In an exclusive interview with Boxoffice Pro France, Jocelyn Bouyssy, CEO of CGR Cinémas, the second-largest exhibition circuit in France and sixth-largest in Europe, reveals current owners Luc and Charles Raymond are exploring the sale of the circuit.
CGR Cinémas is well known in the industry as one of the world’s top cinema circuits—the second-largest chain in France (claiming 12% of the market share in 2021) and sixth-largest in Europe—but the group’s activities expand beyond exhibition. Could you remind us of the other areas in entertainment in which you currently operate?
Georges Raymond founded the company as an exhibition circuit. Today, we have 74 cinemas and more than 700 screens throughout France. We’ve also expanded into the cinema technology space to introduce our Premium Large Format (PLF) concept, Ice Theaters, to exhibitors outside of France. We are active on the distribution side with Apollo Films and our event cinema outfit, CGR Events.
I made the decision to diversify the company beyond the cinema space about ten years ago. Today, we operate 17 hotels, a thalassotherapy center, and a number of different concepts in the restaurant business—ranging from a restaurant by acclaimed chef Pierre Gagnaire to a handful of Burger King locations.
Speaking of the Raymond Family, today you’re announcing the start of a new phase for the company…
Luc and Charles Raymond, the heirs of CGR founding president Georges Raymond, have decided to hand over ownership of the group. We’re turning a page in the company’s history as we begin to explore our options. The Raymond family wants to be part of this transition and is helping us identify partners who are just as passionate about our company’s history as we are. Partners committed to not only running the company, but developing it.
“The decision to start this process of exploring new shareholders for CGR Cinémas group, which could lead to its sale, is an important step for us. Motivated by the best interests of this magnificent company, started over 50 years ago by our father, we feel this is the best time to begin this new phase. Naturally, this is an emotional decision, but one made with both focus and determination.”
– Charles Raymond, Co-Owner, CGR Cinémas
What are the strengths of the CGR group?
We have always fostered a culture of efficiency and innovation. We are big proponents of developing and promoting our internal resources, something I myself am an example of. This strategy of investing in and developing our employees has proven to be vital to our success, especially given the current recruitment difficulties affecting the market. Talent retention and development is a big part of our culture. There is a special bond at CGR between the men and women who work for the group.
You have a long history with the company yourself.
I just celebrated 37 years working at CGR. I started as a projectionist in Agen [in southern France], and I often say that I learned just about every role in the company on my path to becoming CEO, a position I’ve held for 16 years now. I think that by being close to your colleagues, you will always be able to find dependable co-workers near you.
As the cinema industry struggles to emerge from the turbulence of the pandemic, why are you optimistic for the sector in general and for CGR Cinémas in particular?
We’ve learned a lot from this crisis. We were afraid of a change in the business model—even if we could clearly see the arrival of streaming—and now we have the recent changes to [theatrical exclusivity] laws in France. We operate in a country with very specific and particular business practices. Tensions around this shift have begun to ease with the agreement Netflix just signed, and we’re beginning to realize that the business will become more self-regulated moving forward.
I’m usually an optimist by nature, and I’m particularly confident at the moment—especially after seeing how business picked up with the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home in December.
This generation, glued to their smartphones and capable of watching a streaming series on a foot-long screen, responds to our medium as long as there are movies that appeal to them. Older audiences are taking longer to come back, and that’s normal: they are the most vulnerable population in this pandemic and we cannot ignore the anxiety provoked by going to the movies while emergency health measures are still in place. Sometimes all it takes is a film to bring them back alongside younger audiences, as we’ve seen with the latest film from the Kev Adams comedy Maison de retraite here in France.
I often say that cinema is an emotion, it’s part of our social fabric. As long as we have films that appeal to audiences, people will come. Our problem [during the pandemic], independent of the competition by streaming platforms, had more to do with the release delays enacted by certain distributors. I don’t hold anything against them for making those decisions, but at a certain point we need their films to “structure” the release calendar.. We’re finally getting back to a positive rhythm, and that’s why I’m so optimistic about a global recovery.
Regarding CGR, my optimism lies in the strength of our work culture and the closeness we’ve maintained with our audience over the past two years. We put a lot of work on our digital presence—things like our website, mobile app, social networks, and influencer marketing— in order to boost our box office through online sales and advance ticketing on our website. The crisis allowed us to step back and think about the future of our business and our company. Our identity is one of a family-owned, regional ricuit. Whatever happens in the future, I’d like to keep those ties with our local communities. This identity is in line with our distribution outfit, Apollo Films. In France, this is a business with its focus set on audiences in Paris, but we can’t ignore that the vast majority of our tickets are sold in the provinces. We have a diverse audience in this country, where films perform differently across different regions—something that shouldn’t prevent a title’s national roll-out…cinema is a popular pastime in all of France, that’s part of the corporate culture we intend to keep.
You mentioned the importance of premium formats for CGR. What role does premiumization play for CGR’s current strategy?
Premiums formats aren’t new. Imax, 4DX, and ScreenX were all technologies I liked, but weren’t viable for us to implement in the French provinces. Large global or European circuits could afford agreements with those companies, but I found that we weren’t able access those premium formats in medium-sized cities. That’s how we came to create our own, in-house PLF concept—a solution developed by an exhibitor that could be made available to other exhibitors. Through this concept, we want to give any exhibitor the chance to have a PLF auditorium without having to pay any associated royalties.
We launched Ice Theaters five years ago. It took some work to introduce the concept in the United States, where you can’t just launch it in the industry by saying it’s an idea coming from “Jocelyn from CGR.” After our first five years on the market, we can say the concept is a success thanks in large part to the support it’s received, particularly from Luc Besson. He was the first filmmaker to entrust us with a movie in the format, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which we mastered for Ice Theaters during post-production. We have since created a post-production “bunker” at our headquarters in La Rochelle [on the Southwest coast of France], approved by the Motion Picture Association, that we’ve operated for the last year and a half. A film released in Ice Theaters requires three weeks of post-production, a significant investment, but one that gives the audience a completely different moviegoing experience. It also benefits exhibitors in average-sized cities by not forcing them to pay royalties in perpetuity.
We quickly realized the advantage of having a PLF presence in our circuit. The average ticket price at CGR is around €7 in a standard format, and nearly double that price (€13) at an Ice Theaters auditorium. The studios in Hollywood were equally as convinced by Ice Theaters, and today all the majors—Universal, Warner, Sony, Disney and Paramount—offer their biggest titles in our format. We recently signed the deal to bring Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Ice Theaters this year.
In a business sector that earns half its revenue on weekends, we’re noticing more people coming to our off-peak showtimes—something that makes us very happy. There has been plenty of coverage, particularly in Boxoffice Pro, highlighting audiences’ interest in premium formats: comfort, image, sound, and in our case, immersion as well!
What is the footprint of Ice Theaters today?
We have a presence in 40 cities across France, and we have been negotiating with five other French circuits since the onset of the pandemic. Globally, we may be among the only ones to have opened a premium theater during closures, with the inauguration of two theaters in Saudi Arabia while we were all still in the midst of Covid. We opened an Ice Theaters auditorium in Los Angeles [at Regal’s LA Live site in downtown LA] just before the pandemic, so we lost two years there in what was essentially a false start—but recent admissions are already making up for that lost time.
Since cinemas reopened, we’ve been able to sign Spanish circuit Ocine, a deal we closed at CineEurope 2021. Their first Ice auditorium will open in Barcelona on April 8. We are currently in negotiations to expand Ice Theaters footprint to theaters in Germany, Estonia, and many other territories.
You decided to follow in the steps of other major French circuits by entering the distribution business some years back. How have you found that experience?
I had sworn to myself that I would never go into distribution! François Clerc [president of Apollo Films], who had worked at Gaumont and StudioCanal, is someone I know very well and whose work I’ve always admired. We were talking about working together—his way of handling projects, budgets, and audience segments—and he said something that really resonated with me: “I believe in popular cinema”. For me, it is not pejorative to use that phrase, “popular cinema”. Cinema should not be elitist. It’s a real outing, for everyone. So we created Apollo Films, which is now called Apollo Films / Groupe CGR Cinémas, and we are very proud of our efforts. Les Invisibles (2019) was the first title we released. Of course, the two years of the Covid crisis complicated matters. Today, we have Louis-Julien Petit’s follow up to Les Invisibles, La Brigade (2022), on our slate. There are many other projects that are close to my heart that we’re currently working on as part of this adventure into distribution.
Apollo Films wasn’t your first foray into distribution. You were already active in the space through event cinema with CGR Events.
To tell you the truth, [CGR Events] is probably what convinced me to launch Apollo Films. I had acquired experience as a “pseudo-distributor” shortly after the advent of digital cinema and realized there were untapped audience niches. Theater, concerts, sports…we’ve tried everything! We have had big hits like Mozart, the rock opera [a French stage musical], which sold 250,000 tickets, and Matt Pokora’s concerts [a French pop star]. Then we started looking at event cinema programming that was working abroad, like anime.
Through CGR Events, we released Demon Slayer on May 19, 2021, the day cinemas reopened, and sold 750,000 tickets—a phenomenal surprise, even to ourselves. We continued in this niche with Jujutsu Kaisen 0, which has already sold over 430,000 tickets in fifteen days. There are so many events possible through broadcasts, whether they are live or not. Niche programming enables us to reach people who don’t regularly come to our theaters—and that’s the primary purpose of CGR Events.
You’ve also branched out to other leisure and entertainment industries, like hotels and restaurants.
Around ten years ago, one of our employees raised the idea of diversifying into other industries. We first tried diversifying with a hotel in Quiberon [on the west coast of France]. Today, we’ve grown that presence to 17 hotels in a group helmed by the manager of that first property we acquired. That’s what I mean when I talk about the strength of our workforce:he gave us the drive and confidence to continue to develop that part of our business. We have several franchised hotels, including seven in La Rochelle, and the five-star MGallery in Châtelaillon [also in the Southwest coast of France], a restaurant from acclaimed chef Pierre Gagnaire, and a brand new thalassotherapy spa just opposite, with an economy-tier hotel. We have carved out a presence that allows us to create synergies with our cinema activities. We receive film crews every week at our hotels and organize seminars twice a year with our distributor friends at those properties. It’s another chapter of the story we’re writing, one that we are very proud of.
A new chapter of that story begins with the announcement that CGR is looking for new shareholders to lead the group into the future. What are your principal objectives with this transition?
We’re staying focused on our day-to-day tasks, so I’ll be working twice as hard through the remainder of my tenure. Choosing our new partner is the most important part of this process. Someone who can retain all those values, that corporate DNA, that I spoke about. Our employees, the men and women who work at CGR, are the ones who raised this company to the prominence it holds today.
Our priority is to find someone who respects our corporate culture—both our values and ambition. In the meantime, we will continue to develop our business. We have three projects in development, and we also have great ambition for Ice Theaters, which I think can become a global player in the PLF business. We know Ice has great potential to expand and scale overseas. I’m focused on continuing to write this story with our existing team. We’ve accomplished so much together over the years, and I firmly believe there is a lot more left for us to accomplish.