‘Unsere Welt des Kinos’: From Austria to Kosovo, Cineplexx sets quality standards

Features
Cinemas Features

“Our World of Cinema. Since 1967.” These words not only translate the headline above, but illustrate how Cineplexx promotes the experience of going to the movies at their 25 theatres across Austria. It is equally telling that company founder and co-owner Christian Langhammer and his Cineplexx team sign their e-mails with a movie quote. He loves the cinema, we are told, and spends most of his time in his Kinos. He also loves to travel to outstanding international shopping and entertainment centers in order to find new ideas for his network.

And that network has been steadily growing—to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Albania, Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro, to be followed by a theatre in Kosovo in October of this year—all of them perfectly qualifying Cineplexx International GmbH to receive the “International Exhibitor of the Year” Award at CineEurope 2016.

“Cineplexx has become one of the most dynamic and innovative pan-European cinema operators. We greatly value in particular their strong commitment to rebuilding a cinemagoing culture in Southeast Europe,” said Phil Clapp, president of the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC). “Christian Langhammer and his team have created one of the youngest and most successful exhibition circuits in Europe,” added Andrew Sunshine, co-managing director of CineEurope. “Central to that success has undoubtedly been the leadership and skill of Langhammer himself.”

“It is a great honor to receive this award,” Langhammer humbly replies. “But I am not really somebody who likes to be at the center of attention. We greatly appreciate this recognition of what we do as a company and the work that we were able to accomplish over the past few decades.” This honor coming from his colleagues in the business makes it all the more special. Langhammer calls upon the professionalism of his peers and mentions the respect we all show for one another. “I am very happy that Cineplexx can receive this award.”

Having grown up in a family of exhibitors, Langhammer feels that his passion and love for Kino has been given to him. “It started very early and I have always been interested. To see how we were already growing from a small number to more and more locations throughout the 1970s,” he recalls. Beginning early to take on responsibility for programming and growing into the operations side, the question of whether to join the business never arose.

Along the way towards “further developing the circuit,” Langhammer has enjoyed several milestones, both with “incredible and amazing” business partners and supporters that the company has had over the years, and by building cinemas, of course. The first Cineplexx, though not yet called that name but qualifying by all of the brand’s standards, was Apollo-Das Kino in Vienna. As he explains, “We were working with a listed and protected building from 1929 that used to be a variety stage theatre and movie house. Throughout 1992 to ’93, we reconfigured and expanded the space, adding escalators and IMAX projection, with an additional five screens following in 1997. The result is a 12-screen multiplex in the city center.” And with all the technological amenities, Langhammer assures, but without a modern shell.

The first “true” Cineplexx opened just outside the city of Graz with ten screens in 1996. “That was the beginning of an incredible development throughout the 1990s with more theatres in Linz, Innsbruck, Voralberg, Kärnten...following in all areas of Austria, really.” Alongside developing new sites “came the decision that we needed to close hitherto well-performing, smaller and traditional theatres. And that always hurts,” he admits. That said, Cineplexx does still have several of those “traditional” houses left. “With one to three auditoriums, these Kinos enjoy special positioning as part of the marketplace. I am not saying they are hard-core art-house or repertory-style, but off-mainstream, definitely.” In the case of Artis International in Vienna, the niche means films in their original language. “That way, they were able to find their place…allowing us to keep them alive, culturally and economically.” For some theatres, that also includes “a strong focus on European films” and joining the network of Europa Cinemas, Langhammer notes, giving credit to the support program.

“We could not accomplish this for all of our cinemas, however.” We sense some regret in Langhammer’s voice. “Some of them were just too mainstream and could no longer compete within the multiplex boom. In most cases, we took the audiences away ourselves.” Nonetheless, he knows it was “absolutely the right decision” and strategy to redefine or shut down. “Those who did not make the same decisions are no longer in the marketplace today.”

Does Langhammer have a favorite Kino? “Every cinema has its very own individual character,” he replies. That said, Apollo Kino “certainly left a mark on me,” he admits. “Standing in the construction debris from digging deep into the ground at the site was something truly remarkable.” Equally, Langhammer recalls the opening of “our first very large Cineplexx abroad” at USCE Shopping Center in Belgrade, Serbia. “It has just been so dynamic, with over 700,000 people attending annually. To be part of a city that is just beginning anew after hard, hard times, to share in the redevelopment that needs to happen, and indeed can, and have so much success is just beautiful.” Again, he says, “every theatre has a story to tell.”

The story of going abroad is partly one of Austria being a built-out market. “There are not too many white spots left here for large projects.” The opportunity to enter the South Tyrolean region in Italy facilitated a move abroad, while remaining close enough to the home base. Langhammer also hails the availability to purchase a chain in Slovenia as a key factor in expanding further. Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro are “all markets where the culture of cinema has to be built up all over again. Rebuilding is certainly hard, no question about it,” he assures. “While ticket pricing is adjusting at a measured pace, staffing and operations costs, as well as rents, are significantly more economic than what we are used to in other places.” That helps the return on investment, but, “to be honest, developing the business in those markets does take longer than I had expected.” He adds, “To assume that just because we do something well in Austria today, we will do it equally well in Skopje [Macedonia] or Tirana [Albania] tomorrow—that is not going to happen that easily. It surely takes time.”

Langhammer explains that employees are very willing, but the cinema and service business is “completely new territory” for many of them. “Things that are common sense and accepted standard for us are not necessarily the same there. More in-depth training and repeated explanations are necessary.”

On the technological front, standards are state-of-the art. With RealD deployed across the circuit, 4K in all the “most important” auditoriums, numerous IMAX setups and Dolby Atmos installations, Langhammer knows that the time is not quite right yet—in those emerging markets, at least—to go all-out with premium large formats. “Those investments cannot happen yet. It is just too early. Some amenities will have to wait until ticket pricing supports the necessary upcharges,” he opines. “One has to remain patient.”

Getting films has not been an issue, Langhammer says their own distribution output, as in Austria via Constantin Film, is in its “tender beginnings.” Cineplexx is directly importing and distributing Paramount and Universal Pictures in some of the smaller markets like Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. “We have released one or the other locally produced film and are—very carefully now—beginning to invest in co-productions, looking at a variety of projects. While we are interested in distribution in the medium term, at the heart we remain committed to our core of operating movie theatres well and successfully. And that gives us quite enough to do.”

Having just enough of the right content is the key challenge to any exhibitor, no matter where they operate. “We remain dependent on the films that are available. Given film theft,” he elaborates on what exhibitors are up against, “and all the ways in which films can be consumed legally as well, we have to continue to differentiate das Kinoerlebnis,” as the experience of going to a movie theatre sounds in his mother tongue. “As an industry, we have to make stronger arguments for ‘The Big Screen.’ We have to constantly reset our standards, because in legal home entertainment they are improving all the time… So Kinos have to score better points with service and friendliness of our employees, cleanliness, and more comfort, of course. To adapt according to market needs is certainly a challenge and to decide how we best implement enhancements.” Langhammer believes in moderation in investment. “Nonetheless,” he clarifies, “we will build out certain auditoriums so that they become something remarkable. If the product fits, which is, of course, entirely subjective and individual, customers will attend and pay the premium price. At other times, the regular standards will be appropriate for them. Finding just the right way is a very big challenge.”

Another one of Langhammer’s goals is to keep communications with Cineplexx guests simple and effective. “We have to talk to them directly and make moviegoing as convenient as possible. There should be no barriers on the technological and organizational sides, because those do not exist at home. It is always easy and comfortable there and I do not need to get organized. Kino is a leisure activity that is consciously chosen and set.” In the absence of second screens and cellphones, movie theatres are the places that put the experience of film front and center again. Langhammer knows that is a huge advantage for cinemas. “In our fast-paced times, cinemas are actually a place of special retreat—even if some of our entertainment is loud at times.”

For him, everything has to be a good fit. With some films, he opines, it does not matter what the venue is like. “People will go see the latest James Bond adventure at the cinema, no matter what the experience and who plays him. If the experience was not a fit with them, guests will not come back until the next event-type picture, perhaps. And that can take a long time. However, if we do our job right and everything fits, if guests are being motivated to come by what we do, then customers will come back. This is how we see it and why we aim to make Cineplexx the quality leader in our markets.”

Not surprisingly, Langhammer is looking “to further strengthen—and to develop positively– the positions that Cineplexx was able to find and build in the areas that we are operating in. This includes not just the financial aspects but also branding, overall image and recognition, as well as acceptance by our customers. On that note, it is crucial to communicate that we offer the best-quality experience.”

As an organization that is operating across several countries, he also wants to facilitate internal communications. “Given the many differences across regions, bringing everybody and everything on the same page” is an important goal to Langhammer. Last but not least, “that applies to all of us in this business.” He hopes that “many more good and successful films are made that audiences will like and that will bring them into the Kinos. Producers, filmmakers, distributors and cinemas are sitting in the same boat. We should all make sure that the focus on the theatrical release remains a positive one… This is a worldwide development for all of us to watch out for.”

Looking ahead, Langhammer and “everybody here at Cineplexx share a positive outlook on the future of this business. We are fully motivated and pleased with the great results that we were able to generate throughout 2015. The pipeline that lies ahead shows a huge commitment to the big screen.” (He mentions the plans for Avatar and Star Wars as two of many examples.) “I believe that the theatrical release is hugely important for the value of the entire revenue chain that follows down the road. This is why we remain very positive and continue to invest in our cinemas and markets. On a personal note, it is also great fun for me to be in the Kino business.”

Developing Cineplexx

Since 1980, Christian Langhammer has been responsible for building a cinema chain with 25 theatres over all Austria and developing the company to a strong market leader in the traditional cinema business. In 1995, he founded Cineplexx Kinobetriebe GmbH, and began building modern multiplexes in Austria and later in Southeast Europe. He led the decision to replace the traditional cinema network of Lichtspieltheater Betriebs-GmbH by the Cineplexx chain.

Langhammer founded Cineplexx International in 2008 as a joint venture with his long-term CFO and partner, Christof Papousek. The company was the basis for setting up a cinema network in Southeast Europe. Cineplexx International is a sub-holding company that is responsible for the development, management and financing of cinemas in the regions of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, northern Italy and Greece.

In 2008, Langhammer also spearheaded a partnership with IMAX Corporation and brought the brand back to Austria with five locations. Langhammer also led the transition to digital projection and was a leader for the entire Austrian market to go digital with companies such as Dcinex.