taste if one is alone in front of the objects » (Hennion 2003).
Then, this programming develops a certain type of affection, mobilizes and activates certain identifying laws, as well as personal, behavioural and relational elements of recognition between the users.
We canclearly see the close relationship that links film, the place of its projection and the spectators: the recognition of the movie resulting eminently from its place of exhibiting. By creating a differentiation through programming, Utopia supports the development of audience loyalty, increasesa feeling of membership to a community and contributes to building forms of attachment with the place and its programming, its principal element of recognition and identification.


There is a difference between Utopia’s programming and that of the competing cinemas which are elaborated for commercial and mercantile reasons, such as one generally imagines the cinema-house business to be. Utopia’s programming is more in keeping with an alternative purpose: showing movies that are not necessarily projected on other screens in the town and this, in specific conditions.
Through this programming, Utopia shows its capacity to develop a form of response to particularexpectations which corroborate with the current changes in society. It is a question of participating in the exaltation of the spectator’s personality while working on an intimist and confidential deictic level through its tool of communication: La Gazette. To conclude, the maintaining and the legitimization of this proposal lies only in its capacity to render active a spectator on whom one relies in order to give it an existence within a « faire ensemble » (« do it together »).