Blitz-CineStar, the biggest exhibition chain in the Balkans, has its roots in a completely different corner of the film industry. As a 20-something in 1992, eventual Blitz-CineStar founder and member of the board Hrvoje Krstulovic kicked off his career by establishing a video rental chain. That segued into Blitz Film and Video Distribution, which is still in operation as “an important market leader in Croatia and the countries of the former Yugoslavia,” Krstulovic explains. The distributor “has established excellent relationships with the world’s leading film content providers,” both independents and major studios in the United States and Europe.
Krstulovic’s background in distribution made it easier for him to establish the Blitz-CineStar in 2003; very soon afterward, it became “the largest exhibition company in the former Yugoslavia.” Easier, but not easy. Krstulovic admits that the theatrical-exhibition landscape when Blitz-CineStar came onto the scene was “poor,” beset by a “lack of investments in cinemas and a constant drop in cinema admissions.”
Fifteen years later, things are different. CineStar boasts 23 multiplexes with a combined total of nearly 23,000 seats throughout Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. “Admissions,” Krstulovic notes, “are on the constant increase.” Box office, too, is on the rise; depending on the country, Blitz-CineStar’s box office take increased from 10 to 15 percent in 2018, with the highest-grossing titles of that year being Bohemian Rhapsody, Avengers: Infinity War, and A Star Is Born.
Krstulovic admits that there are still challenges unique to the Balkan market, specifically “the relatively lower standard in comparison to developed markets, which leads to lower ticket prices with the same level of investment; negative migrations from our region to more developed countries; and the fact that our territory is quite fragmented, consisting of several countries with different languages, laws, taxes, habits, and even religions.”
Despite these challenges, Blitz-CineStar has over a relatively short period of time built itself up to provide premium experiences to its moviegoers. It’s for this and other reasons that Blitz-CineStar has been named the International Exhibitor of the Year at this year’s CineEurope.
Blitz-CineStar’s motto is “Five Star Cinemas.” That five-star mentality, Krstulovic explains, means “providing each visitor the best value for their money through first-class service” as well as offering “the best selection of films in technologically superior cinemas with the most comfortable seats. We believe that the cinema is and should remain the best place to watch a film.”
Blitz-CineStar’s first multiplex, the CineStar Zagreb, opened in 2003; with 13 screens and 2,940 seats, it’s still the largest multiplex in the former Yugoslavia. Last year, Blitz-CineStar received ICTA’s New Build Cinema of the Year award for the CineStar 4DX Mall of Split in Zagreb, Croatia. The successes of these theaters, Krstulovic notes, only spur the chain to expand its level of quality moving forward. To that end, Blitz-CineStar opened the CineStar Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this year. Its next project is a multiplex at Belgrade’s Ada Mall, set to open later in 2019. “We expect a lot from this site, which is going to be the most beautiful state-of-the-art cinema in Serbia. It will have a 4DX screen, a bar, and birthday party rooms. The concept has been proven to make our cinemas into favorite entertainment destinations,” says Krstulovic.
Over the 15 years that Blitz-CineStar has been in operation, the chain has put a lot of effort into building up experiences that serve different slices of its audience. There’s the Kids Cinema, with a playground and a slide. Different loyalty program tiers cater to students and seniors. Explains CEO Jadranka Islamovic, those two groups “are more vulnerable economically, so we have been able to approach them with specially tailored offers. The student card is very popular, while the senior card is reasonably well accepted.” With the latter group, “there are faithful audiences who tend to see more special events and domestic productions.”
Blitz-CineStar goes the VIP route with its Gold Class theater concept; these, explains Islamovic, “are special theaters with a separate reception area and a lounge bar for Gold Class visitors only. We offer a complete night out, with a film, dinner, drinks, and high-level food and beverage service available throughout the screening. This project upgraded our overall service level by [catering to] visitors with a more solid personal income who look for more luxury.”
Blitz-CineStar took the luxury concept to the next level with the launch of the Kaptol Boutique Cinema in Zagreb, Croatia. At the time the Kaptol Boutique opened, Blitz-CineStar was already running three cinemas in Zagreb. While citizens of Zagreb had movie options, “none of them offered the boutique cinema concept—a cinema where you can talk about the film and exchange impressions in a nice atmosphere, having drinks and listening to great, often live, music,” says Krstulovic. That lack prompted Blitz-CineStar to “create something that we had never done before. We took over an existing cinema site and, rather than just continuing the business, we decided to shut it down for complete reconstruction and refurbishing. We sacrificed one of the existing six halls to build the Wow bar, while the remaining five halls were completely refurbished in such a way that each one of them has a unique interior design.”
Blitz-CineStar’s strategy going forward involves a mix of new-build theaters and refurbishment. “We believe there is still room for expansion in the Balkan market,” Krstulovic says. Croatia is “already well-saturated,” though not entirely so—the chain is currently developing another cinema in Zagreb. “We believe there is still room for premium cinemas in the other countries in the Balkan region.” Across the board, “we constantly invest in projection technology in order to keep up with the worldwide trends in the industry. We are happy to say that we believe that our standard of technology, experience offered, and design can match any of the best international exhibitors.”