Kino deluxe: Flebbe finds success in Germany with upscale film lounges
Over the course of the his 38 years in theatrical exhibition in Germany, spanning from progressive Programmkino cinemas (which he still operates today; see www.filmkunstkinos-hannover.de) to the country’s first purpose-built multiplex that defined a generation of others, Hans-Joachim Flebbe has launched more than 200 movie theatres, including some 50 of the CinemaxX multiplex variety (www.cinemaxx.de). Opening the Residenz in Cologne on March 21 after a complete remodel under the Astor Film Lounge brand was among his most stressful and exciting projects, however, as he recently confided in German trade weekly FilmEcho.
Catching up with one of the country’s most innovative exhibitors six-and-a-half weeks later (www.astor-filmlounge.de), all the stress from the 100-day, €3 million (US$3.82 mil.) overhaul of an abandoned 1950s boulevard-beauty-turned-quad seems to have disappeared. “Like our Astor Lounge cinemas in Berlin and Munich before, the Residenz has been a huge success,” Flebbe enthuses about the newest of his upscale theatres. “I really think it is one of the most beautiful cinemas I have ever built.”
Whereas Astor @cinema lounge is located in Munich’s famed Hotel Bayrischer Hof, and the next site will revive the former IMAX and CineMagnum screen at Zeilgalerie Frankfurt this July, the Residenz has more in common with the first Astor Film Lounge in Berlin. Both hail back to “the time of tradition-defining moviegoing,” as Flebbe calls the first cinemas of the post-War period. “Back then the emphasis was on creating beautiful décor and ambiance that enhanced the experience of going out to watch a film.”
While redesigning the main Residenz auditorium, from 820 seats at one point to 280 leatherette recliners—completed by double armrests, tables with footrests and legroom to spare—the décor was inspired by Phillippe Starck. “We borrowed some of his design ideas,” Flebbe acknowledges. Capacity of the upstairs screen, which had been added in 1965 as Intimes Theater, was equally reduced to 150 from 365 and is now illuminated with a colorful LED lighting scheme. Transforming the space of a 1970s mini-box of 70 into a club-room library screen with 35 individual luxury seats covered in red velvet encompassed the addition of wood paneling throughout and 60 linear meters of books (197 feet). “The people of Cologne totally dig it because of the very private atmosphere,” Flebbe has observed. “It is very important for us to have the highest level of fit-out and materials.” Citing the additional example that the first Astor Film Lounge in Berlin is under landmark protection, “we actually played up all the historic elements there,” he says. “We don’t want our auditoriums to be rectangular boxes, with acoustical elements and all technical-looking. We want to build really beautiful Kinos.”
“When my contract on the managing board of CinemaxX expired,” Flebbe continues, explaining how the idea of film lounging came about, “I decided to do something that I would really enjoy doing.” Assuring that he “has nothing against CinemaxX or any of the other multiplexes,” Flebbe qualifies that 20 years ago they certainly did away with the shoeboxes and split auditoriums of the prior era. “Multiplexkinos represented a truly new experience. Their large screens, excellent sound, stadium seating and spacious lobbies attracted everyone back to the cinema, not just the younger generation.”
Flebbe feels that subsequent market developments—such as over-screening, expensive real estate and construction agreements, along with lack of funding, pressure from banks and the like—made investments in upkeep and further innovation scarce. “It was all about saving money to make it work,” he says of the experience not just at CinemaxX but by pretty much everyone else in the German exhibition industry. “Having founded the company and being on its board, I always defended multiplexes and their mass appeal. 1.5 million admissions are a great success for any given theatre, but, with that, an individual guest could not really be the front and center of the operation.” Consequently, he opines, the older generation stayed away once again. “Going to the multiplex became a very stressful experience, not one to fully enjoy. Kino was dead for them,” he summarizes. “They preferred the comfort of their homes.”
Not surprisingly, those comforts were among the first amenities that Flebbe decided he had to emulate as part of the Astor experience. “When developing the concept, I was originally thinking about what I would like it to be like when I go to the movies. It had to be at least as comfortable as in my home where I don’t have to look for parking first, where I don’t have to wait in line and where I can put up my feet if I want to. My wife may even bring me a beer,” he adds with a laugh. When the lease for the Film-Palast in Berlin became available, Flebbe seized the opportunity and redid the single screen to his very liking, launching the Astor Film Lounge in November 2008. “Our guests tell us over and over again that, after having experienced the Astor lounge offerings, they won’t be going back to the multiplex.”
After the uniformed doorman has greeted them upon arrival, guests find a coat check at their disposal. Waiters and waitresses offer them a selection of welcome cocktails served on trays throughout the lobby. “From a business standpoint,” Flebbe admits, “it is not necessarily the smartest idea, because for many people one cocktail is quite enough. But it really creates such a welcoming atmosphere and elevates the experience. People are always very surprised when they come to us for the first time.” Further on that note, Astor Film Lounge “has brought back the good old-fashioned ushers from yesteryear, who do indeed accompany our guests to their seats, and, yes, with flashlights too,” he promises.
During the pre-show of no more than 20 minutes, “including short films sometimes, and relatively few ads,” guests can order a variety of beer, wine and drinks accompanied by small food items. Antipasti, cheese plates, cold meats and more hearty fare are not intended to replace a proper dinner, he notes, but to make that bottle of wine even more enjoyable. During the afternoons, a visit to the Film Lounge is more like going to the Konditorei bakery and café. “Our guests order from a selection at the display case and have their coffee, cake and delicious Torten brought to their seats inside.” Flebbe asserts that Astor does not offer warm and smelly meals and that there is no more seat-side service once the curtain has been lowered in preparation for the movie.
“Nothing distracts from the film experience,” but plenty more is done to prepare for it. “We equipped our auditoriums with LEDs so that we can create any kind of color, shading and atmosphere. We like to set the tone before each feature with about 90 seconds of light show and curtain-riser ceremony.” Flebbe calls this “our Lichtspiele,” which not only translates to “play of lights” but is also another German word for cinema theatre. “Changing the color and intensity while relaxing music is playing, the curtains go up and to the side, preparing our moviegoers for the film. That is projected digitally, of course,” he assures, “and in 3D, with the best possible sound, absolutely to the standards of multiplexes.”
All this comes at a price, of course, ranging from €10 to €18 (US$13 to $23), depending on time of day and day of week. Considering the full package, that seems rather reasonable, we might add. While the countrywide average ticket price comes to between €8.00 and €8.50 not including surcharges, Astor lounges generate around €15 ($19). Unlike conventional cinemas, the price of admission also includes online reservations and/or purchase without additional booking fees. “Even in a critical city like Berlin, where they always find something to complain about, our prices have never been an issue,” Flebbe declares. “Rightly so, because we really didn’t want to cater to the high society alone, but wanted to go relatively broader in the mix. We hear all the time how people think it’s a real bargain for what the Astor Film Lounges offer to them.” In further proof, 2011 attendance was up 18%, he confirms, and 2012 so far is topping that by another 20%.
The secret of his success? “Our guests feel the commitment that we put into our cinemas and behind the brand.” For Flebbe, it is “high time to show once again that movie theatres are more than just a place to unspool films. I like to compare the multiplexes to McDonald’s sometimes, whereas we are more of a fine restaurant. A place where you go with your wife, husband, boy- or girlfriend when you are looking for something more special. I want people to leave the Astor Film Lounge and say, ‘What a good movie that was, with great food and wine. What a great experience, and what a wonderful evening out we had!’”
While it is a successful business proposition, Astor Film Lounge is also “very gratifying on a personal level and so much fun,” Flebbe assures. “For me as an exhibitor, it is great to have guests come up to me and say how much they are enjoying their visit and the Astor experience instead of going to the multiplexes. It is very satisfying work.”