French major UGC is planning to give foreign-language films a massive boost in the notoriously tough UK market by launching a UK distribution presence early next year.

Plans for the initiative are being hammered out by UGC International executive Louisa Dent, who will oversee acquisitions for the venture. Dent, who declined comment, is expected to concentrate on European titles from UGC's own sales roster and from third-party pick-ups.

The operation could secure some titles which have difficulty finding a UK distributor without paying minimum guarantees, but it is also eyeing high-profile films as a buyer. It is unclear whether it would handle English-language pictures.

Dent, who has yet to formally present the project to the UK distribution and exhibition communities, is understood to have strong support for the initiative from Alain Sussfeld, UGC's co-chief, and from Patrick Godeau, head of programming for UGC's circuits in France, Belgium, Spain and the UK.

She is zeroing in on Eight Women (Huit Femmes), the high-profile French-language title directed by Francois Ozon and starring three generations of great French actresses - Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Fanny Ardant. While the venture is unlikely to have exclusive access to UGC's French productions, the company is an active financier, this year scoring big with international hit Amelie. Recent projects include backing UK title The Escapist with Sky Pictures and the $25m Vidocq.

UGC, which has 43 cinemas with 405 screens in the UK and Ireland, is expected to offer its films to other exhibitors to maximise the chances of the films it handles and to comply with UK competition laws. The company may also need to work with other exhibitors as the bulk of its UK cinemas are US-style multiplex sites in malls, which traditionally do not attract the foreign language crowd.

"I'm both nervous and excited about it," said one UK exhibitor.

While some distributors are wary of UGC infringing on their traditional bread-and-butter business, the move comes as UK support body the Film Council is looking at ways to broaden the diversity of films on offer to local audiences.

UGC is noted for expanding the range of films at its sites, programming foreign-language or quirkier fare such as The Devil's Backbone and Irish comedy Wild About Harry, particularly in cities and student centres. The exhibitor operates an unlimited visits loyalty card, which it argues works better if a wide range of product is on offer at its sites.

The move into distribution is no doubt partly fuelled by this year's runaway success of Amelie, which played at 80% of UGC sites in the UK and Ireland.

UGC, which is ultimately owned by media giant Vivendi Universal, has opened seven sites in the UK and Ireland in the last 18 months after establishing a UK presence by acquiring the Virgin Cinema circuit for $340m in Oct 1999. In France, UGC is a major distributor with a joint venture with Twentieth Century Fox.

"They have very deep pockets," said one exhibitor. "It will all depend on how much they commit to it. If anyone can do it, they can."