On the eve of CineEurope, Screen talks to UNIC CEO Jan Runge about this year’s conference and the challenges facing the exhibition sector.

Nine months ago UNIC - the international union of cinemas - moved from its Paris headquarters to Brussels in order to be closer to the heart of EU policymaking.

Shortly before the move UNIC appointed a new CEO, Jan Runge, refreshed its board and welcomed six new union members including Odeon/UCI/Cinesa, Yelmo Cines and Cineworld.

The umbrella organisation [comprising national associations and individual cinema exhibitors in the EU, Russia, Turkey and Israel] hasn’t looked back since, amplifying its members’ voices in Brussels and pushing through adjustments to its annual convention CineEurope (June 18-21), the trade show welcoming the European exhibition community.

The event kicks off next week in its new home Barcelona, after more than a decade in Amsterdam. And the move is already yielding success. ”The reactions to the move to Barcelona have been really positive,” says Runge. “The tradefloor was sold out by April and it will host twice as many companies as in 2011”.

CineEurope [previously CineExpo], co-organised by UNIC and publisher Prometheus Global Media, is predominantly geared towards the US studios, major commercial exhibition circuits and the largest cinema technology firms. 

This year’s programme largely continues in the same vein, with highlights including product presentations from Warner Bros and Disney, a seminar from Coca Cola, hospitality lounges from Cinedigm and dcinex and special screenings of Brave, Ice Age Continental Drift and Rise of the Guardians as well as Oliver Stone’s anticipated thriller Savages.

However, Runge has been keen to adjust CineEurope’s focus: “We have been more involved in organising CineEurope this year, which I hope is reflected in the programming,” he says. “We think it’s important for a European organisation to be involved in the running of a European convention and we wanted to increase the European perspective through the type of speakers, attendees and the number of screenings for independent films.”

This year, for the first time, the conference will feature a showcase for independent European distributors including screenings of Les Films Du Losange’s Palme d’Or winner Amour by Michael Haneke and MK2’s A Monkey on My Shoulder as well as product presentations from Russian distributors Karoprokat and Central Partnership.

Conferences range from digital projection and alternative content to disability and access.

This year’s event will also debut a Digital Innovation Award, with the aim of “encouraging radical new thinking that helps film theatres reach out to new audiences using the internet, social media and smartphone applications.”

The changes to CineEurope and UNIC are indicative of a fast evolving sector, facing growing challenges from shifting consumer behaviour, market fragmentation, rapid technological evolution and increasing pressure from politicians.

With these challenges in mind, the lobbying group continues to see its membership grow and contributions increase. Cinema City International, the largest exhibition company in central Europe, is the latest to join the organisation.

“Historically, cinemas have lacked presence in Brussels,” says Runge who now meets regularly with key politicians and culture ministers.

UNIC has been particularly active in pushing its members’ interests concerning the EC Green Paper on the online distribution of audiovisual works and the Review of the EC Cinema Communication.

“Because of fragmented markets, EU policy makers are looking to create internal strength,” says Runge. “The EU always sees big potential for VOD and digital distribution in breaking up national markets. But we see the need to explain why Europe is a fragmented market. Simply setting up a pan European VOD platform may not create demand for non-national films, for example.”

“The EC is increasingly critical about windows and the potential for pan-European licensing. But we see these as a market issues. We have a clear concern that Europe is getting too involved in these areas,” he continues.

Runge is more enthused about digital rollout in Europe, which reached 52% by the end of 2011. The likes of Norway and Luxembourg are already 100% digitised.

The UNIC administration’s workload will only get heavier as challenges to the sector mount. But it is now undoubtedly in a better position from which to address them and is already taking positive steps towards modernisation of its annual conference and amplifying its members’ voices.