The Turkish exhibitor, honoured at CineEurope last week, aims to reach 1000 screens by 2016.

Muzaffer Yildirim [pictured] of Turkish exhibitor Mars Entertainment Group was honoured last week as CineEurope’s International Exhibitor of the Year.

It’s hard to argue with the choice — the company’s growth is unparalleled among exhibitors around the world. It started with 8 screens in 2001 and now has 503 screens in 59 multiplexes, set to grow to 600 screens by the end of the year. It is the largest exhibitor in Turkey, which is a booming growth market. The goal is 1000 screens by the end of 2016. Yildirim says simply: “There is so much potential in Turkey.”

It’s not just about numbers of screens, as Mars has also revolutionized the quality of cinemas in Turkey, offering bigger seat size, trailer displays in lobbies and toilets and event cinema offerings including live 3D football.

When the company started, Yildirim told Screen, “existing cinema seats were uncomfortable, foyers were dark, audiences weren’t motivated… We were building theatres where we’d like to go. They were bigger screens and more comfortable. We added more than international standards.”

Another innovation is selling the naming rights to its cinema offerings; its Cinemaximum theatre chain brand is sold in a big multi-year deal with the Maximum credit card.

The company also has an exclusive partnership with IMAX for Turkey – there are currently three IMAX locations with two more coming in 2013 and another two expected in 2014. Kurt Rieder, the new CEO of Cinemaximum, notes the goal will be to get to the 8-10 national locations of IMAX that would be the viable threshold to then present Turkish-language local films in the format.

Backing local productions is another arm of the company’s business. They have invested in three local films last year and are currently backing Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s next film, Winter Sleep, being readied for spring 2014.

Currently, local films are traditionally distributed in January and February, but if Mars grows the number of local films, that market share can be spread throughout the year. “The way to change the box office pie in Turkey is not just to acquire films but to produce as well, we want to add to the pie and grow the number of Turkish films,” Rieder says.

Mars is also vertically integrated by offering digital services as well as backing the If! Istanbul Festival of Independent Film. The umbrella company also has fitness facilities, food and beverage interests and more.

Turkish audiences

Turkish audiences are unique in Europe, the team explains. For one thing, they are drawn to malls, where most of MARS’ cinemas are located.

Yildirim explains: “Malls are one-stop areas, they have the car park there, the restaurants. There is synergy. Also, Turkey has shopping malls in the city centres.”

He adds: “Turks are social people, they want to talk in the [cinema] foyer. In other parts of Europe you see people going to the cinema alone, you never see that in Turkey. It’s not uncommon to see 10-15 people going to the cinema together – not just teenagers, these are also older people who go together to dinner and the movies…Also they have an intermission, to talk, meet, have a cigarette and also buy more concessions.”

From Asia to Turkey

Recently, the company named Rieder CEO of its Cinemaximum theatrical operations (Yildirim is CEO of the overall company and on the board of the cinema arm.) Rieder, who had worked in Asia for more than two decades at UIP and then at Golden Village in Singapore, now lives in Istanbul.

Rieder said he was drawn into the company by the persuasive Yildirim and the fact that Mars is “the fastest growing company in the fastest growing country in Europe [in terms of exhibition].”

Rieder loves the challenge of working in such a fast-growing market: “Of the 80 cities in Turkey, only 24 have cinemas now. We think 41 cities will have cinemas by 2015,” he adds.

It’s quite a change from Singapore, where cinema visits are 4 annually per capita, compared to .6 in Turkey. “Business in Singapore basically couldn’t get any higher, and Turkey is a less developed market,” he says of the new challenge. “They are building 100 screens a year average versus 6 in Singapore. It’s exciting growth.”