What was your first job in the industry?
I began as a teacher, French and English, and was a big film buff. We had a film club here in Luxembourg, where I was very much involved, and we created the first art-house cinema in Luxembourg around the 1970s and ’80s. That was kind of a success, so we decided later on in the ’80s and early ’90s that if no real exhibitor was going to be competing with us that we would be our own competition and program mainstream cinema as well. After creating the first art-plex, let’s go ahead and call it that, a five-screen, state-of-the-art art-house cinema, we decided to open a multiplex in Luxemburg. There were a lot of us in the group, but it was decided that I should be the one to do it. And very soon after becoming a success, we had opportunities to expand to other countries. To Belgium, to the Netherlands, to France, and we did that. So we became this Utopia group and our idea was to have a circuit run by cinema lovers.
Of course we started programming “art-house” films, but I don’t really like that word. There are good films and bad films. There are as many bad art-house films as there are bad mainstream popcorn movies. John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, François Truffaut, Jean Renoir—they were all cinema guys. There were no “art-house cinemas” back in those days—they were just cinemas. We still believe in that, in promoting good cinema with a state-of-the-art moviegoing experience. The people who love auteur films should have the opportunity to see those films in the best possible environment. When we started this company some 20 years ago, the most important thing was to get the customer the best possible experience in comfort and technology.
That’s a very interesting shift in European film history, how local film clubs took the role that, say, the Cinematheque had in propelling the French New Wave. It seems as if the film clubs of the ’70s and ’80s helped forge the path for a new generation of European filmmakers.
Yes, absolutely. The influence of auteur cinema helped Hollywood recover from a crisis in the early ’70s; Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese were very much influenced by European cinema. The type of films that Hollywood values today came from that period. I’m not talking about Michael Bay films, that’s good for the industry, but it is not good for creativity. I have nothing against Michael Bay, he is doing a great job, but he’s not a John Ford; he’s not a Howard Hawks.
When we talk about auteurism, we tend to do it in the context of movements within countries. Local films still have a great relevance in European exhibition, but everything seems to point to a more globalized, transnational world. It’s something that Krzysztof Kieślowski attempted with his Three Colors trilogy in the mid-’90s, making films with a European identity that transcend local markets. Is the concept of a pan-European cinema still relevant?
I think that there is no pan-European cinema. I think the strength of Europe is diversity. It’s important that different countries have films that represent a culture of their own. The challenge in European exhibition is having audiences outside of Denmark watch a Danish film. How do you get people in Finland to watch an Italian film?
One of the things I committed to when I joined Europa Cinemas in 1991 was to keep that diversity. I do not believe in a pan-European cinema. I believe in cinema that represents different identities of Europe. American independent cinema does a good job in representing the different beliefs and cultures in America that mainstream cinema is just not representing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the Taliban! I like mainstream films, but in the long term, I believe those films won’t be as interesting. The so-called Hollywood blockbusters are not very successful in Europe anymore, but they are very popular in Asia, Russia, and India.
What are the new challenges exhibition is facing today?
I think that an exhibitor’s mission is to ensure that the customer has the best possible experience. You have to make sure your customer has a good chair, the right view of the screen, and experiences great sound. Filmmakers want us to see the films in the best possible conditions, and that’s our challenge. A paying customer has to have the same good experience watching a Michael Bay movie as watching a Ken Loach movie. That has become easier with digital cinema. It was horrible before—there were cinemas where you couldn’t go and watch a movie, and that isn’t the case anymore. I’m a big fan of digital cinema, but that doesn’t mean every film has to be shot digitally; it all depends on the creative process of the director. But we need to deliver the best experience possible as exhibitors. Whether we are art-house or mainstream cinemas, there is no difference.