CineEurope 2024 International Exhibitor of the Year: Apollo Kino

Courtesy of Apollo Kino

Apollo Group is the largest entertainment group in the Baltics. Since its founding in 2000, the company has brought shops, sports and entertainment centers, restaurants, and film production, distribution, and exhibition to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Subsidiary Apollo Kino opened its first location in 2014 and has become the region’s largest multiplex chain, providing premium amenities across a variety of categories, from premium technology formats like ICE Theaters to innovative self-serve concessions markets and seat-side ordering of restaurant-quality food. The operator of 91 screens across 18 locations in the Baltics, Apollo Kino is the winner of this year’s International Exhibitor of the Year Award at CineEurope—reflective, in the words of Andrew Sunshine, president of Film Expo Group, of the chain’s role in “building a culture of modernization for cinemas and changing the movie-going experience with new concepts.”

Laura Houlgatte, CEO of UNIC, commended how Apollo has “continued to expand and strengthen in recent years and consistently offer[s] a great experience to its audiences across the Baltics.” The chain will be celebrated as part of the CineEurope Awards Ceremony, hosted by the Coca-Cola Company on Thursday, June 20, with CEO Kadri Ärm accepting the International Exhibitor of the Year Award on behalf of her company. In the run-up to CineEurope, Boxoffice Pro spoke with Business Development Manager Kadri Kaldma to learn more about Apollo Kino, its history, and its culture of innovation.

Can you give me a bit of background on Apollo Kino?

We started in 2014, so we recently celebrated our 10th anniversary. We actually grew out of the bookshop business. Initially, when we started 10 years ago, our cinemas were connected to neighboring Apollo bookshops, [and they were] one operational unit. When business grew, we decided to separate, and then the bookshops and the cinemas started operating separately. After a couple of years, we were already the biggest [cinema chain] in Estonia. In 2019, we started to grow outside the Estonian border. In a few years’ time, we became the biggest operator in the Baltics.

Can you elaborate a bit on how Apollo grew out of the bookstore business?

Our founders love cinema, and they started off distributing movies by bringing Hollywood content—on DVDs—into our market. As you probably know, we used to be very secluded from the Western world. So one of our owners started the business of bringing [home video] content into our markets. The people who founded Apollo gradually and very naturally got into selling DVDs and VHS [tapes] and whatnot. The overall idea was to grow an entertainment business that included all sorts of aspects of [entertainment]. By now, Apollo Group—we are part of Apollo Group, both those bookshops and Apollo Kino—also has a variety of restaurants, movie production businesses, and movie distribution businesses. It has a [far reaching] approach to entertainment.

That’s a lot of growth in only 10 years.

Having all those businesses in one group definitely allows us to [take advantage of expertise in various subjects] and to collaborate [within Apollo Group]. It’s very common that a cinema is situated in a shopping center surrounded by restaurants, and we collaborate with those restaurants a lot in our dine in services and B2B events and whatnot. That’s something that has given us strength and allowed us to grow further.

Your loyalty program, Apollo Club, is tied to different parts of Apollo Group, not just the cinema chain. It reminds me of Cineplex’s loyalty program in Canada, which integrates multiple businesses—though, unlike Apollo, not businesses that exist under one corporate umbrella. I would imagine it helps you on the cinema side to be able to access data from Apollo’s other entertainment sectors.

Yes, you’re absolutely right—the Apollo Club assembles all those Apollo Group businesses together. On top of the fact that we can gather a lot of information and use [the program] as a marketing tool, [it keeps] the customer with our businesses by offering a variety of entertainment for that same customer. [It also allows us to do] some cross-marketing and so on.

Looking at UNIC’s Annual Report from last year, local films were strong in Estonia and Lithuania—in Estonia, three of the five top-grossing films in 2022 were local titles, and in Lithuania it was two. You mentioned Apollo Group’s early forays into providing entertainment with their VHS and DVD shops—did the local film space evolve along with Apollo?

I would say that before Apollo got into the production business and began creating its own local content, pretty much the local content was very artsy types of movies which nobody understood, really, about all the misery [of] our nation. [Laughs] What we bring to the market with Apollo Productions is that we aim to create content that will attract the masses: movies that will actually entertain them and that people would like to watch in the cinemas. Aside from a few exceptions, it wasn’t at all typical for [local films to be commercially successful] before we entered into it. Now it’s a real strength for us. It was one of the things that helped us [rebound from Covid], to have our own local content on the shelf while Hollywood was still getting back on track with their releases. We have this content that we can release whenever we feel some kind of gap in between releases, and we have cinemas filled with people who want to see entertaining local content.

What sort of premium experiences do your audiences respond to—whether that’s on the technical side or on the side of expanded food and beverages and other amenities?

Back in 2016, we created a new concept for our market, which was dine-in service in recliner seats. By now, it has already become standard. [We have] recliner seats located mostly in the back rows of our auditoriums, and guests are able to order food and drinks through a digital tablet to their seats throughout the screenings. This is the kind of premium content that is most loved by our audiences. I think definitely this concept [of integrating upscale food service into cinemas] is where we see the most room to expand. When it comes to PLF formats, the big screen always excites people. The bigger the better. But we have learned from our audiences that they actually prefer, or are more excited about, the level of comfort and the services provided, rather than having Imax screens or PLF formats. We have an Imax in our Latvian market, and it works well there. One of our newest additions is [an ICE premium auditorium] in our Solaris location [in Tallinn, Estonia]. But our focus is more on making the dine-in service a more premium experience.

How do you treat concessions outside of the dine-in component?

Our concessions areas are something that we are known for and we take a lot of pride in. We were the first in the market to introduce the self-service concept in our [cinemas]. We’re all self-service in our shops, so you select your food on your own, you pay for it, and then you move through self-service ticket gates into the auditorium, where you are able to order even more throughout the screening if you choose [the applicable] seat group.

And your ticket sales are mostly self-service as well—either through on-site kiosks or mobile devices?

About 80 percent of our ticket sales are done online. Very few tickets are still bought on-site.

Across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, how much room is there for expansion? And, separately, when you open new locations, are they mostly new builds or are you renovating existing buildings?

I would say that the market in Estonia is pretty much already saturated. Of course, we can’t rule anything out. There are still some options. The most growth [is possible] in Lithuania, just because of the size of it. And in terms of whether we build new cinemas or acquire old ones, we do both. We just built an entirely new cinema in Lithuania, but part of our growth has been due to acquiring some units from another cinema operator. It’s a mix of everything, really.

Courtesy of Apollo Kino
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