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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia sold a famed Yugoslav-era film studio on Wednesday for eight million euros ($8.59 million), signing away the rights to an archive of classic cinematography over the protests of filmmakers and cinema buffs.
Founded in the wake of World War Two by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, Avala Film produced or co-produced hundreds of movies including a host of much-loved classics including the 1967 winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, "I Even Met Happy Gypsies".
The studio, located on a hill on the outskirts of Belgrade, fell into disrepair with the collapse of the Yugoslav federation in war in the 1990s.
Bankruptcy proceedings began in 2011, drawing warnings from Serbia's film community that the state risked losing a valuable part of its national heritage.
As the sale neared, a petition was started seeking to exclude the film archive from the privatization process, without success.
On Wednesday, it was sold to Filmway, which is registered as being founded one month ago with capital of 60,000 dinars, or about 500 euros ($537). The legal representative is listed as Michel Babic, a French citizen.
Filmway takes ownership of 21,642 square meters of studios and office space including actors' suits, rights to the Avala Film archive, costumes, props and a mock Italian city recalling the studio's glory days.
Critics say the sale of the rights is indicative of a lack of state care and funding for culture and the arts in Serbia, where the privatization process has for years been mired in corruption.
Dozens of people gathered in front of the Privatization Agency to protest. "Our film history should not be forgotten," said Luka Ozegovic, a student at Belgrade's Faculty of Dramatic Arts.
"Avala Film is not what it used to be," said screenwriter Dimitrije Vojnov. "Selling Avala Film would not be such a big loss for the domestic film industry, but rights are the big issue.
"There's a risk that movie rights will fall into the hands of those not willing to use them," meaning such films might never be seen again, Vojnov told Reuters.
Hopes of saving the film rights were lost on Monday when Serbia's Commercial Court rejected a request by the Yugoslav Film Archive to exclude them from the sale. The court said only Avala Film or its creditors could file such a request, which neither did.
(1 euro = 120.0539 Serbian dinars)
($1 = 0.9311 euros)
Editing by Matt Robinson/Mark Heinrich