Cinema on the Seine: France's Marin Karmitz celebrates 40 years in the movie business


Over the course of his illustrious career in the business of cinéma, Marin Karmitz has worn many hats: cinematographer, director, producer and exhibitor, bookstore operator, architect and visionary, urban planner, cultural and political activist, philosopher. Sitting down with him for coffee and conversation in a French café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one enjoys the pleasure and the privilege of meeting every single one of these personalities. And all are united by a grand passion pour le cinéma.

“When I was a director, I enjoyed being a director,” Karmitz says, reflecting on which métier he likes best. “When I stopped being a director, I was a producer. Everything else I do serves to facilitate production. But, nowadays, I very much love les salles because they help me keep in contact with the public. I love to watch when people arrive at the cinéma.” (Going forward we will use the French word for auditorium, salle, rather than the U.S. equivalent of screen.)

Filmmaker Agnès Varda has called Marin Karmitz an “organizer of active cinéphilie.” A rather fitting description even if he sees himself (after careful deliberation, this author adds) as a utopian realist. “I continue to believe that the cinéma can help, a bit, in transforming life. On the condition that one loves it very much and by reflecting upon how it could transform life. This is not about thinking that you make a film that will change life. There is much more around the films themselves that helps accomplish this goal: what people think and feel when they leave the cinéma.”

Karmitz was in New York for the premiere of a young filmmaker’s documentary about his Life in the Cinéma and post-screening discussion, hosted by the French Institute-Alliance Française. He also received a personal “Carte Blanche” on programming from the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in celebration of the 40th anniversary of his MK2 Group.

With his son Nathanaël at the helm since 2005, Marin Karmitz continues to guide the family endeavor as président du conseil de surveillance, or supervisory board president. His other son, Elisha Karmitz, is in charge of MK2 Agency, a full-service shop for branding, advertising, multimedia production, events and communications. In addition to operating ten cinémas with 60 screens, plus two high-end private cinémas that open exclusively for rentals, MK2 Diffusion has distributed more than 350 films. MK2 Productions and international sales worked with Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Doillon, the Taviani Brothers, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami, Gus Van Sant, Michael Haneke and Walter Salles. Xavier Dolan brought his latest film, Tom à la ferme, to the MoMA kickoff celebration. Over the years, MK2 films have won more than 150 awards and nominations, including three Palmes d’Or (Cannes) and Golden Lions (Venice) each, one Golden Bear (Berlin), three Oscar nominations and 25 César Awards. As the company sees it, “For 40 years, MK2 has fought to bring high-quality films to the cinéma and to create ties between cinéma, the city and others forms of artistic expression.”

MK2 itself was created on May 1, 1974, with the opening of the first movie theatre, 14 Juillet-Bastille. The date chosen, theatre name and the inaugural film, The Courage of the People by Bolivian director Jorge Sanjinès, surely indicate that cinéma exhibition represented a political tool for Karmitz and that, from the beginning, he has always seen his work as part of a larger social responsibility. “My parents, who had emigrated from Romania to Nice, did not know anyone in France. And definitely not in the cinéma.” So, the only way for him to have an entry into the cinéma business, Karmitz says, was by getting an education, which the country’s film school IDHEC (now la Fémis) provided to him.

“How can I change the world by doing something other than what my parents wanted me to do?” he reflects. “Since I was not good at other things like drawing or music, and writing was a rather laborious affair for me, I decided to go with cinéma because that was something that I liked very much.”

Being part of the transformative student revolution of May 1968, Karmitz had taken to self-distributing his debut feature about struggling textile workers (Blow for Blow, 1972) that none of the traditional theatres wanted to show—much less in the way that he intended to go about it. He felt he had no choice but to open a cinéma of his own. “I knew I needed to find a salle, but I did not know the first thing about running one.” Before designing and building out 14 Juillet-Bastille in the space of a former restaurant, Karmitz had leased a cinéma in the Quartier Latin for a year. “I realized that this did not correspond at all to what I envisioned to do with a salle de cinéma. I had to book shows and could not have discussions, I could not sell books, could not have exhibitions. I could not do this kind of ‘active’ work in cinéma that was different.” After he set up office in a former carpentry shop in the Quartier St. Antoine, “a less expensive area of Paris,” Karmitz fell in love with the neighborhood. Thankfully, the restaurant space that he ended up finding for his 14 Juillet was “large enough” to be transformed into three screens, with a bookstore and a place for discussions and exhibits in the basement. Today, those additional spaces have been transformed again to hold a fourth auditorium.

As much as these beginnings were about discovery and change (14 Juillet Parnasse, 1976; 14 Juillet Beaugrenelle, 1979; 14 Juillet Odéon, 1986), Karmitz continued his journey as exhibitor in that very same spirit. “I have always tried to set us up in areas where the other circuits did not go. MK2 does not have cinémas on the Champs-Elysées or any other of the Grand Boulevards. We explored popular neighborhood quartiers where we could reintroduce salles where there were none anymore. That is very complicated,” he admits, “and difficult to find, because there is not a lot of room in Paris. The city is very expensive and complicated. In order to do what I want—with elements other than just screens for movies, such as bookstores, retail and restaurants—I need a lot of space and spaces to live at the same time. I call this ‘places of life.’”

It was “truly by accident” that Karmitz found another “very, very beautiful spot” in the 19th Arrondissement that fit all of his requirements and has since become MK2 Quai de Seine and Quai de Loire. Following 14 Juillet Beaubourg and 14 Juillet Hautefeuille (both 1995), 14 Juillet-sur-Seine opened with six screens, 984 seats and a café restaurant in a converted boat rental and repair shop. According to Karmitz, the mayor wanted to bring cinéma back to the Quartier, which was very populous but also the most dangerous in Paris. “People were afraid to go out after eight in the evening.” He adds there was not one operating cinéma in the area since the 1970s, down from 26 at one time. “The people wanted a cinéma and I proposed to restore and rebuild this beautiful structure designed by Gustave Eiffel” (of Eiffel Tower fame). Karmitz showed enough foresight and belief in the area that he also secured the dock directly across the basin for future development.

“We began with only one location because everyone thought I was totally fou to do this.” By way of example, Karmitz mentions that when he was looking for someone to run the restaurant he insisted on including, “not one person in all of Paris responded to the call. It was considered too dangerous.” The business community also thought him crazy, as the project was pretty pricey because of the restoration involved, he recalls. “As the cinéma began to really work,” after a lot of community relations and outreach to youth in the Quartier, “people took confidence in us. They got over their fears. They left their homes again, went into the streets and, thanks to the cinéma, they took back the night, bit by bit.”

At that moment in time, Karmitz decided to open Quai de Loire too, even though it took some ten years to get it done.* “Now we have a boat that connects the two sides across the water.” At our question why the ferry was named Zéro de conduite and not L’Atalante, a more fitting film by Jean Vigo perhaps, Karmitz replies only with a chuckle. Later on, however, he notes that children especially enjoy going to the cinéma via boat.

The nautical journey continues when Karmitz talks about his largest and most realized cinéma complex to date. Launched in February 2003 with 14 salles (20 today, with 3,500 seats), MK2 Bibliothèque alone accounts for two of the five million admissions MK2 Cinémas generate in Paris, where the chain ranks first among art houses and third overall. “For me, the cinéma is a place and a space that gives light to the city. It is open every day, at night, on Saturday and Sunday, holidays. It has always been a place of celebration and one of refuge from solitude. This is how I thought of MK2 Bibliothèque as a boat that landed at the bottom of our national library to light up the area.”

Before docking the thoroughly impressive building, which also houses three restaurants and stores that offer books, DVDs and Blu-rays, fine food/delicatessen and snacks, gadgets, fashion and other trendy items, people needed to traverse 300 meters “of emptiness and total darkness” to get from one end to the other. “This cut the neighborhood in two and nobody went there at night. Our cinéma lit up the area and linked the two sides of the Quartier together again,” he says with obvious pride in his voice. “The way in which the salles de cinéma were placed has created a point of illumination and enlivened the entire neighborhood to the point where it is becoming the new Quartier Latin.”

Speaking of neighborhoods, did he ever consider moving his theatrical enterprise beyond the City of Lights? “For the longest time, I didn’t want to expand outside of Paris,” Karmitz responds. “Because, for me, it was not about building cinémas but to have cinémas to protect the films.” (In the documentary, Karmitz says, “Cinéma is a building where the films constitute the bricks.”) “And to protect the films—especially art-house films and films in their original version—I did not need anything but Paris because of the centralized nature of France.” That said, Karmitz goes on to acknowledge the prior day’s announcement that MK2 had purchased nine multiplexes and 120 screens from Cinesur in Spain (more details in this month’s “European Update”). “That was all Nathanaël’s work. All I could do was to push him to do it,” he assures. “I am an active supporter.”

MK2 will be equally active in continuing “to develop our circuit in Paris,” even though he admits that goal remains very difficult. “The city government is not too friendly towards us. Unlike most other art houses, which are heavily dependent on funding from both the state and the city, we did all our cinémas without public subsidies. I consider this to be my risk and my work and I want to remain free. I do not want to be dependent on people in politics.”

So far, his independence has served MK2 well. In 2010, one year after MK2 converted all projection equipment to digital as the first circuit in France**, the Group opened the first “film-on-demand” private screening room. Like its 2012/2014 successors—MK2 Grand Palais (rental on weekdays, public on weekend) and Madame and Mademoiselle at Palais de Tokyo—the Germain Paradisio can be booked for films currently in theatres, Karmitz explains. As well as classic films, premieres, entertainment programs and sports events, with 3D capabilities and 7.1 surround sound.

While on the subject of fit-out, Karmitz explains why MK2 introduced “love seats” by designer Martin Szekely with the opening of Bibliothèque. “The auditorium has a screen, sound and seats. So what can we change? Sound and projection have been perfected, so we worked on the seats. I like the idea of a place where one meets. When I was young, I loved to go to the cinéma with the prospect of meeting a woman. I never did,” he smiles at the thought, “but it was always the idea.”

What about his other grand idea? “Back in 1974, I began inventing another way of cinéma, another way to go to the cinéma,” Karmitz obliges. “And it took me a very long time, some 30 years, to fully realize my dream of a place that is truly integrated into the city and that changes the Quartier and improves on social cohesion. Quai de Seine and Quai de Loire accomplished this with a reuse of space. After that, I tried to construct that same kind of place anew at the Bibliothèque. The space was very well thought out architecturally and contemplated for the use as a cinéma in terms of size and transparency.” As part of the design, Karmitz adds, it was very important for him to “communicate well” to people that there is reality and there is le cinéma. “When one enters the salle, you enter fiction. And it requires an almost Brechtian effort to distance ourselves from this relation to the overwhelming effect of cinéma in that it does not confront the reality of cinéma.”

Holding that thought, we asked him about the realities of the future of our business. “I cannot envision very well what could replace the salles de cinéma. For me, the cinéma was born in a context of the fairgrounds, with Lumière and Méliès. It is therefore something that is truly inscribed into the collective life. What I try to do in the cinéma is to bring it really back into this vie collective with books, music, art, food and conversation. This does not happen by making parking places where people pull in, receive films and, after the show, we let them out and they leave the lot. My vision of another cinéma is a place where film and cinéma is at the heart of many other collective human activities.”

*On April 29, 1998, all the existing 14 Juillet cinémas were branded MK2 Cinémas after the production and distribution divisions. This was all about bringing the company activities in line, Karmitz explains. “People did not see the connection between the cinémas and the films.” The number 2 was chosen because MK was used when Karmitz produced short films and his first feature-length productions. “It is also the name of a very beautiful car, the classic Jaguar MK2 that has been in many races. I have always liked cars a lot,” he chuckles. “MK2 was also the name of the machine gun used by the Vietnamese revolutionaries. There is a lot of stuff, even the computer game Mortal Kombat. But that was after us,” Karmitz insists, laughing. “We were first.”

**“When we received the catalog of Chaplin from his family to re-release the films,” Marin Karmitz recalls about going digital, “I proposed to the Festival de Cannes to close with Les temps modernes. Since we had remastered all the prints en numerique to make beautiful new ones, I was able to offer the festival both. We chose the digital version because it was far superior to 35mm.” It was at that time that Karmitz decided to switch over his cinémas as well. It was not purely an aesthetic decision, he concurs. “It was a decision about the reality. Technology was moving and what would we do intelligently about that reality? It facilitates so much."