Practical Vue: Steve Knibbs counts on changes, content and concessions
For Vue Entertainment’s chief operating officer, Steve Knibbs, “one of the many things we have all learned over the years” of working in the global exhibition business is that “you can’t impose something that works in one country when you go somewhere else and think that is going to work. It probably won’t.” Knibbs, who joined AMC Theatres’ pioneering multiplex operations in the United Kingdom back in 1986 and moved on to and up through the ranks to senior VP at United Cinemas International (UCI), has been sharing the Vue of Tim Richards and Alan McNair since the circuit was founded in 2003. “You need to look for and find the right ideas, and then work out what can be transferred to other markets.” All the while keeping in mind, he cautions, that “you could always be surprised by something.”
The most recent acquisition of another 28 Multikino cinemas with 231 screens across Poland and two locations with 15 screens in Latvia and Lithuania serves as the starting point for his Vue on multi-national operations. With locations in Portugal and Taiwan from SBC International Cinemas remaining a founding part of the ten-year anniversary mix, as well as the previously acquired CinemaxX locations in Germany and Denmark folding into his domain as well, Knibbs readily assures: “We are not a one-size-fits-all company. We are a company that looks at improving the customer experience in all areas and all of the time. That could mean different things in different countries,” although there are common themes amongst them. “Immersive 3D sound will play just as well in Berlin and Warsaw as it does in London. We think our VIP seats will also work everywhere and so will VueXtreme, our premium large-format screens. One of the other things we intend to do is to take good ideas from Poland and Germany and test them in our other markets.”
In addition to introducing and adapting said offers and services, the Vue Entertainment Group name will also start to appear outside of the U.K., Knibbs says. But for the time being, CinemaxX and Multikino will remain the trade names, as they certainly represent “very strong brands” in their respective countries. Just like Vue’s Westfield London is “the highest-grossing cinema anywhere in the U.K. and Ireland, possibly in Europe as well, and even one of the top-grossing sites in the world,” the acquired circuits bring several of the top-tier grossing sites of Poland, Germany and Denmark into the Vue fold. “We have one of the top two or three, if not the top site, in each country,” Knibbs states with obvious pride, adding that Westfield Stratford City is Vue’s second entry to the U.K.’s top three.
Overall share of box office there, including the former Apollo Cinemas sites that Vue acquired, has grown to 23%, he confirms. By the time this publication hits the racks at CineEurope, the integration process of the remaining Apollo locations—four were sold to Reel Cinemas, one to Curzon—will have been completed. “Internally, we do no longer refer to Apollo,” and, unlike CinemaxX and Multikino, “by the end of the summer the name will be gone.” Knibbs cites getting approval from zoning and planning to replace old signage as the last item on the list. Since Apollo’s projection equipment consists of Sony 4K already—just like at CinemaxX and existing Vue locations, whereas Multikino deployed a mix of Barco and Christie DLP Cinema—integrating the technology has been going very smoothly. “We changed management structures to allow for the new digital processes that we have in place,” Knibbs says of the transition. “Our retail offerings have been adjusted and we are in the process of doing some refurbishments on a couple of the older sites that Apollo had.” He names Leamington Spa as a good example of “investing in an older site in a really, really good location.”
Moving along to really, really good snacks, Vue’s retail operations are “a bit of a boring story, actually,” Knibbs opines. “Our experience has been that people know what they like. People who like popcorn like their popcorn and those who like nachos like our nachos.” In fact, visiting Poland and Germany recently, he finds “the commonality of items that work in one place and that also work in another is interesting to observe. The one exception is Denmark, where they love their sweets. One-third of the sales there are based around sweets, whereas in the U.K. and Germany that number is less than 10%. Generally, we see similar customer patterns across all our markets,” Knibbs further explains. “We don’t have a massive program of trialing and testing new products…because history has told us that people seem to just want to carry on with popcorn and soft drinks. Hot dogs and nachos also sell well and so does ice cream.”
That said, “one of the changes that we made recently in the U.K. is to change our supplier. While Mars has always been the leading confectionary supplier into the cinema market since I started in Milton Keynes, we decided to enter into a contract with Cadbury last year. That was a big change for our customers,” he admits. “Because for the last 20 and more years, obviously, they’ve been accustomed to having the same sort of things.”
The same holds true for those cinemas that offer Bollywood programming, though with a twist. Knibbs goes on to relay the experience at Vue Star City in Birmingham. With 25 screens and some 5,130 seats the largest in the circuit, this location draws about one-quarter to a third of the audience that enjoys those types of movies, he says. “We engaged with a supplier to bring really good, high-quality Indian snacks and food to our concession stand, but nobody was buying it. So we did some research asking our Asian customers in the foyer who we thought would want to buy those items. ‘God no,’ they said, ‘We eat that all the time at home. It’s really nice that you have done this, but when we come to the cinema we really love to have…popcorn, Coke, ice cream, hot dogs and nachos,’ they told us. Clearly, we decided not to bother with it any more. It just wasn’t what people wanted.”
“Whilst we all know that snacks in cinemas sort of have high calorie counts,” Knibbs points out that “Vue promotes and sells lots of lower-salt versions of things, low-calorie drinks and the like. We also offer juices and don’t just sell large buckets, but we also have smaller sizes of everything.” In London, he names as example, “we sell more water than we do carbonated drinks. We always respond to what the market is asking for. So where we sell a lot of water, we now have flavored water as well.”
The reason for bringing this up is the “increasing pressure in the U.K. and across the European Union to do something about the obesity problem.” As every exhibitor knows, theatres offer the items that they do because “people like them and they buy them,” Knibbs concurs. “And if they didn’t, we would sell something else. I want to take the opportunity to talk about this because Vue is doing its part by offering smaller sizes and sugar-free options, as well as lower-calorie options in our food and drink offerings.”
When it comes to offering content, “the range of things that you can show in cinema” has expanded as well. Knibbs mentions sports, ballet, live events, opera and “films directly beamed in from Cannes: There is no reason why cinemas should not be able to have all that.” Elaborating upon the last idea, he envisions “shots from the red carpet” first and, within “half an hour of the official premiere,” a showing “for an invited gala audience of whatever title is the main film during the festival. I see no reason why we can’t be doing that. For the next season premiere of ‘Game of Thrones’ in the U.K.—and wherever else the show is popular—Sky can invite their top customers and present a sponsored screening at Vue. There are a thousand ways that we can grow and develop our business,” he opines.
As another example, “our conferencing business has doubled over the last two years. And we see that doubling every couple of years going forward. Our cinemas, because of digital, have now become very popular during the daytime when we are obviously not as busy because they are fantastic places to showcase products and presentations.” He speaks about “a company chief executive talking to 400 of his senior managers at one of our auditoriums at Vue Westfield. The presentation can be beamed live to his subsidiary companies in Germany, Poland and Denmark, Taiwan even. We can facilitate all of that. The choice that people will have in our cinemas, going forward, is only going to increase in terms of what they can watch… If you look at the things that we will do at any one of our cinemas in a five-year time and the types of content that we will be showing is virtually the same as what we are doing now,” Knibbs believes, “[then] we will have failed.”
But, of course, for someone who partook in the U.K. multiplex revolution from the very start, failure is not an option. “I am a glass-half-full person who always sees opportunities. You have probably heard that from Tim as well. At Vue we only see a world of opportunity in our business because of digital and the fact that people are looking for more things to do in their leisure time. Just consider how the things that you can do with a cinema screen now are just so different from what they were five years ago. Never mind ten years ago. I think that the process of change and innovation is only going to pick up speed and will keep on going.”
After 26 years in this business, “I am probably as excited about the future as I have ever been,” Knibbs concludes. “If you’re in the business for such a long time, I think you can get a bit tired and jaundiced, but I don’t feel that way at all. I’m looking forward to the next ten years and what Vue is going to accomplish. There is a lot going on in Europe in terms of consolidation and we are all looking forward to being part of that and see what we can do to improve our customer offers. I know it may sound a bit corporate and bland, but it is actually true. It’s a really exciting business, isn’t it? It gets under your skin and I am fortunate to be working in something that I really, really enjoy.”