Scandinavia Success Story: CineEurope hails Jan Bernhardsson of Nordic Cinema Group

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CineEurope is honoring Nordic Cinema Group CEO Jan Bernhardsson as its 2015 “International Exhibitor of the Year” in recognition of his groundbreaking achievements in Scandinavia and the Baltic countries in the past two years.

“The establishment and rapid expansion of the Nordic Cinema Group has been one of the success stories of European cinema exhibition in recent years,” notes Phil Clapp, president of Europe’s International Union of Cinemas (UNIC). “Central to that success has undoubtedly been the leadership, business acumen and skill of Jan Bernhardsson.”

Bernhardsson was appointed CEO of Nordic Cinema Group (NCG) with the merger of SF Bio, one of the world’s oldest film companies, and top Finnish theatre chain Finnkino in May 2013. Since that time, admissions, box office, concession sales and average ticket prices have all shown remarkable growth, with admissions alone reaching 21.5 million in 2014. In addition, the market share of NCG and its associated companies has also grown, with Sweden at 85%, Finland at 73%, Norway at 24%, Estonia at 47%, Latvia at 45% and Lithuania at 76%.

Bernhardsson previously served as CEO of SF Bio from 1998 to 2013. With a keen eye for online strategies, he helped turn www.sf.se into one of the top ten most popular sites in Sweden and the SF Bio app into the country’s most downloaded entertainment app in the App Store. The circuit’s loyalty club has almost 10 percent of the Swedish population as active members.

Regarding the merger, Bernhardsson observes, “We are in six different markets with six different cultures... You don’t find a jackpot of synergies. In Sweden, for example, there’s one preference for candy, in Norway there’s another candy, in Finland there’s a third. They’re different cultures with different consumer behaviors. It’s much, much more a best-practice case than it is a synergy case. For example, it’s not so easy to find total buying power for the group; it’s much more about best practices. One example is that we can create a common IT platform and a common point-of-sale system to align and establish the same processes for the entire group.”

Bernhardsson notes, “Our markets are local, but we have a lot to learn from each other in different areas. We have a saying: ‘One mistake in one cinema, one success in all cinemas,’ which is a standard that we are constantly working by.”

So what’s behind Nordic Cinema Group’s impressive box-office figures? Bernhardsson responds, “We have worked with a strong focus on moving from just ‘screening a film’ to offering a ‘cinema experience,’ an experience that is unique and makes people want to go to the cinema.”

To create that special experience, “for most of the shows in Sweden and Norway, we have a presenter who presents the film and welcomes the audience and describes the film. We do that in over 50% of our screens. The other thing is to always try to create magic in the auditorium, from the moment you book your ticket. We try to create a welcoming feeling, with a big screen, the best sound and better, more spacious seating—everything to give the audience the best experience. We take no short cuts.”

Social-media savvy is also a huge part of NCG’s success. “In Sweden and Norway, we were very early adapters of social media,” Bernhardsson notes. “Two years before Google started, we sold tickets over the Internet. Our mission was to put a box office in every household; now our mission is to put a box office in every pocket.

“We have over 100,000 Facebook followers in most of our markets and a lot of followers on Twitter. We are active on most of the social-media platforms. In Sweden, we have a customer database of over 700,000…And on average, 70% of our tickets in Sweden are sold on the Internet.”

Bernhardsson feels today’s online environment has been very good for his business. “In three ways,” he elaborates. “We now have a cinema ticket in reach only a click away, thanks to mobile apps and the Internet. Since you often pay in advance, you are coming to the cinema with ‘a new wallet’ and tend to buy more concessions. And since we have so many point of contact with our customers, our media offer is very appealing for advertisers.”

Nordic Cinema Group is 100% digital, and all of their cinemas are 3D-enabled. Bernhardsson says 3D is “highly popular” among his customers, and that “the 3D breakthrough, which started in 2009 with Avatar, is one important reason for the increase in the average ticket price.”

Digital technology has also enabled more alternative programming.“We are offering opera, ballet and theatre to a various extent in all of our markets. There is absolutely a growth potential—so far the main growth has been in Finland and the Baltics.”

D-cinema has also been a boon to the pre-show, Bernhardsson notes.“With digital technology, we can target the advertising to certain groups, and the trailers too.” Unlike in the United States, where there’s always been a degree of resistance to in-theatre ads, “we have been working with advertising for a long time. In Sweden, commercial TV was only launched in the mid-’90s. The only way to show commercials was with motion pictures. We have strange behavior: People don’t want to miss the advertising! Now we’re more like other territories around the world, so we can’t have long commercial breaks. We mix the pre-show with trailers and limit it to six minutes.”

NCG audiences also enjoy seeing themselves onscreen. Bernhardsson calls local films, which account for an average 20% of ticket sales, “an important mix in our box office. When there are weeks without a release, that’s an opportunity to put a local film in. It’s easier to convince a local producer to move to that date than to call one of the studios and say, ‘Hi, it’s me in Sweden, can you move that title?’ And people always want to see local movies.”

This year, Nordic Cinema Group will continue its growth pattern with the debut of four new locations: Filmstaden Scandinavia in Stockholm, Sweden, with 15 screens (including four VIP houses and one IMAX screen) plus a restaurant and bar, for a total of roughly 1,900 seats; a 550-seat four-plex in Lappeenranta, Finland, a university town close to the Russian border; the Göta art cinema in Gothenburg, Sweden, with four screens and 252 seats; and Sotra Kino in Bergen, Norway, with five screens and 600 seats, located in one of the largest shopping malls in Norway. At the end of 2017, NCG plans to open Norway’s largest cinema, with an IMAX screen, in the Storo shopping mall in the Oslo area.

Looking even farther into the future, Bernhardsson reflects, “I don’t think we’ll see as big a change as we did with the paradigm shift to digital. Digital has given us opportunities, and we still have to learn to take advantage of them—for programming, for using our customer database to create new concepts. The customer wants more for less money or the same money. We need to add to their experience, we need to upgrade our cinemas.

“There’s a lot of discussion around laser projection and large-screen formats, but I think we have more to do on the packaging than on the delivery of a new technique for our customers.”

Though there’s always room for improvement, Bernhardsson is bullish on the future of the theatrical movie business. “We as an industry are satisfying a basic human need: to meet and experience great stories together. As long as we manage to continuously develop the cinema experience, I see a great future for cinema.”