A strong voice for Europe: Phil Clapp takes reins at Int'l Union of Cinemas


“I get frustrated when I see people in positions of influence and authority talking the industry down or predicting its imminent demise. I would not say for one moment that there are not challenges, but these will never be dealt with by doom-mongering.”

Phil Clapp says these words not only as chief executive at the U.K.’s Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), but also as the newly elected president of UNIC. The International Union of Cinemas/Union Internationale des Cinémas represents exhibitor trade associations and key cinema operators, including Vue Entertainment and Cinemaximum/Mars Entertainment featured in this issue, covering 28 countries in the European Union along with Russia, Turkey and Israel.

“Developing a strong voice for European cinema exhibition and influencing policy-making in Europe is UNIC’s top priority” is how Clapp explains the mission at hand. “We are happy that decision-makers in Brussels and across Europe seem increasingly aware of UNIC and the importance of exhibition to the entire film industry. We do now have a seat at the table and Brussels seeks our advice when considering its future strategy for cinema.” Together, UNIC members “account for some one billion admissions annually,” Clapp notes, providing key data to underline his members’ importance. In recent years, he adds, “we have probably experienced most growth amongst territories in Central and Eastern Europe, gaining members with sites operating in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia.”

It is the Southern markets, however, that cause concern at this time. “The continuing economic malaise in South Europe in particular has made conditions incredibly tough for some of our colleagues operating in those territories, and has undoubtedly hindered their efforts to digitize. While there is little UNIC can do by way of direct support,” he admits, “we can offer experience and help where they might be seeking public funding. We can also continue to ask for understanding from the studios, who are, of course, eager to complete global digitization as soon as possible.”

Speaking as head of the CEA, does Clapp believe that those markets and the rest of Europe could learn from the United Kingdom? “Given the differences between territories and circumstances, I am always wary of such questions,” he responds. “I think it would be presumptuous to say the U.K. can teach anyone anything on a particular issue. But we can, I think, share our experience of digitization, which has been tough but ultimately, I am confident, successful.” In particular, Clapp believes “our approach of bringing together smaller operators in a mutually supportive structure without the need for public funding could offer a way forward for others struggling with this digitization challenge.”

Not surprisingly, challenges can lead to opportunity as well. Although “some territories still have a way to go in achieving conversion,” Clapp knows that “digital technology is truly a game-changer. While 35mm undoubtedly served the industry well for decades and not everyone seems entirely willing to let go, the flexibility afforded by this new technology, the consistency of presentation and experience and the ability to be much more responsive to local and niche audiences all offer huge potential. If you add to that the ability to show content other than film to drive new revenue streams and reach new audiences, then to me the future looks a very positive one.”

In our Q&A for last year’s CineEurope, the official convention of UNIC, Clapp had also mentioned film theft and government involvement as two of the bigger challenges that exhibitors are facing. “I think all of the issues mentioned remained important for UNIC and its members,” he confirms about today. “Of increasing concern,” Clapp continues, “is the frequency with which members of the European Commission in particular see it as their role to comment and on occasion look to intervene in matters where UNIC and its partners see them as having no role; and where the market—and on a country-by-country basis, national governments—should hold sway. I am thinking in particular of industry business models and release strategies. We see one of the key tasks facing the organization in the short term as being the need to impress upon these individuals a few home truths about their role—or lack of it—here.”

Given the sad truths of film theft and shrinking home revenues on one side, in conjunction with ever-rising production and marketing costs on the other, the entire release model has remained under repeated attack. How can our industry keep theatrical relevant to the discussions, we wondered. “No one in exhibition is blind to challenges which colleagues in home entertainment continue to face. [But] neither do we think that those can be solved by ripping up the entire business model,” Clapp cautions. “The increasing growth of digital release platforms—and the flexibility and responsiveness afforded by digital-cinema technology—means that there are many more ways in which movies can be brought to audiences and in which they can be marketed. But cinema is and will remain integral to that, both as a revenue source in its own right and as a driver of subsequent income streams.”

“I think it’s a question of ambition,” Clapp observes, supporting our suggestion that theatrical attendance needs to increase further for cinemas to remain in the driver’s seat. “We can continue to grow audiences in small ways by being a little better here and there, or we can seek to be radical.” Needless to say, Clapp is an advocate for the latter. “One of the seminars at this year’s CineEurope will explore the extent to which the cinema and home-entertainment industries both increasingly fish from the same pond when it comes to customers,” he elaborates. “All of us are depending in large part on a comparatively small proportion of the population who are big consumers of film on all platforms, including—it has to be acknowledged—some illegal ones.” Already, he foresees “absolutely” sharing the conclusion that seminar will reach. “Both cinema and home entertainment might more usefully spend their energies not in a tug of war over the same customers, but in looking to expand their audience to those who rarely or never go to the cinema or watch a film at home. Neither side has any established relationship with these people, so it is imperative that [they find] third parties who do.” One successful example that he names is Orange. The U.K. telecom company is behind the countrywide two-for-one ticket promotion (and more) on “Orange Wednesdays” and “had a customer base rich with clients of an age and outlook which should be a gold mine for cinema.”

Further mining potential opportunities, UNIC has launched several all-industry initiatives across the association. The Technology Group “brings together technology executives from its key operators and association members,” Clapp says, “in order to monitor relevant technological developments and to enable a regular exchange of expertise and best practice among exhibitors and with partners.” The latter include the European Digital Cinema Forum, the National Association of Theatre Owners and the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum.

With support from The Coca-Cola Company, this past February UNIC launched the European Cinema Retail Group “to better understand the latest trends in cinema retail and to examine how exhibitors can upgrade and innovate their offer”. Again, UNIC counts on experts from the field, Clapp explains, by bringing together “retail and concessions managers from leading cinema operators across Europe. The Group conducts research, shares best practices and initiates real-life experiments to make retail in cinemas more imaginative and consumer-friendly.” Results will feed into the concessions seminars and workshops at CineEurope, he confirms. “Last but not least, we have established—on a pilot basis—a UNIC Partnership Programme, initially with a limited number of key organizations with an established track record of serving and supporting the cinema industry. The aim of the program is to establish a more regular two-way dialogue on developments and challenges, be they around marketing, technology or retail. I should stress that there is no question that any of these companies will get ‘preferred’ status from individual UNIC members.”

Further on that collaborative note, UNIC recently joined forces with NATO on standards for immersive sound technologies. Will we see more of that kind of global collaboration? “Our relationship with colleagues at NATO stretches back several decades,” Clapp concurs. “But it’s probably true to say that it has experienced a step-change in the last few years in terms of dialogue and cooperation—the joint statement on immersive sound technologies is one manifestation of that.” Speaking more generally, “we all recognize the increasingly global nature of the cinema industry and the challenges it faces. It seems sensible to share experience and best practice on the same scale. Clearly even within Europe, the cultural, political and economic context in which cinemas operate varies from territory to territory, but there is a great deal more that unites us than divides us.”
International Union, indeed.

Up Close and Personal with the New President
During the May board meeting of UNIC, Phil Clapp was elected president for the 2013-2015 term after having served on the trade body for the past five-and-a-half years, most recently as senior VP. In addition to sharing his insight into the policies and partnerships that the International Union of Cinemas is pursuing, Film Journal International wanted to ask Phil Clapp some more personal questions.

First up are his favorites. “No major surprises here—sweet popcorn, not the salty stuff, and a diet Coke—small,” he emphasizes. “My absolute favorite film is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Someone smarter than me once referred to it as ‘film as opera’ and I think that’s a fair summary: everything you’d want in under three hours—murder, hope, despair, betrayal and redemption.” And great music, we might add.

Clapp likes his cinemas equally grand, but “I can’t say I have any one favorite.” That said, “whenever you walk into the main auditorium at the Empire Leicester Square in London, you’re immediately struck by the incredible sense of history of the venue—something I’ve only ever felt before when I visited Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. I’m lucky in that where I live I have the choice of a number of different cinemas, so I can decide on a modern multiplex experience or a cozier ‘art-house’ one, depending on which film I want to see.” The first one ever, he thinks, was Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Concorde Cinema in his hometown of Bristol. Click here for a photo and images of many other Bristol treasures.

Enjoyable as that movie certainly was, Clapp’s favorite movie theatre memory does not date back that far, he says. “I was working away from home with a colleague in the early 1990s and after a few beers and I think a curry, we decided to see what was on at the local cinema. Before we knew it, we were amongst an audience of families and children all marveling at Jurassic Park. I’d like to think it wasn’t the alcohol that meant I didn’t stop smiling for several days...”

FJI: Aside from these fond and favorite memories, what prompted you to join theatrical exhibition in October 2007 as head of the U.K.’s Cinema Exhibitors’ Association?
Phil Clapp: The job I did previous to joining the CEA was to head up creative industries policy—so not just film but also music, design, computer games and a number of other areas—for the national government. Covering such a wide array of business sectors meant that it was difficult to ever get into the detail, and working at one step away from the action, as you always do in government, was another frustration. When the opportunity came to move into the exhibition sector, I jumped at that chance.

FJI: What do you enjoy about our industry now?

PC: One of the things which impresses me most about the industry—and to be honest makes the job I do in the U.K. and now in Europe more achievable—is the air of shared purpose sense around many of those I meet and work with. Of course, for most it is a business, but for many the desire to give people the best possible cinema experience and, perhaps for some, an escape from their everyday lives is as much if not more of a driver. That and the opportunity to work in a sector which you soon find that everyone has an opinion about…

FJI: What are some of the key topics that you will address during your presidency?
PC: I think some of the changes that will happen over the next few years will be a natural progression of the direction of travel already established under the eight-year presidency of Ad Weststrate, specifically a determination to extend our influence and networks politically and with other partners in the film industry and beyond.
Given the increase in size and reach of the organization, however, I do think we will also need to look at the way we take decisions and the speed with which we can react to changing circumstances or announcements affecting the sector. Clearly with 32 members, it is increasingly difficult to get an immediate consensus on matters. But I think we are now in a place where all members are increasingly comfortable with the idea of UNIC responding swiftly on their behalf.

FJI: What is your number-one goal for UNIC?
PC: Again, I haven’t come into this role with any great revolutionary plan. The way forward is to me at least clear and agreed—to cement the position of UNIC as the key voice for cinema exhibition across Europe and to confirm our role as a key partner with exhibitor organizations elsewhere and relevant interests throughout the wider industry.

FJI: What is your key message to the theatrical exhibition (and distribution) industry?
PC: I’ve now been in the industry almost six years, after a period in government watching it from afar. One of the changes I’ve seen, and one of the things I think must continue if we are to progress, is an increasing sense that within the industry we—production, distribution, exhibition—are all “in this together.” Whatever the arguments we may have on an occasional basis, the real threat doesn’t come from within, but rather from those who seek to steal or copy our films, and—more legitimately, of course—those who compete for our customers’ hard-earned cash.