This Monday marks the beginning of CineEurope, the official convention of UNIC, which represents cinemas and national associations across 39 European territories. From June 19-22, attendees will be treated to studio presentations, screenings, and discussions on some of the key issues facing European exhibitors today.
In the week leading up to CineEurope, Boxoffice Pro spoke with Laura Houlgatte, CEO of Unic; and Phil Clapp, president of UNIC and chief executive of the U.K. Cinema Association, about some of those key issues to be addressed at the show, including: sustainability, the ongoing recovery of European markets, and the need for a diversity of content to meet demand from varied audiences.
PODCAST EMBED TK
To start with a more backwards-leaning question: Earlier this year, UNIC estimated that between 2021 and 2022, box office had increased nearly 56 percent across the EU, and admissions had increased by approximately 36 percent. Now that we’re a few months more down the line: Does your data reflect roughly the same trajectory? And how is 2023 progressing?
Laura Houlgatte: For 2022, we are roughly looking at the same amount. I would add that for the box office, if you look at the EU plus the U.K. put together, it’s an increase of 71 percent. Of course, the impact of the war in Russia and Ukraine has brought the numbers down.
For Q1 2023, we’ve done even better. We’re looking at very positive figures across the board, in a number of territories. [Note: UNIC is releasing their annual report with updated numbers during CineEurope] Just to give you a couple of examples: France in April 2023 was 2 percent above in terms of admissions, compared to the average of 2017-2019. The Netherlands and Austria were +2 percent box office-wise, again, over the average of 2017-2019. Norway was also just above. And now we’ve received some data for April and May. Belgium is just -3 percent, in terms of box office, compared to the average of 2017-2019. And Spain—which was tracking behind, it’s fair to say, in 2022—if you look at May, we’re now back to the box office numbers of 2017-2019.
Phil, how are the U.K. and Ireland doing?
Phil Clapp: Inevitably, when you look at percentage increases, it’s all relative to the same time the year before. So sometimes numbers that look on the face of it kind of lesser just reflect the fact of a strong previous year. For us, that’s very much the case, both for U.K. and Ireland. [Q1 2023 is] broadly tracking in line with the first quarter of 2022. I think it’s fair to say that what you might call our award season films didn’t really hit with audiences this year in the way they did last year. But we’re clearly—as is everyone else in terms of the major U.S. studio content—looking forward to the coming weeks and months of major titles being released almost on a weekly basis. So I’m sure we’ll soon pick up momentum and exceed [last year’s figures]. So absolutely a positive number, but maybe not the type of increases year-on-year which Laura’s talked about in one or two other European territories.
You can talk about the E.U. in general, but of course recovery has been quite different market-to-market. You mentioned Spain and the Ukraine. Italy’s recovery has been quite slow compared to other countries. What are the other markets that have been slower to recover?
Laura Houlgatte: You mentioned one of them. In Italy, it’s been much more challenging for them to recover, especially if you look at the numbers for 2022. It’s fair to say—and to remind people—that Italy was under very strong restrictions until June 2022. And after that, you have, of course, the summer, where we always had a challenge in terms of new releases in Italy.
Spain as also tracking behind—but again, as mentioned, Q1  has been much better. We have territories like Poland, where things have been slightly slower. In that case, again, you won’t get a “one size fits all” answer. For Poland, one of the issues is the lack of strong local content. Because it’s a territory which, for a long time, had to rely on a very strong tier of local films, including action movies and comedies and things like that. There’s been a lack of these over the past year, but also over the first quarter of 2023.
Phil Clapp: I would just add to that: Quite often—and I’m sure this is particularly true, perhaps, for U.S. domestic colleagues looking in—they see the recovery of the U.S. major studio slate and probably scratch their heads as to why some of the territories you mentioned haven’t yet caught up. Quite aside from the issue of restrictions, a number of the territories that have still got some ground to make are those where, pre-Covid, as Laura said, the domestic film slate was incredibly strong. We know that, just in general terms, as bad as the issues were for major studio productions, independent film production was hit even more acutely. And so it’s understandable that that missing bit of the jigsaw, as it were, is taking a little bit longer to put into place.
That makes a lot of sense. Local films have been so important to recovery in a lot of these markets. Different sorts of movies were getting more screens than they would have pre-pandemic, and you had people discovering films they might not have seen on the big screen. That concept of film discovery was a key goal behind National Cinema Day, which happened for the first time last year in the U.S. It happened in the U.K. as well, I believe for the first time. And then in other European markets, as well, in some of which the a “National Cinema Day” concept is well-established. How did these National Cinema Days perform across Europe?
Phil Clapp: For the U.K. and Ireland, in the mists of time back in the late 1990s, we had run National Cinema Days. Those were then kind of superseded by weekend discounts, etc. But I think as we came into 2022, and as we looked at the momentum of the recovery, it was just decided. And it was not unrelated that there was a challenge around the amount of films being released in August and September of last year. Thankfully, we don’t have anything like the same degree this year. The market needed an additional boost.
Certainly, the experience of our National Cinema Day in the U.K —which, coincidentally, was the same day as the U.S. National Cinema Day, so the third of September—was a very, very positive one. Yes, we can look at the numbers: 1.46 million admissions, something like three times the number of people we’d ordinarily see at that weekend in a pre-Covid time. And also, the biggest day for people returning back to cinema for the first time since Covid, which I think was a common theme for many of those territories which reintroduced National Cinema Day for the first time after a long pause.
But actually, quite aside from the numbers, [it created a] buzz around cinemagoing. We got a lot of profiles, as did my colleagues in other European territories, on mainstream media. We were able to shine a light on the recovery of the sector, able to put the upcoming film slate in the shop window. And also, to be honest, to remind people, perhaps, what they were missing, in terms of the modern cinemagoing experience.
It was very notable that, unprompted, a number of our members in the U.K. came back to us and said that customers had said, actually, it’s not that they’d not been back to the cinema since Covid. They’d probably not been back for a couple of decades. And now it is clearly a very different experience than they saw previously.
So, without prejudging how other territories might react, my knowledge is that the U.K. will certainly run this again in 2023. And I strongly suspect, talking to other European colleagues who have a similar experience, that most territories will run something similar. The challenge is around dating, to be honest.
Now that there are actual films on the calendar.
Phil Clapp: We absolutely understand that our colleagues in the studios are nervous about their films, as it were, being the sacrificial lamb of discounting. But I’m confident, certainly in the U.K., that we can find a date that works for everyone. We’re really standing on the shoulders, as you mentioned at the outset, of a number of territories, particularly colleagues in France and in Spain, who’ve run multi-day [national film events], like Fête du cinéma [in France] and Fiesta del Cine [in Spain]. We’re going to walk before we can run. We’re not at the stage yet where we’re thinking about multi day-events. But clearly colleagues in those territories have proven that [National Cinema Days] can be a very, very valuable part of the film calendar.
How many took place in the E.U. this year, Laura? How many markets tried it for the first time?
Laura Houlgatte: Interestingly enough, in a number of territories, we can’t count them as National Cinema Days, because the national authorities don’t agree that cinemas should agree on price. But it happened on the same day, all cinema companies…
It was “National Cinema Day.”
Laura Houlgatte: Exactly. By and large, I think we had 15 countries do it over our territories, that we have data for, from last year. Phil mentioned France and Spain, where it’s been a tradition for years now. Last year, the Fête du cinéma was actually as successful as the pre-pandemic editions, which was extremely encouraging. The Fiesta del Cine just had an edition a couple of weeks ago, and same: extremely successful. And for those who did it for the first time, we had Germany [with] Kinofest. Interestingly enough, for years both distributors and cinemas tried to launch it, but they thought it was too challenging to pick the right films. Somehow they managed to agree and say: “This is something we must do.” The results were so good that they’re doing it again next year, in September.
We also had the Netherlands, who did it for the first time. And, same: they are going to do it again this year. So it’s that kind of thing: Once you’ve managed to pull it off and it’s successful, you just want to do it again. As Phil mentioned, you can’t underestimate the power of Cinema Days when it comes to putting cinemas back on people’s radar, people who have forgotten what it was like to go and enjoy a film on the big screen. I think this is literally where the power lies with these Cinema Days.
We’ve seen that quite a bit over the last few years: There’s something that the industry wants to make happen, but they needed external circumstances to come along and push the parties involved. It’s like that, in a way, with sustainability initiatives. Cinemas have been figuring out ways to be more sustainable over the years, but now there’s incoming legislation, and the clock’s ticking. That’s a big part of your programming this year at CineEurope.
Phil Clapp: In the U.K., we made sustainability the theme of our annual conference a couple of months ago, so this is something at which we’ve looked closely. It’s not, to be perfectly honest, a new topic for anyone. But it’s taken on a renewed importance and a renewed relevance, given the increasing energy costs that all of us have seen, post the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But also, as you say, whether you’re part of the EU or not, you are seeing increasing levels of regulation and legislation around these things. Typically, those tend to be pieces of legislation around waste management and recycling [and] energy efficiency, particularly for new builds and for particular pieces of equipment.
But we’re very keen—and I probably speak for most colleagues that I’ve spoken to across Europe—not to be seen to be dragged to this by legislation and regulation unwillingly. There’s a recognition that cinema has almost a unique ability to embrace and communicate these issues. We’re recognizing that—not solely, but particularly, amongst younger audiences—there’s now an increasing demand and expectation that the people they do business with take these issues seriously. We’re certainly seeing, at a time when the challenges around recruiting and retaining staff are as acute as ever, that young people who are thinking of working in the cinema sector are asking questions about what the sector is doing in these areas.
And we’re also seeing—and this is absolutely understood [by the industry]—pressure from brands and partners who might want to work with the industry, to understand what is the sector’s take on these things? What are the concrete actions the sector has taken? And what is the future vision for the industry?
UNIC has, for the last few years, worked with colleagues at Coca-Cola and key colleagues at a number of the major European cinema operators with a group called the Circular Economy Group, which [is dedicated to] better ways of managing waste, better ways of dealing with issues of packaging, etc., etc.
We certainly found that, just on a U.K. basis with our conference, there are a huge number of examples of good practice. But what there probably isn’t is consistency, and what there probably isn’t is a structure into which people who want to find out more can easily find their way. I think what we are seeing is really just, in most cases, the early steps of action.
What we need to do, whether on a Europe-wide basis or a national basis—and I know a number of colleagues running national associations like ours are in a similar place—[is to start] to bring some kind of order and structure to these things. Because we clearly want to be able to present an honest face for the industry—a positive face. That’s useful to us in a number of ways, not least in our engagement with government, because there are only certain things the industry can do to improve performance [in this area], and there are some things which require investment. There are some things which require sensible legislation or regulation. So being seen to be a proactive partner of government, whether it’s at the commission level or at the national level, is hugely important for us.
We have a feature coming up about Nordisk Film Cinemas, which is the International Exhibitor of the Year at this year’s CineEurope, and they take sustainability incredibly seriously and have for many years. It’s not like this is an issue the cinema industry has been ignoring. It feels like we’re at a point of needing to get everyone on the same page. Not a starting point, but a time to take things to the next level.
Phil Clapp: It is. And it’s also finding an approach which recognizes that people have different levels of resources to bring towards this. I’m not talking solely, or even mainly, about finance. I’m talking about staffing resources. I’m talking about bandwidth within the company. As a national association for the U.K.—and this is certainly true for the vast majority of other European national associations—by far the largest proportion of our constituency are very small cinemas. There is probably not—they would certainly say “no”—spare staff resource. Certainly not the staff resource necessary available to devote itself to these issues in the way that those companies might like to.
Aside from sustainability and taking a look at upcoming films, what are some of the major issues that are going to be discussed at CineEurope?
Phil Clapp: Mine would be, broadly, the film slates. It’s not a numbers game. It’s not about, “We currently have 300 films being released. We need 400 or 500.” It’s about the diversity of the film slate, and it’s about the audience-friendliness of the film slate. What we’re seeing in a number of European territories [is that] our audiences have returned, or are returning, but there are particular audiences—and there’s not a general picture across Europe; it varies from territory to territory—which have felt to me to have been, or to be, underserved. So it is around ensuring that—a horrible phrase, but I’m going to use it—within the “content mix,” there are films which appeal to the broadest range of audiences.
And that’s looking not just to our traditional partners at the major U.S. studios and the independent distributors. In the last six to nine months, we’ve welcomed movies by the likes of Amazon and Apple. It’s not been a more recent thing, but certainly the emergence of A24 is increasingly important for us, in terms of providing films for cinemas—which, arguably, are not necessarily being supported in the way they were pre-Covid by some of the major players.
For me, at least, it’s that recognition that the momentum is building, and certainly the appetite for audiences to watch films on the big screen has returned, if it ever went away. It’s about how we meet that with as broad and diverse a range of films as possible.
It’s an extension of the conversation around local cinema. The demand is there for all types of different films. Now it’s about keeping the momentum going and not putting the same types of films on all your screens.
Laura Houlgatte: It’s another topic that’s going to be discussed quite a lot at CineEurope. What do we want to give to audiences? What do they want to experience? How do we make sure that we have something out there for everyone? Not just in terms of content, but in terms of the experience itself? For some of the audiences, it will be all about, “Oh, I want the biggest screen, and I want the loudest sound, and I want to have the biggest popcorn.” But then for other people it’s very different. They want to have a cozy atmosphere, a very comfortable seat, a glass of wine. We need to make sure that diversity of cinemas that we have across Europe, which we’re very proud of, can continue to serve absolutely everyone. This is absolutely key. It’s about the content and it’s about the experience. If you have the two, then you’re able to bring people in. That’s what we want to continue doing.
The diversity of experiences goes along with the diversity of price points, as well. We want to make sure cinema remains the democratizing art form that it is.
Laura Houlgatte: That’s an interesting point. Not to spoil anyone, because we are going to publish our annual report during CineEurope, [in which] we look at different data points. One of them is focusing on ticket price. Because you know that very often, cinemas have been told “Well, it’s way too expensive. How can you sell tickets at that price?”
If someone’s only been to one movie in the last few years and it was PLF, of course they’ll think it’s expensive!
Laura Houlgatte: When you start looking at the data, it’s not true. The [price of the] cinema ticket has barely increased over the past few years, and certainly not at the rate of inflation. Even though, at the same time, cinemas have faced increased costs of operations. So [going to the cinema] still remains the most affordable out-of-home activity that you can enjoy on your own, with your family, or with your friends. So I think it’s something that we need to continue banging on about.
In our report, we’ll [also] the National Cinema Days. Everything you want to find out about, it’s all in there, covering each country and how everybody does it. Local content, as well, because of course, covering the diversity of territories we cover, we have to talk about the strength and the need for strong local content. We’ll talk about audience behaviors, who’s coming back and why, differences we have between territories. And then we also talk, of course, about the work we do here in Brussels with the European Commission and the European Parliament and Council, just to make sure that the voice of cinema operators is heard loud and clear.