The recipient of this year’s UNIC Achievement Award at CineEurope, Hans-Joachim Flebbe, has under his belt more than 40 years in the exhibition industry—during which time he’s played a major role in shaping the world of cinema in Germany today.
His love for older films led young Flebbe to a job booking—and later programming—at Hanover’s Apollo Cinema, which he would help turn into one of the first art house cinemas in Germany. Fast forward to the ’90s, and Flebbe—through the chain CinemaxX, which he founded—was responsible for the creation of one of Germany’s first multiplexes. Differences of opinion as to how CinemaxX should be run led to Flebbe’s leaving the company in 2008. But Flebbe loves film too much to stay away from the industry, and from CinemaxX he moved on to found the Astor Group, which brings luxury cinema experiences to moviegoers across Germany.
“We are absolutely delighted to honor Hans-Joachim at CineEurope 2023,” says Phil Clapp, president of UNIC. “The award recognizes his incredible passion for the big screen, his outstanding career, and his key role in developing both the German and European cinemagoing experience. In the lead-up to CineEurope, Flebbe spoke to Boxoffice Pro about his impactful and dynamic career in the cinema industry.
Could you talk a bit about the Apollo Cinema in Hanover? How did you end up working as a programmer there?
My start in the movie theater business was rather accidental. As a student, I spent more time at cinemas than at university. My passion was great, but I couldn’t watch many titles because they were no longer playing in cinemas, and there were no DVD, video, or streaming services in the early ’70s.
One day I asked the owner of a small cinema in Hanover if I could offer him some movie suggestions. He agreed, since he actually wanted to close his theater so he had “nothing to lose.” The result: One of Germany’s first art house cinemas, the Apollo Kino in Hanover, opened in 1973.
The concept of showing a different, challenging movie every day was so well received that the cinema sold out every day in the first month. Because of this success, the cinema owner offered me a share.
Then, when a project-development company in Hanover wanted to create an inner-city construction project including a cinema center, but couldn’t find a reputable operator, I took the chance to realize my own first cinema (4 screens, art house).
What compelled you to move from programming to starting your own cinema? When you started your career in exhibition, did you see yourself starting a major chain?
This venture was also very successful and opened up the opportunity for me to expand further. I took over and renovated numerous, traditional, beautiful, large movie theaters throughout Germany, and by the mid ’80s I was among the top 10 German cinema operating companies. In 1989 I founded the CinemaxX cinema company, and I opened one of the first German multiplex movie theaters in 1991.
Cinemas are getting more and more technologically advanced, with exhibitors introducing things like giant screens or full-service kitchens to provide a luxury experience to moviegoers. But this industry’s history is one of the great things about it. How do you integrate technological advances into some of these historical theaters?
In my cinema career I have made all decisions from a cinema visitor’s point of view: What should the cinema look like when I want to enjoy the movie? What do I expect from a satisfying visit to the cinema? Large screens, comfortable seats, perfect technology, good service, suitable films that entertain me. The CinemaxX concept was based on providing the visitor with the largest possible image in order to enjoy the movie in the best possible way, in competition with TV.
Stadium seating was a must-have for that. So we built all cinemas with steps, generous spacing between the rows, armchairs (instead of folding chairs), and large foyers. Always at the best location in the respective city, centrally located in the city center, never on the outskirts.
What major changes came to the world of cinema exhibition in Germany during your time with CinemaxX?
After the competitors had been watching for about five years to see if this concept would have lasting success, multiplex theaters started to appear everywhere in the ’90s and early 2000s, some of them initiated with a great deal of optimism. An “overscreening” situation developed in Germany. Therefore, I developed and realized projects abroad in the early stages (Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Denmark, Poland, etc.).
Do you remember the first movie you saw on the big screen? What was your hometown theater growing up?
My first movie was The Glenn Miller Story, which I watched with my father (a big swing music fan) at the Riki cinema in my hometown of Hanover.
I know that you’re not a fan of popcorn in cinemas—is there a different type of concession you enjoy, or would you prefer to focus on the movie 100 percent?
For many guests, popcorn is part of the cinema experience. Even in premium cinemas you can’t miss it. I didn’t offer it at first, but the complaints only stopped when we introduced it.
However, to this day I still resist selling nachos with cheese sauce. Instead, we have finger food (cheese, ham, olives, etc.), but mainly cocktails, champagne, and wine.
Why is it important that historical cinemas be preserved?
Unfortunately, there are almost no old, traditional movie theaters left in Germany. Due to the multiplex boom of the ’90s and 2000s, movie theaters closed in many places. In Berlin, there were over 15 different movie theaters on Kurfürstendamm until a few years ago, but today only our Astor Film Lounge still exists. This is a great shame, because these old movie palaces had a certain charm and were a real alternative to the giant multiplex cinemas.
What was the most challenging period in your decades-long career in cinema exhibition, and what are some lessons you took from that time?
Since I started virtually from zero, and in the beginning I had neither banks nor investors on my side, things were always challenging. I worked very hard and invested every mark in new projects, so I often couldn’t sleep well and didn’t know if I would be able to pay the next month’s rent.
The moment when I was forced to take on a new shareholder at CinemaxX AG due to fear-driven bankers was my biggest disappointment. Unfortunately, we did not act in unison, and I had to leave my life’s work in 2008. The new shareholder, a former friend of mine, then sold CinemaxX a few years later at a huge profit to an English cinema group.
I started all over again and founded Astor, an idea and a company that I really enjoy. And above all, without banks and investors on board, but with a great team of cinema-enthusiastic employees. I am my own boss again, and that is extremely worth it to me.
Do you have any additional cinema restorations planned?
From 2024, my children will take over the operational business, and I will take care of the expansion of the Astor brand.