Three years after York Square Cinemas initiated its battle with 12 major motion-picture studios for the rights to play first-run releases, signs of progress are beginning to pop up. Literally.

As of this week, a cardboard display from Walt Disney Studios stands at one end of the lobby advertising that its latest film, “Spirited Away,” is “coming soon” to York Square. Walt Disney Studios owns Buena Vista International, one of the companies named in the complaint filed by theater owner Peter Spodick.

York Square Cinemas v. Buena Vista, et al., which goes to trial in approximately one year, names 11 other studios which it alleges deny the theater new releases.

“I think they’re feeling some pressure,” Spodick said. “We got a phone call from [Buena Vista] all of a sudden last week asking if we wanted to play a special screening of their new film. We haven’t played a first-run release from Buena Vista in over 20 years. Why the offer? Why now?”

Spodick launched the case in the spring of 2000 to end what he says are discriminatory trade practices that prevent elderly and disabled New Haven residents from accessing quality entertainment. Because York Square Cinemas is the only theater in New Haven and it is denied the rights to play first-run releases, New Haven residents must commute to Orange or North Haven.

Moreover, the theaters in those towns — National Amusement, Inc.’s Showcase Cinemas — are not easily accessible through existing bus routes.

In July 2001, the 12 defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. According to court documents, the studios claimed that copyright laws allow them to pick and choose the theaters allowed to play their films and said that York Square Cinemas has no legal basis for a trial.

But Spodick said York Square has a case.

“You cannot have exclusionary booking practices unless the affected theater is a substantial competitor,” Spodick said.

“Our competitors have lobby occupancies of 2,500 plus,” Spodick said while pointing to a sign in his theater’s lobby that reads, “Legal lobby occupancy 100.”

“Does this look like a competitive difference between apples and oranges? More like pumpkins and peanuts,” he said.

The judge sided with York Square in the preliminary hearing. He threw out the defendants’ motion and set a trial date.

“It was a jurisprudential ‘Go to hell,'” Spodick said.

But some things are changing. Since the suit was filed in 2000, York Square has established a positive relationship with at least one major studio, Fox Studios. The studio allows the theater to feature its first-run movies, but at the expense of a boycott from Showcase Cinemas in Orange and North Haven. Spodick said that any Fox film that opens in New Haven is kept off Showcase’s screens.

And if Disney’s “Spirited Away” is any indication as to how studios are rethinking the York Square case, Spodick may have succeeded.

“We’re just trying to save this little theater, this special place,” he said.