Keys to Kinepolis: FJI profiles four major players at the innovative European circuit

Cinemas Features

Passion for the Pictures: Eric Meyniel, International Content Director

When speaking with Kinepolis executives, there’s one word that keeps coming to the forefront: passion. Passion for films themselves, yes, but also for presenting them to audiences in the best possible manner. That’s “the main thing I like about [Duquenne and Bert],” explains Eric Meyniel, Kinepolis Group’s international content director. “They love the industry.”

It’s a feeling that Meyniel himself is no stranger to. He started off in the ’90s at Paris’ famous Max Linder Panorama, which he candidly admits is “quite an impossible cinema to run, since it’s a one-screen cinema in a hugely competitive area.” In order to draw audiences in, “you had to be smart” and offer events that would appeal to moviegoers’ passions—there’s that all-important word again—whether a screening of a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia or a marathon of the original Star Wars trilogy. In 2001, Meyniel left the Max Linder and joined Kinepolis as the manager of their Lille, France megaplex. And mega means mega: 7,500 seats across 23 screens. Meyniel went from theatre management to booking and programming, which in turn landed him as Kinepolis’ head honcho of content.

No matter the chain, programming always involves a certain amount of risk, which dovetails perfectly with Kinepolis’ forward-thinking MO. “Maybe it’s why I love working at Kinepolis!” Meyniel says. The chain’s leadership has always been “passionate about new technology, new challenges… Kinepolis was among the very first to be digital,” experimenting with digital projection technology while it was still in the testing stage. In the years since, Kinepolis has gotten in early on 3D and laser projection.

On top of that, Meyniel explains, Kinepolis is “a company where you can grab your opportunities. [Duquenne and Bert] listen to their people. Whatever country you’re in and whoever you are in the company, you’re able to share your ideas.” That willingness to embrace innovation is something that’s “in the DNA of Kinepolis.”

Meyniel cites as an example Ciné K, a programming initiative that brings less mainstream films—like, as of press time, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts or Martin Provosts’ The Midwife—to select Kinepolis theatres. “It’s about watching more art-house movies, the kind of movie you can see at the Cannes Film Festival, for example, but with the comforts of the Kinepolis experience.” Adding to that experience is the pairing of each film with a short. In terms of scheduling, Ciné K screenings take place off peak hours, “so you don’t meet up with the teenagers who are going to see, I don’t know, the new Fast and Furious!” The initial test in Kinepolis’ Lille theatre proved a success, so now they’re expanding to other locations. In addition to Ciné K, Kinepolis has made great use of what Meyniel calls “theme evenings—Ladies at the Movies, Kids at the Movies, Obscure Nights” for horror movie buffs. “It’s about sharing a specific experience among passionate people.”

Meyniel recalls a favorite Kinepolis memory: the French premiere of Déjà Vu, starring Denzel Washington and Paula Patton and directed by Tony Scott. “It was December the 6th. It was freezing outside, and when the evening started, it was even snowing! And when the cast appeared on the red carpet, it was such a warm welcome. They spent such a long time signing autographs, spending time with people there.” In fact, the cast spent so much time with their fans that the movie started two hours late. But a scheduling delay is a small price to pay to achieve the best part of Meyniel’s job: “bringing the magic [of movies] to our patrons.”

The Devil’s in the Details: Carl Lenearts, Integration Manager

If Kinepolis is all about bold thinking and experimentation, it’s also about backing new ideas up with cold, hard facts—something well known to integration manager Carl Lenaerts, who worked in banking before joining Kinepolis in 2009. “In the operational side of our business, numbers and analytical skills are very important,” he explains. “I use the example of a Swiss watch: It’s made up of a lot of little pieces, [and] it’s the little pieces that make it work perfectly.”

There’s no individual component of the moviegoing experience that can be ignored, whether it’s something as small as the amount of time per transaction at the concessions counter—Lenearts boasts that they’ve gone from “62 or 63 seconds for each transaction [to] 33 or 34 seconds,” which adds up—or something as large as utilizing top-quality projectors and sound equipment.

On the latter front, Kinepolis benefits from strong relationships with Dolby and Barco. Technologically, Lenaerts describes Kinepolis as an “early adopter.” That’s certainly the case with laser projection. In 2016, their Breda, Netherlands location became Europe’s first all-laser theatre, boasting one Barco Flagship Laser projector and nine Barco phosphor laser projectors. Additional Barco laser projectors are in use in theatres in Belgium (Antwerp and Ghent), the Netherlands (Utrecht), France (Lomme and Fenouillet) and Spain (Madrid). “People love to have this kind of experience—of laser, of Dolby Atmos,” Lenaerts explains. “I think it will be the future. It will be very important for the industry to be innovative.”

But with all innovation, Lenaerts stresses the importance of preparation and attention to detail. As an example, he cites Kinepolis’ Cosy Seating system, which groups two seats together with a table and extra wide armrests for an optimal date-night configuration. From concept to completion, Cosy Seating took two years. “After the drawing table, after making the business case, after the testing—once we were comfortable with it, then we said, ‘OK, let’s go out and ask our theatregoers what they think about it.’ And it’s a success, because it is something new they didn’t see before. So yes, we can be early adopters, but we always make up our mind based on business sense.”

That combination of daring and caution has worked out well for Kinepolis, which opened five new-build theatres across the Netherlands, France and Spain in 2016. On top of that, there are the acquisitions: of Wolff Bioscopen in 2014 and the Dutch Utopolis chain the year after. “In 2013-14 we had 12 locations,” says Lenaerts. “Now we have 49… 2016 was an incredible year. It’s a very inspiring and fun atmosphere to work in.”

All Hands on Deck: Dave Quick, Country Manager, Operations, Spain

The picture we’ve painted of Kinepolis so far is of a chain that balances an entrepreneurial spirit with a necessary dose of practicality. But where to get those ideas that help make Kinepolis the great chain it is? Take it from Dave Quick, country manager, operations, of Kinepolis’ six Spanish theatres: “The best solutions are usually on the floor.”

By “the floor,” of course, Quick means the theatre level: from the managers and other employees who have boots-on-the-ground experience of what the customer wants. “They know what their needs are—what our clients demand, how we can improve our service. Most of the new initiatives we launch are from the people who work with our clients day by day."

That’s the world Quick comes from. Born in Belgium, after college he moved to Spain and in short order became a fastlane supervisor at Kinepolis’ newly opened Madrid theatre. In the years since, Quick moved up the ranks: local manager, theatre manager, national theatre manager and, as of 2015, country manager, operations, Spain. “I’ve had a lot of different functions in a lot of different theatres,” Quick explains. And that’s helped keep Kinepolis’ Spanish theatres afloat through some tough times. “We had a very important economic crisis here some years ago, which really obligated us to double our efforts to maintain our standards of quality,” he says. “We had to work very hard over four or five years, and the experience we gained during that period is still really crucial. [It helps us] see new opportunities that present themselves today. We had to be really creative, work together and change the way we do business."

To that end, Quick has regular meetings with theatre managers and local managers where they “sit together and talk about the business: How it’s going, the figures, are our clients happy or not? Are our employees happy or not? How can we improve their working conditions?” From this back-and-forth have come ideas like Sushicque, a sushi bar that first rolled out at Kinepolis’ Alicante location in 2016. It was the first finished project to go through the Kinepolis Innovation Lab, an initiative that encourages employees at all levels to submit, flesh out and implement out-of-the-box ideas. Response to Sushicque was so positive that a second location, in Madrid, was opened earlier this year. “There’s been a learning curve, of course,” says Quick of the sushi bar concept. “But you see people getting passionate and feeling the pride and sense of responsibility when you finally open. It’s really fantastic.”

“It’s not only about saying that you’re the best,” Quick argues. “You also have to prove it to your client. It’s in the details.” And all those details—from a sushi bar up to a state-of-the-art Barco projector (last year Granada became Spain’s first all-laser theatre)—must add up to one thing: a pitch-perfect movie experience. “You’re in the theatre and the lights go down—you get absorbed by the movie. It’s completely different from watching it on a TV. I still believe that cinema has a very big future.”

Bringing It All Together: Philip Ghekiere, Chairman of the Board

A lifelong fan of film with “fond memories of being able to escape daily reality and submerge myself in the dream world of the movies,” Philip Ghekiere’s career nevertheless took him in a different direction. Originally a lawyer by trade, he advised the Bert family (or “Family Bert,” in legalese) in their merger with “Family Claeys” in 1997. A year later, he was on deck during Kinepolis Group’s IPO. He’s since left the legal field, first co-founding technology services company Capco and later working in investment banking, but his professional relationship with the Bert family always remained strong. A “logical step,” then, that Ghekiere would join the Kinepolis board of directors in 2006 and become its chairman in 2009.

The image Ghekiere puts forward of Bert and Duquenne is of two men who are passionate about the movie industry, though “quite different in leadership style. Duquenne is focused on “facts and figures” and is “always interested in understanding the business in greater detail and granularity. [He’s] always challenging teams to do better.” By contrast, Bert, as a third-generation exhibition professional, “has a broad perspective of the evolutions in the cinema industry. He is a constant generator of creative, new ideas, always on the lookout [for] how emerging trends may present opportunities for Kinepolis.” Ghekiere thinks of Bert as the Forrest Gump of the exhibition industry: “Whenever he has an issue to reflect on, he puts on his running shoes and is off for a 10 or 15-mile run.”

Put those two approaches together—the long view and the more detail-oriented approach—and you have a recipe for the enormously successful theatre chain that Kinepolis has proven to be. Ghekiere credits the pair with teaching him that “running a cinema business is much more complex than just selling tickets and popcorn and soda. Demographic trends, shortening windows, technological evolutions, industry consolidation, dependence on good content, changing lifestyle patterns and better insights in consumer demands have all contributed to the dramatic changes that the cinema industry has seen over the last decade.”

Ghekiere confirms what Lenearts, Meyniel and Quick have all said about one of the keys to Kinepolis staying on top of the constantly shifting world of theatrical exhibition: that employees at all levels are encouraged to share their ideas with the higher-ups. In fact, Ghekiere counts “interacting with management when they are very passionately presenting their business plans or marketing plans to the board” as his favorite part of serving as Kinepolis’ chairman. “It gives these young managers an opportunity to bring a lot of energy to the room.”