Why buy the cinema ourselves?

We wrote the text below in February 2024, as we were inching closer to our goal of saving La Clef. it traces the birth of the eccentric idea to buy the cinema ourselves in order to preserve its independence and unique operating model, and explains how we intend to achieve this.

La Clef’s halls are filled with stories.
For nearly fifty years, curators, spectators, filmmakers and collectives have shared and discovered films in this cinema — films that were almost always political, often rare and sometimes invisible. The building has also been home to a pizzeria, family gatherings, yoga classes and painting workshops — and most recently, it’s been home to our collective for two and a half years.

Now that we’ve been evicted from the building, we’re trying to buy La Clef back.

What may seem like a lost cause to many is an effort to defend a certain idea of cinema and the common good, and it seemed important to us to take a look back at the reasons why we embarked on this journey.

How the idea emereged

Originally, the occupation aimed at drawing attention to the threat of closure looming over the last community-run cinema in Paris. Back then, our demands were as follows:

«We will leave the premises as soon as we have written and oral confirmation, in front of the press and witnesses, that this building will remain an independent, community-managed cinema».

But as it became clear that the occupation would last, the collective had to get organised. To be able to show a different film every night, we had to take turns coordinating the screenings and insisted on knowledge sharing: we taught each other how to use the projectors and look after the venue. We printed weekly programmes, managed the bar inventory and so on. We tried to share tasks equitably and make sure every decision was made collectively.

Little by little, we stopped being mere occupants and became users.

Early on, we began thinking about taking over the cinema ourselves – although, at that time, we didn’t quite believe it could be done. We drafted a project called “The laboratory of independent cinema”. It combined film exhibition activities, creative workshops and a large convivial hall, where we set up a bar in the first few weeks of the occupation.

After the first lockdown, we resumed our reflections. How could we ensure the long-term viability of a model that was born in (and thanks to) an illegal situation? How could we achieve economic stability while maintaning our pay-what-you-can policy? We met with members of the Nova cinema in Brussels, which has been operated by a collective of volunteers for fifteen years, with the team of L’Univers cinema in Lille, of Vidéodrome 2 in Marseille, and other alternative venues in Germany (B-Movie), the UK (Star and Shadow), and the Netherlands (Filmhuis Cavia). This exploration excited and encouraged us: if such cinemas exist elsewhere in Europe, why couldn’t there be one in Paris?

All the cinemas that inspired us had one thing in common : they paid little to no rent. We quickly realised that it would be impossible to sustain our self-managed model if we remained dependent on a private landlord, in one of the most expensive areas in Paris.
We also ruled out the possibility of public ownership: although City hall charges modest rents, their occupancy agreements can be revoked at any time, if there’s a change in policy.

That’s how we came up with the insane idea of buying La Clef ourselves.

But this also raised questions: how could a collective originally composed of squatters even consider owning property, and how could we guarantee the long-term future and independence of the cinema?

“User ownership” and cinema as commons

As always, we took advice from other collectives that had already thought about these issues, particularly the Notre-Dame-des-Landes environmental activists who worked on shared land ownership after they won a years-long battle against plans to build on airport on farmland. The “Foncière Antidote”, in particular, pointed us in the direction of “user ownership”. Under this model, the collective effectively running the cinema would have complete usufruct of the premises, and La Clef would become a common asset that no one could appropriate. The difficulty is that user ownership does not exist in French law; we can only try to approach it in practice, by adapting the tools of private law.

The concept of property has three attributes: usus, fructus and abusus. Usus is the right to use a thing; in the example of a tree, usus allows you to take a nap in its shade. Fructus is the right to take advantage of the thing: eating or selling the tree’s fruits. And abusus is the right to dispose of the thing, and even destroy it: cutting down the tree. To ensure that La Clef remains a cinema, we need to neutralise the abusus. In the case of real estate, this means taking the property off the market so that it can no longer be sold.
How do we achieve this?

The first step is to separate bare ownership of the property from usufruct. To do this, we use a particular legal structure: the property deed to La Clef will be acquired by an endowment fund, which will then entrust the cinema’s management to an association through an emphyteutic lease. This is a long-term, low-rent lease that grants the lessee a right in rem in immovable property. The association would therefore have all the rights of an owner (usus and fructus), with the exception of the right of resale (abusus), which remains in the hands of the endowment fund.

How our endowment fund will protect the cinema

The second step, then, is to draft the articles of association of our endowment fund (Cinéma Revival) in such a way as to make it almost impossible to exercise this right.
An endowment fund is a private, not-for-profit corporation designed to carry out a mission of general interest. Notably, it enables the acquisition of land and buildings on a collective basis, without a shareholding system. It pays no dividends to donors, whose sole advantage is the tax deduction associated with donations. This means that the project cannot be undermined by people wanting their shares back, and that power is in no way a function of the sum donated. Our patrons, no matter how wealthy, cannot force the resale of the cinema; this decision rests solely with the fund’s administrators.

Cinéma Revival’s board of administrators has two colleges. The first is the users’ college, composed of volunteers from the collective who occupied La Clef and spearheaded the effort to buy the building back. The second is the professionals’ college, whose members were chosen for their willingness to defend our model of a community-run cinema: an independent filmmaker (Céline Sciamma), a parisian arthouse cinema operator (Jean-Marc Zekri), a representative of the community-run Cinéma Nova in Brussels (Laurent Tenzer) and an expert in “user ownership” (Eric Arrivé). The resale of a building is only possible if both the majority of users and the majority of professionals are in favour: a situation that’s highly improbable. And under no circumstances could this hypothetical resale generate a profit; Cinéma Revival’s articles of association prohibit the fund from engaging in speculation.

They also stipulate that the users’ association must implement collective programming, highlight films that are not widely distributed, practice pay-what-you-can and fair pricing and promote transmission of knowledge within a horizontal organisation. As long as it respects these key principles, it is entirely autonomous in its editorial choices.
Thanks to this set-up, La Clef will remain a community-managed, independent cinema for decades to come.

In October 2020, Cinéma Revival launched its first fundraising campaign.

At first, we dared not believe it could be done. At the time, the collective was fighting a legal battle with the owner and a media battle with SOS, a giant group interested in the building for its symbolic and property value. The creation of Cinéma Revival served first and foremost to outflank SOS — we were still far from imagining that three years later, we would be signing a sales agreement with the owner.

SOS held on for more than a year, and eventually withdrew its offer on the day we were evicted, after two and a half years of occupying La Clef. During the last five weeks, in order to deter imminent police intervention, we opened the cinema’s doors from dawn till dusk.
We invited filmmakers, artists, philosophers, spectators, volunteers, local residents and many others to take the floor each evening at a forum and answer a simple question:

Why should La Clef be saved?

One cited the screenings we’ve organized in support of Beirut, Gaza and workers’ strikes; another, the crowds gathered at 6am to watch Paris is burning, chosen by Gisèle Vienne and Adèle Haenel; a conversation with filmmaker Alain Cavalier, who later disappeared to take a nap in an occupier’s bed; the passers-by assembled in the street, during the lockdown, and looking up at our open-air screenings; the Opéra de Paris ballet dancers’ secret meetings at La Clef to plan a protest performance ; an improvised concert by students from the jazz conservatory. La Clef should be saved for the hundreds of people who passed through its doors — for every friend, neighbour, student, film lover or activist who’s come for a screening or a beer, who’s given a hand behind the bar or in the kitchen, who’s suggested a film we could show, who’s done the dishes and cleaned the floor to help us hold tigh.

If we keep fighting to buy La Clef, it’s because we want to reopen this space of freedom to everyone, so that many others can learn, pass on and invent new ways to share films. It’s because we believe it’s necessary that such accessible and lively cultural spaces exist in the heart of cities. Because we believe that films inspire conversations and that movie theaters create communities.

What was only a dream two years ago is now close to becoming a reality. But we’re not quite there yet – every step of the way is a struggle, and the final stretch poses new challenges.

But we’re hanging in there, thanks to your support!