Diverse content, driving revenue through premium formats, streamers on the big screen, and the Cineworld succession plan dominated conversations between distributors and exhibitors in Barcelona attending CineEurope, the annual trade convention for cinema operators which ran June 19-22.

'Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One'

Source: Paramount Pictures

‘Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One’

Theatrical is key to studio strategy

How do you make a crowdpleaser without a crowd? Variants of that question were posed repeatedly during the four days of this year’s CineEurope event – the annual get-together for European cinema operators in Barcelona, which wraps today with a screening of Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny, followed by an awards ceremony. Disney, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros and Paramount all delivered slick slate presentations trumpeting upcoming titles, and consistently pushing the message of “something for everyone”, a wide offering “across multiple genres”, “major IP and original stories” and “films that demand to be seen on the big screen”.

The theatrical window may have reduced significantly since before the pandemic, but studios sought to banish memories of their 2020 pivot to digital and streaming releases, reminding attendees that their films will be released “exclusively in theatres” – a necessary message in the case of a film such as Universal’s Trolls Band Together (Trolls World Tour premiered on premium video on demand).

Tentpole king Disney pushed the diversity message, stating that its 17 releases for the next 12 months spanned all seven of its studio brands: Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney (live action), Disney Animation, 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures.

The need for more diverse content was discussed on day one at CineEurope on the senior executive panel. Andrew Cripps, president of international distribution at Warner Bros Pictures International, stated that “We’re still producing fewer movies, we’re still catching up. We don’t have the same quality of diversity we had pre-pandemic.” He added that he has also observed a phenomenon of “haves and have-nots”, explaining, “Movies that are doing well are doing as well as they ever did, but movies that are not performing are doing worse than ever.” 

Niels Swinkels, EVP and MD of international distribution at Universal Pictures, had a positive story of volume and diversity to tell at his own studio and its Focus Features division, but added, “There’s no question that we need more flow of that product [appealing to specialised and older audiences].”

Talent is key

While studio executives and distribution bosses led the slate presentations on stage at Barcelona’s international convention centre (CCIB), the companies as much as possible sought to foreground filmmaker talent, with content introduced via filmed pieces from creators. Universal did this most impactfully by beginning its presentation with messages from Steven Spielberg and a host of others, including Christopher Nolan, Jordan Peele, Jason Blum, Chris Meledandri, Jon M Chu, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, James Wan, Elizabeth Banks, the Daniels, Louis Leterrier, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

Film technology companies got in on the act, with sponsorship reels co-opting filmmakers enthusing why a particular format is the best way to see and hear their own films. Initially impactful, the tactic became subject to diminishing returns, as the hyperbole lost efficacy through repetition.

Being in the room where it happens

What’s better than filmed talent introductions? Bringing talent to the room, of course – and this year, more studios made the effort to bring stars to Barcelona, recalling pre-pandemic times. No Tom Cruise this year, despite some anticipation given that Paramount played the whole of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, and in recent years Cruise has become essentially the poster boy of CineEurope. But Warner Bros offered its own TC: Timothee Chalamet, who was joined by Zendaya to talk about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, and then returned to tell the exhibitors about Paul King’s Wonka, alongside producer David Heyman.

Zendaya likewise performed double duties, introducing Luca Guadagnino’s tennis-star love-triangle drama Challengers, in which she stars alongside Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor, and produces with Guadagnino and Amy Pascal. For Sony, Aaron Taylor-Johnson introduced the trailer for Kraven The Hunter, where the emphasis was on the fact this is “definitely R-rated” and a change of pace from Sony’s previous Marvel films.

Disney closed its presentation with a live performance of a song from Wish – the new film for the holiday season from Disney Animation, with a voice cast including Ariane DeBose and Chris Pine. Danielle Fiamanya from the Frozen stage musical performed newly composed song ‘This Wish’.

Don’t forget the little guys

Slate presentations from the big five studios were complemented by a presentation from Lionsgate spotlighting its prequel Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes; as well as slates from Studiocanal, Mubi and Creative Europe/Unifrance. Studiocanal got in on the talent act, beginning with a filmed piece with Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, stars of its upcoming Wicked Little Letters, and then bringing Colman to the stage. The session ended with director Sam Taylor-Johnson and producer Alison Owen introducing footage from their Amy Winehouse biopic, Back To Black.

Speaking of little guys, Warner Bros revealed a key scene from Wonka, introducing Hugh Grant as the first Oompa-Loompa Timothee Chalamet’s aspiring chocolatier ever meets – and staying true to Roald Dahl’s text that the character be “knee high”. 

The Apple beauty contest


Source: Courtesy of Apple Original Films


Apple is releasing three films theatrically via studios over the next nine months: Martin Scorsese’s Killers Of The Flower Moon via Paramount; Ridley Scott’s Napoleon via Sony; and Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle via Universal. The studios are presumably under no illusion that they are competing to deliver the most effective partnership with Apple. These titles were seamlessly and prominently incorporated into the studios’ presentations. 

Comedy cuts through

Four days of back-to-back panels and slate presentations – studios correctly surmised that the gathered assembly of cinema exhibitors needed a laugh along the way. Warner Bros executives Cripps and Danielle Bekas gamely acted in a cute clip in Barbie’s pink convertible driving to the airport to get to CineEurope (Warner Bros showed the first 20 minutes of Barbie in its slate presentation), but really there is no point in trying to compete with Mark Viane, Paramount Pictures International president, who this year was shown accepting an impossible mission to bring his studio presentation to CineEurope, outfoxing an array of known subversives and devious operators (a rogue’s gallery including leaders of CineEurope presenting partner the International Union of Cinemas, and organisers Bob and Andrew Sunshine). Born showman Viane, bewigged as Tom Cruise, spoofed various memorable stunts from the Ethan Hunt oeuvre, and then entered the stage dragging a parachute in his wake.

Party gossip

Hours of social interaction among the thousands of attendees gave plenty of opportunity for discussing the footage presented by studios. We are embargoed from detailing or reviewing the content (and sought studio permission even to mention the clips shown), but attendees were buzzed about titles including Universal’s Oppenheimer, Sony’s Gran Turismo (with extensive footage shown), Warner Bros’ Wonka, Paramount’s Bob Marley: One Love and Disney’s The Creator.

Bets were taken on the likely global box office for Paramount’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. The studio will be looking for a “Top Gun: Maverick effect”, adding a halo to the box office, and pushing it beyond the $755m achieved globally by 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Dead Reckoning would have a long way to go, though, to match the near $1.5bn of Top Gun: Maverick.

Industry gossip topics also included the likely succession plan at the insolvent Cineworld Group, as well as, for UK attendees, what exiting Curzon CEO Philip Knatchbull will likely do next.

At the well-attended party for Vista Group on Tuesday night, two UK attendees came up with the same three candidates as possible successors to CEO Mooky Griedinger, presumably from the same source, which may or may not have any validity. Take it with a pinch of salt, but: John Fithian, who has just stepped down as CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO); an unnamed “former CEO” of Regal Entertainment Group, the US exhibitor acquired by Cineworld in 2017 (Amy Miles was Regal CEO at the time); and, intriguingly, Tim Richards, founder and CEO of Vue Entertainment.

Premium is king

Avatar The Way Of Water

Source: Disney

‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’

While there is a plentiful array of premium formats, technologies and experiences for cinemas to invest in, it’s been hard to predict which, if any, would prove the definitive winner for audiences. But exhibitors still biding their time to see which investment choice to make might consider the consensus that is emerging: premium is king, across multiple formats.

Comscore’s Lucy Jones, in her box office presentation on day one, showed how it’s premium ticket prices that are saving the day for box office (at least, relative to admissions), as audiences choose premium experiences, especially for tentpole blockbusters. Jones cited the case of Germany, where the average ticket price in 2022 was €10.09 (up from €8.68 for the pre-pandemic average of 2017-2019), but for Avatar: The Way Of Water the average ticket price was €13, “because everybody was choosing the kind of premium seating, the big screen, the excellent sound, the VIP package”.

Jones added that during the pandemic, with venues ordered closed, “a lot of cinemas took the opportunity to do innovation, improving the experience for the customer, which has enabled them to put up the prices, and the customers are very happy to still come”.

Bridging the skills gap

The challenge of recruiting, developing and retaining staff is real and present for many cinema operators, as was highlighted in a panel session announcing UNIC’s new People Programme. The board’s chair Dee Vassilli, chief people officer at Vue International, participated in the session with Phil Clapp, wearing his hat as president of UNIC and the programme’s deputy chair. Clapp highlighted the issue of the rise in antisocial behaviour, which has been witnessed in cinemas (and other out-of-home entertainment venues) since the pandemic, and creating challenges for staff, which in cinemas’ cases can often be young, relatively inexperienced, and ill-equipped to deal with it.

The specific challenge of recruiting tech-savvy cinema projection staff was highlighted in a session titled Behind the Screens: Bridging Staff Shortages and Skills Gaps in Cinema.

Don’t recycle – reuse instead

Reusable is coming to cinemas, whether operators like it or not, as a result of EU or national government directives, consumer demand, and expectation from cinema staff. This year’s Coca-Cola Sustainability Seminar, chaired by the busy and often seen (on panels) Nick Gault, the brand’s away from home customers director, looked at how reusable cups will be offered, either as an alternative, or the only solution, for dispensing cold beverages in cinemas.

New research presented by Coca-Cola showed that a reusable cup only needs to be used seven times before earning back its cost, even when factoring in washing and collection costs, and that number – seven times – is the same when considering environmental impact and sustainability.

A major challenge for the reuse model is that, unlike glassware, plastic cups do not emerge from dishwashers hot, and so water does not naturally evaporate – extending dry times, and creating operational inefficiencies. Andreas Hufer from Germany’s Kinopolis, which was among the first to convert to reuse, revealed that there are now two German manufacturers making washer-driers specifically for venues using plastic cups.

This year, CineEurope itself switched to 100% reusable cups when dispensing cold drinks to delegates, and it was notable that these cups contained around 350ml of drink – a portion size seldom offered by actual multiplex venues, at least from Screen’s own experience.

A question to the panel from Screen International at the Sustainability Seminar about beverage portion size and pricing, which currently typically incentivises customers to upsize – hardly a win for sustainability and health goals – provoked a lively response and further conversations during the convention.

One UK exhibitor told us that a small cup size, priced cheaply, would cut average customer spend on food and beverage (F&B), which is revenue that UK multiplexes simply cannot afford to lose in the current economic climate. The challenge for cinemas is to offer food and beverages that will attract a high customer spend, and retain a high margin of profitability, without incentivising giant portion sizes.

The elephant in the room 

The studios were happy to trumpet a full complement of releases in their 2023 and 2024 release schedules, but there is a significant threat to future flow of product that did not receive any mention in the main auditorium. However, Tim Richards, founder and CEO of Vue International did place the topic on the agenda when asked at the senior executive panel what would make a successful year. “Solving the writers’ strike” was his pithy reply.