CinemaCon 2019 Triumph Award: Jan Bernhardsson

Jan Bernhardsson didn’t expect to find himself in the cinema business, but that didn’t stop him from forging a 20-year career in the industry. Stepping into the role of CEO at Sweden’s SF Bio in 1998, he was part of the 2013 merger with Finland’s Finnkino and the resulting new corporate entity, Nordic Cinema Group (NCG), where he served as CEO through its 2017 acquisition by AMC Entertainment. The AMC deal saw NCG get folded into the ODEON corporate structure, part of AMC’s European network of cinemas. Bernhardsson served as ODEON’s chief operations officer and AMC’s executive vice president, Europe in the period since, leaving the company earlier this year. Boxoffice spoke with Bernhardsson, ahead of CinemaCon, about his career in exhibition and what the future holds for the industry at large. 

How did you come to work in exhibition?

I started in the home entertainment and distribution side, and during that period I promised myself I would never be in retail. I had my own company that I sold to a big Swedish media conglomerate group. They had a lot of activities in this group—newspapers, television, radio, etc. I started to work in the film department, and they had activities in the Nordic. I was like a Swiss army knife at the time. I worked as a CFO and was also involved in business development. I worked with them for around three years; it was an integrated company involved in production, distribution, and exhibition. We saw that integration could be unhealthy and decided to separate the production and distribution business from the cinemas. The board at the time assigned me to take care of the cinemas when we split the company. That’s how I came to have a background in all the processes of the film business; from production to distribution to home entertainment to cinemas.

Are there any mentors who were important in your career?

It took me a while to master this industry when I was thrown in as a CEO in this business 20 years ago. I have always been surrounded by very good colleagues in every phase of my work. It’s so important to have experienced people in our industry. Our role as leaders is to listen to them; I have a lot of colleagues that I want to mention, but if I start listing them I won’t be able to stop. If I had to name one person that has been the most relevant in my business life, it would be the guy who threw me into the business: Torsten Larsson. He was the chairman of my board for 12 years of this journey.

What are some of the early lessons you learned in the industry that really stuck with you? 

I think it applies to every business; you need to create a circular consumption pattern with a consumer. At the time I started, 1998 I think, we missed the big focus we should have had on the customer. We seemed more focused on the films. In this business, the devil is in the details because this business has a lot of transactions. From a transactional perspective, we have double the transactions because customers will book their ticket online and arrive to our cinemas where we have a chance to create a new transaction with that customer in the concessions area. It’s great because you create two wallets: the first when you start the journey online and the second when they come into the cinema. 

What has been the most transformative period during your career?

In the Nordics we have a very high penetration of digital commerce. For example, I sold my first ticket on the internet one year before Google was started. For me, the digital box office is the biggest change in the industry because previous to it, the customer’s decision process was based on impulse—they want to go to the cinema. Nowadays we have pre-booked tickets over the internet, which has changed the consumption patterns in a way that it all becomes much more professional in the way to handle our customers. But I think that the industry still has many million miles to go before we will realize digital ticketing’s full potential. 

What is the state of exhibition today in the Scandinavian region? 

Having the experience of serving as a chief operating officer for AMC, I’ve seen a lot of markets. I must say that there’s a big difference between the Nordics and Continental Europe. The average cinema in the Nordics is better invested, has much higher-maintenance CapEx; it’s a much higher standard. Alternatively, in Sweden, when we go cashless, you can imagine how many people will be buying tickets over the internet, if you do the math, compared to other markets in Europe, for example, Italy, where around 80 percent of transactions are in cash. There’s a different approach to each market, different considerations. The Nordic market is well managed when compared to the rest of Europe. It’s mostly due to the history and the size of the markets; it’s always easier to gain a higher market share when it’s just a few players. But it also means cinemas are more willing to invest and take more risks.

What are the specific challenges and opportunities that you see coming up in the industry in the next five years or so?

There are many opportunities, but the big question is, how do you to bet on it? It’s big money to invest in the cinema. There are a lot of cinemas that need heavy refurbishment. When it comes to pricing, I think it’s hard to drive up attendance volumes with a lower price; people will still go according to their existing frequency. I tie attendance to film offerings; I don’t think more people will read a bad book because it’s cheap. There’s a lot we can do in exhibition, especially if we can create value for money—it’s all about the experience we offer. 

The big threat we have ahead of us, one we’ve been speaking about for a long time, are theatrical windows. If you look at the production values of the TV series that are around today, it’s a complete and total improvement from what we were seeing 20 years ago. It’s a tremendous difference when we are competing for people’s leisure time. Ultimately, I think cinemas have a great opportunity for people who want an entertainment option outside their home. For example, up here in the Scandinavian countries, people have very luxurious, very, very nice homes with well-invested kitchens—but they still go to restaurants. That applies to cinemas, but we need to keep in mind that people won’t go out to a restaurant that is worse than what they have in their kitchens. We always need to match or exceed the experience. It’s always up to ourselves what kind of industry we have in the future. I believe people will always want to have a nice night outside their home. And if people today are willing to pay $4 for a bottle of water that they can get for free in their taps at home, I think it’s a sign that they’re willing to pay for a great experience. We control our own destiny; we can’t just sit with our arms crossed and wait for studios to provide us with hits. We need to deliver on the moviegoing experience in order to remain relevant. Otherwise, if you’re not relevant, folks will stay at home.

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