Belgian exhibitors' federation, the FCB, and distributors' association, the ABDF, appear to be nearing an agreement in a two-year battle over the distributor-exhibitor split of box office grosses.

Both sides are currently drawing up a joint proposal for a new federal accord to be submitted to the Belgian Council of Competition. The FCB issued its notice of cancellation of the previous accord two years ago, to spur negotiation on a revised sliding scale that would take into account all programming practices.

The main barrier to agreement is the issue of multi-programming, or the practice of putting more than one film on a screen. Under the previous accord, initially drawn up by the European Commission and adopted by the industry in 1989, a distributor can only charge more than 50% of gross as rental if the number of spectators for a film on a particular screen reach 150% of the average for the same screen in the previous year.

Since multi-programming is a tolerated practice not legally provided for by the accord currently in effect, calculations are still done on the basis of one film per screen. That benefits distributors since exhibitors usually adopt the practice of multi-programming in the later weeks of a film's run, when ticket sales begin to flag. Bolstered per-screen ticket sales over a longer period means that distributors see an increase in their odds of achieving 150% of the previous year's average.

"Distributors say it's legal, we say it isn't," said Guy Morlion, secretary general of the FCB.

For multi-programming to be legally provided for in a new accord, the two sides will have to hammer out an agreement on how to calculate the reference average and whether to treat multi-programming separately in contracts. Distributors, of course, are seeking to retain the possibility of high percentages. In current rental contracts, Belgian distributors tend to accept a low minimum rental of BFr10,000 ($233) in anticipation of a high average rental price resulting from the sliding scale based on steady admissions going up to as high as 50% to 55% of gross. In Flanders, the average rental price for a film is currently 46%-47% of average net box office, compared with 41% in the Netherlands.

"We want the Ministry of Economics to take a careful look at that," Morlion said. "Why is there such an obvious difference between two territories that are showing essentially the same product'"