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Interview with Wim Buyens, Chief Executive Officer, Cinionic
The global pandemic was impossible to predict. Once you realized the severity of the situation, how did Cinionic first react?
Very early on we realized that we had to find a way to help, even though, at that time, we had no idea how long this would take. We felt we needed to help the industry in order to make sure that together we would get through this. We started by thinking about what we could do from a mindset of “How can we help?” versus “How can we take advantage of things?” That was our opportunity—or responsibility, whatever you want to call it—to find out what we could do.
We have a lot of salespeople who have close connections with our customers, and we were getting a lot of feedback from them about just how much of an impact [the pandemic] was having. We are talking about the total closure of your business, 100 percent of the time, directly bringing your cash flow to zero, and that triggers all these other problems that stem from those problems.
I would say that customer intimacy has been one of our improvements as a company, a focus area for us to orient ourselves around. That’s how we came to this approach, making sure we kept in contact with our customers. We asked ourselves, what are the resources we have that we can bring to our customers during this time? We knew we had to come together and do something to help.
We held training sessions via webinars. Those webinars allowed us to remain focused—in times like these you don’t want to lose focus—and we created several sessions on different topics. We provided our customers with the chance to enjoy an extended warranty—something that can be seen as a burden, cost-wise—at no additional cost, even though we already had signed contracts with them. That was a move that was well received and very much appreciated, based on the calls we received from our customers. It was a small way for us to share that burden of the closures. We also got to work in figuring out how to help our customers get started up again. What we could put in place to make that restart easier. Because the technology being down was not something people were used to, and starting it back up again can lead to other issues.
This crisis has lasted a lot longer than any of us would have liked. The false starts in several different markets were part of the struggle: reopening only to have to close again. At what point did you notice that the recovery had begun in earnest?
Recovery, for me, is based on being able to reopen. I think the U.S. government did a very good job in focusing heavily on vaccination, speeding it up and making sure that as many people as possible could get vaccinated quickly. That caused people to feel safer and helped open cinemas earlier.
With the U.S. market opening, especially after Los Angeles and New York were back, it allowed content to flow again. Because as we all know, a lot of the important content for the global market is produced locally in Los Angeles. Having that content is an important part of attracting audiences, and it is hard to get people to come out when the U.S market is closed.
It was very difficult last year, when markets in Europe and countries like India were opening up, but new content wasn’t available. It was a bad recipe, reopening movie theaters without new movies to see. It was only this year, with the U.S. reopening, that I started feeling more secure about the recovery.
How much of a challenge was it to support cinemas throughout repeated closures and reopenings?
We learned to be prepared after several repetitions of openings followed by lockdowns. We created training materials and an online customer portal so we could educate our customers on questions like: What do you need to do when the machines are not used? How do you keep them in good [working order]? And, when you start up again, what are the first things you do to make sure you have the least hassle?
People were nervous last summer. I’m talking about the first reopenings in July and August, when they were reopening for the first time before the latest round of lockdowns in Europe. This year, people have been much less nervous because they’ve done it before and know what they have to do. And a lot of people have been able to properly maintain their equipment; we offered them tips on what you had to do to make sure that the machine stays in good order while you’re not showing any content. There are a lot of aspects to it: the temperature, the dust, how you power on and off. We created a lot of materials, trainings, and webinars for our customers. They could also call us with questions—we set up a hotline that was staffed at all times. It was important for us to stay close to our customers, for them to know they could find us in order to keep the machines in good shape.
Looking to what we all hope to be a brighter future for the industry, what will be the key elements that the cinema business must adopt in order to compete against a shorter exclusivity window—while still welcoming audiences back to theaters?
It’s all about the experience. In its broadest sense, this is about a big screen and great sound and comfortable seating. Everything around that creates a unique and uninterrupted experience. That experience is a central piece of the messaging we need to make sure that audiences return. People will not come back when they don’t feel they’re going to have a good experience. If they feel the experience isn’t worth the effort, they can always watch something at home.
That experience could be many things. It could be a bigger screen. It could be moving seats, panoramic screens, or VIP auditoriums. Premium offerings don’t always mean selling 200 to 300 tickets to a theater. A premium experience could very well be renting a private auditorium for 10 to 15 people.
All of us at Cinionic, as a technology company, have to try harder to make sure that investment levels are more acceptable, so exhibitors are comfortable investing in new technology and different business models. So, if you are looking to add laser projection or new equipment, even when cash flows can’t support doing the capex, you can explore it under a different business model.
As a moviegoer, it is about great content and great stories. We want audiences asking themselves, am I experiencing this story in a cinematic way?
Every challenge this industry has faced in the last century has been met through the advancement of cinema technology. Whether that’s sound, color, wide screen, or digital projection, innovation has helped movie theaters regain a competitive advantage. As the leader of one of the biggest cinema technology companies today, what is your perspective on Cinionic’s role in recovering from the current crisis?
We are a technology company. Innovation is in our DNA. Being in the entertainment industry means we are also able to bring in a certain creativity around that technology and how it can best serve audiences, the presentation, and exhibitors alike, bringing operational costs down.
At the same time, we need to let ourselves be inspired by and learn from other industries. We love our industry, it’s a great industry, but it’s relatively small. So we want to bring in ideas from bigger industries, see what we can learn from them so we can keep developing what comes next. That’s what is keeping us busy.
We also know that investment levels are being scrutinized today. That’s why we need to come up with new business models that allow innovation with limited upfront costs.
We don’t mind taking a leadership position in advancing these ideas. We believe very strongly in the long-term sustainability of the industry. Our shareholders are very much fostering this innovation with a long-term outlook. I think you have to give yourself three to five years to get a read on this, not six months to twelve months. If you do that, I think you get a different perspective. And that’s where we believe we can really help within the industry, in our humble way.
But we will not stand on the sidelines; we are ready to take an active role and actively connect with our customers and come up with new ideas. What’s important to them? What gives them bigger returns? How can we help advance this industry? The healthier the industry is, the more sustainability we have, the better it is for everybody in it.
What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned from managing Cinionic through this crisis?
That’s a tough one. I will make a couple of points, and you’d probably get different answers if you ask me again six months from now. First and foremost, this has been a profound human tragedy. Even as we enter the summer, we are still very early in the global vaccination effort.
It was a time where we closely considered our corporate values. Over the last 12 months, we have done many things I would not have seen as part of the charter of Cinionic. Earlier this summer, we gave away 1,000 tickets to the less privileged in Belgium to go to the movies. That’s not something we typically would have done in a normal stage. I think the crisis created a more purposeful way of doing things and taught us the importance of staying connected.
We never closed the company; we always made sure that we had our people available to our customers. We are probably coming out of this stronger as a company, just because of everything we’ve been through. Patience and time will be important in recovering. I wouldn’t rush things today. Money is limited, but not brain power—so we need to keep on thinking, connecting, and coming up with ideas that can help the industry through this crisis. I think there are going to be things born out of this crisis. They might not be visible today, but six to twelve months from now we could see things emerging that probably would not have been there if we had not gone through all of this.