From Boom to Bust: Is Greek Exhibition Recovering?

It’s been a long time since Greek cinema was in the international spotlight. After a brief resurgence of the industry in the 1970s and 1980s following the collapse of the far-right military junta (1967–74), when filmmakers like Theo Angelopoulos and Costas Gavras shone domestically and abroad, local production has been by and large upstaged by foreign competition. That changed the first decade of the new millennium. The so-called Greek Weird Wave, spearheaded by Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-nominated Dogtooth (2009) and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), brought new momentum to the national film industry. Yet, that Weird Wave was born as a reaction to adversity. It became a symbol of the absurdity of life under austerity, of dysfunctional family and societal ties that this adversity has caused (or, at least, exposed). These productions also revealed the challenges faced by a struggling local film industry. Many of the Weird Wave films were made without providing compensation for the artists but with an alternative economy of exchanged services in which talents would offer their help on a movie in return for a service to make their own. The financial and economic crisis that has plagued Greece since 2009, when the country first signed a memorandum imposing austerity measures in exchange for a bailout by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, radically changed the film industry there. But after 10 years of turmoil and uncertainty, the economy is slowly starting to improve. What has that meant for the Greek exhibition industry?

After the country joined the eurozone in 2002, admissions at the Greek box office benefited from an inflated consumerist boom with a steady increase from 12 million in 2003 to 12.8 million in 2007. The collapse began in 2008, and admissions dropped from 12.3 million to 9 million between 2009 and 2014. By that year, box office receipts had nearly halved, reaching 54 million, and ticket sales had dropped by an estimated 25 percent. The collapse came as a result of a stark decrease in GDP per capita and disposable income, extravagant admission prices, and an explosion of piracy that was only recently dealt with by serious legislation. 

To counter the drop in attendance, exhibitors begun reducing the price of admission in 2012 from an average of 9 euros to 6,5 euros while also introducing special discounts such as “two for the price of one,” discounts on specific weekdays, partnership with mobile operators, etc. Until then, ticket prices were among the most expensive in Europe behind Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden, reflecting a disproportionate disparity with the country’s real economic health. 

A small rebound in the economy in 2015 coupled with a slate of blockbusters like Fast and Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens fueled the local box office. Admissions grew back to 10.1 million in 2017 but were halted last year with a 7.4 percent and 7.7 percent fall in admissions and box office revenues respectively. The market has yet to reach its precrisis level, but there is a clear upward trend toward recovery (minus the speed bump that was 2018). 

The downturn hit exhibitors hard. Declining profits meant that the crisis delayed the digitalization of cinemas. As late as 2014, only 38 percent of Greek screens were digital. The proportion increased after 2015, and today 547 screens, 79 percent of all screens, have successfully transitioned. Yet the country still consistently ranks among the E.U. countries with the lowest proportions of digital screens.

Many small exhibitors were squeezed out of the market, unable to stay afloat. Caught between a 35 percent levy on tickets, the exorbitant cost of digitalization (about 40.000 euros for which small exhibitors did not receive any government subsidies), a 24 percent VAT, volatile taxes on property, and declining ticket prices, survival was indeed tough for many small players.

The crisis and changing consumer habits left a profoundly unequal landscape in exhibition as small single-screen theaters were swallowed by multiplexes or forced to shut down. Today, the two largest circuits, Odeon and Village Cinemas, accumulate about 70 percent of admissions. But even multiplexes were impacted by the financial turmoil. Odeon Star Cinemas, the second largest exhibitor in the country, witnessed tremendous growth in the 2000s by acquiring, refurbishing, and rebranding historic single-screen theaters in the capital all the while investing in the construction of multiplexes. During the period of economic euphoria, the circuit owned more than 80 screens. In 2015, the number dropped to 60 screens and 14 cinemas. The largest chain, Village cinemas, which operates seven multiplexes and 69 screens and holds an estimated 45 percent of the market in terms of box office, was established in 1997 by Village Roadshow, but the Australian chain sold it to Greek businessman Dimitris Kontominas in 2009 when the economic turmoil began.

Still, multiplexes were able to introduce technological and service innovations to the struggling market, especially after 2015’s rebound. For example, Cineplexx, which established its first cinema in Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city, introduced an Imax screen in 2015. Village Cinemas was an early adopter of recliners, Dolby Atmos, premium large format (with the first Sphera screen in Europe), luxury amenities, and online ticketing. Village Cinemas was in fact awarded the ICTA’s “Best Cinema Refurbishment of the Year” award at CineEurope in 2018. 

“When we talk about innovation we also talk about investment as a whole, which is obviously harder on a wider scale because of the financial situation of the country,” says Akis Voilas, distribution and programming manager at Village Cinemas. “A key decision, which came to fruition, was not to let the crisis affect our customer service. We changed our mode of functioning; we were very careful with our spending and the prioritization of investment, with our customers always in mind.” Village cinemas was thus able to continue bringing new services and technologies into theaters. “We continued to innovate our services by introducing for example our online concession Village-order, digital kiosks in our foyer where patrons can buy tickets easily, a special auditorium for children (Vkids), online ticketing, etc. We also further developed our already successful alternative screenings with event cinema, opera shows, concerts, and documentaries. We were also able to add an additional revenue stream by offering corporate events, kids’ parties, and school bookings,” says Andreas Alyssandratos, marketing director at Village Cinemas. 

With less money in their pockets, however, patrons have increased their expectations. “Looking at consumer behavior, we notice that patrons are a lot more informed about the content and have higher standards about theaters in order to choose them over some other form of entertainment,” explains Village Cinemas’ Alyssandratos. 

But Greek exhibition has another idiosyncrasy that does not help small exhibitors: seasonality. In the summer months, so-called winter theaters put up signs often decorated with drawings of starfish, seagulls, and sunbeds under a big yellow sun that read “See you in September.” From May to September, many small theaters close their doors as Greeks prefer a time-tested summer institution: open-air cinemas. 

And while the smell of jasmine in an open-air cinema rooftop or yard on a breezy summer night is imprinted in every Greek’s memory, open-air theaters are facing the same challenges. Again, small exhibitors are struggling while a handful of multiplex-backed and centrally located theaters are thriving. 

Dimitris Panou, owner of the renowned Cine Paris, an iconic open-air cinema located at the foot of the Acropolis offering an unparalleled view of the Parthenon, notices the disparities among his own cinemas. “In addition to Cine Paris, we ended up owning five more cinemas in poorer neighborhoods of Athens. All revenues come from this location; the others are just bleeding. In general, there are only five or six open-air cinemas that are still doing well. The owners just keep them as a hobby. It’s their own Cinema Paradiso. I keep most of my locations open simply because that’s where my daughter learned about cinema and exhibition.” 

In addition to the aforementioned financial hardships, open-air theaters seem to be succumbing to a generational gap, as fewer young people visit them. “The culture of open-air cinemas is waning a little,” states Mary Panou, Dimitris’s daughter who now manages the theater. “The multiplex has become much more of a reference for young people,” adds Hara Malainou, sales executive at Cine Aegli, the oldest open-air cinema in Greece, continuously operating since 1910 and is now owned by the same group that owns Village Cinemas. “They tend to prefer blockbusters, which are not really what open-air theaters are playing. Sure, they become more and more necessary for smaller theaters to survive, but, traditionally, open-air theaters have been playing comedies, especially French comedies, dramas, older cinephile films that are not that popular with younger audiences. We usually attract people who are above 30 years old. It’s people who have grown up with this type of theater, who are used to visiting their neighborhood cinemas. It’s an institution for them. It’s their philosophy.” 

Theaters in central locations near archeological sites benefit from the herds of tourists that overflow Athens and the islands every summer. Hara Malainou and Mary Panou explain that when screening foreign movies, they have added English subtitles on top of Greek ones for this growing segment. “Unlike some smaller theaters, we don’t really need to show blockbusters often because we have so many tourists coming in. They just come for the experience; they don’t really care too much about the movie,” explains Mary Panou.

Some theaters are trying to attract younger and local patrons by adding premium amenities. Hara Malainou explains, “In the first years of the crisis, people were looking for a complete outing. Many theaters introduced things like discounts for certain days, sunbeds, food. At Cine Aegli, we are trying to attract younger people by offering discounts and the possibility to order food and drinks, or reserve a private dine-in veranda so that people don’t have to choose between moviegoing and another form of entertainment. But I think that open-air cinema is an experience in and of itself. It’s so different from an experience in a closed theater, where it feels more like you’re at home. I think that open-air cinemas represent clearly a different philosophy, and that is why they will survive.”

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