By common consensus, the pandemic set European cinema exhibitors by far the biggest challenge they have faced in recent times. Audiences have been slow to return to theatres. Rising ticket prices may have boosted revenues in the short term but have not disguised the fact admissions are still not back to 2019 levels (estimates suggest cinema­going in Europe is 15%-20% down on pre-pandemic times).

The large, debt-laden chains have been fighting for their existence, with several falling into receivership or undergoing restructure. Cinema owners have had to deal with changing leisure habits, competition from the streamers, interruptions to product flow (first because of Covid and now because of last year’s SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes), superhero fatigue and pressure on the theatrical window.

Nonetheless, in early 2024 there is relative optimism in the sector. That is not only because of the ‘Barbenheimer’ effect and the recent cross­over arthouse successes such as Anatomy Of A Fall (which achieved box office of more than $14m in France and passed the symbolic $1m mark in five other European territories) and The Zone Of Interest (which has grossed a collective $23m-plus across its top 10 European markets). Nor is it just the impressive local hits — most notably Paola Cortellesi’s There’s Still Tomorrow, which made at astonishing $40m at the Italian box office. It is also the awareness that the initiatives devised by exhibitors to boost cinemas on a local and international level appear to be working.

“The cinema industry is used to overcoming crisis. Every 10 or 15 years, there is another [threat] to cinema, but we did survive and we will always survive,” says Edna Epelbaum, CEO of Swiss chain Cinevital. She agrees that the “Covid crisis was one of the big ones and one of the ones with the most consequences. Since the Second World War, cinemas have never been closed and so this was a different type of crisis. It was not a Blu-ray replaces television crisis. We were just closed and sitting there, hoping for political help.”

Edna Epelbaum

Source: Cinevital

Edna Epelbaum

Exhibitors across the continent are showing a familiar resilience, and coming up with a variety of initiatives to woo back their customers. In the Netherlands, a record 72 cinemas are now part of the Cine­ville subscription model, which allows unlimited cinema visits for €18.50/$20 a month; they have a reported 90,000 members — up from 43 venues and 48,000 members in pre-pandemic 2019. The scheme, launched in the Netherlands in 2009, debuted in Belgium in 2022 and Austria in 2023. Cineville is launching in Germany in April, with Sweden reportedly looking to follow suit. Significantly, it is a subscription scheme for independent cinemas, not one run by the major chains.

Spain has successfully trialled its Cine Senior scheme, which gives older cinemagoers a reduction on ticket prices. Spain is also one of several European countries to offer culture passes, which typically give young-adult citizens several hundred euros each to spend on cultural activities including cinemagoing.

Meanwhile, the Austrian Cinema Owners Association’s heavily promoted Kinopass scheme, offering nine people a Willy Wonka-like golden ticket, allows free cinema­going for a year.

Exhibitors are developing their own initiatives on a local level. Tomasz Jagiello, president of Poland’s Helios cinema chain, is one typically enterprising executive. Among the chain’s recent endeavours is the screening of football matches in cities when the local team is playing away from home. The theory is that once younger audiences are attracted to watch sporting events, they will come back to theatres to see films.

“Unlike many of my colleagues, I do not think the popularity of theatres is a case of bigger and bigger screens or more technology or shaking chairs. I think it is all about stories and content,” says Jagiello. With this in mind, Helios has significantly increased its involvement in production and distribution.

“I believe cinema exhibitors know best what movies customers want and expect to see,” explains Jagiello. The strategy appears to be working. The distribution arm, Next Film, has released three of the top six films in Polish cinemas so far this year: fantasy adventure Kleks Academy, comedy Sami Swoi. Poczatek and romantic comedy Baby Boom (aka Eggnog 5). The company has had success with arthouse fare too, notably DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman’s animated literary adaptation The Peasants, which grossed $8.4m in Polish cinemas.

Independent innovation

On the arthouse front, exhibitors are devising ever more ingenious plans to help the sector. The Europa Cinema Network (supported by Creative Europe Media), which covers 3,160 screens in 786 cities across 38 countries, is launching a ‘boot camp’ scheme that provides exhibition professionals with the best skills training available. Labs, conferences and workshops will cover topics including the development of young audiences, audience data collection, customer relationship management and loyalty programmes.

Europa Cinemas is already running its Collaborate To Innovate scheme, launched in 2021. This supports exhibitors who come up with innovative ways to promote the circulation and visibility of European films and develop their audiences, in particular with young people in mind. Projects it has backed with up to €100,000 ($109,000) each include Cinema VRiations/Nu:Reality, a Dutch initiative to use VR commercially in cinemas; Swedish-led scheme Data Sharing: A New Way of Building Audiences for Small and Medium-Sized Arthouse Cinemas, run by arthouse theatre Tollereds Bio; and the German implementation of the Cineville subscription model, led by the Casablanca Arthouse Cinema in Nuremberg.

Fatima Djoumer, Europa Cinemas

Source: Europa Cinemas

Fatima Djoumer

As Europa Cinemas CEO Fatima Djoumer points out, there were upsides for exhibitors even during the darkest days of the pandemic. “Some of them took advantage of the closures to refurbish cinemas. Many of them took advantage of this time to rethink their practices — because they had to do something to bring back audiences to cinemas,” she says.

It helped that the European Commission allocated an initial €1m ($1.1m) to Europa Cinemas’ budget to support the first year of Collaborate To Innovate, and it has since continued to back it each year. Djoumer confirms the scheme will receive €1.5m ($1.6m) for 2024.

“The idea of the fund was to bring exhibitors together,” explains Djoumer. “When people work together, they can be stronger. You have more courage and you learn from each other.”

One figure well-placed to comment on recent audience-boosting initiatives across European cinema is Peter Fornstam, CEO of Sweden’s second-biggest cinema chain Svenska Bio and chairman of the Swedish Exhibitors Association. The executive’s family has been active in exhibition for 110 years.

“The industry has come together in a way I have not seen in many, many years,” Fornstam says of the current Europe-wide fight to get customers back into theatres. “Everyone is working together to get through this.” He hails the return of Big Cinema Day in Swedish cinemas, with cut-price tickets expanding audience reach. Since the pandemic, Sweden has also launched CinemaClub on the successful Danish model, which gives members half-price admissions in any cinema for a curated 10 films a year.

The Svenska boss acknowledges that 2024 may prove to be a lean year but sees promising times ahead. “I am a born optimist,” he asserts. “If we’ve weathered 110 years and the pandemic, I think we will be fine at the end of the day.”