Cinemaximum impact: Muzaffer Yildirim and Mars Entertainment transform Turkey


Muzaffer Yildirim says his personal recipe for a successful business is to “think big, visualize, believe and make it happen.” Calling his work across Turkey “the ultimate example of how innovative thinking and foresight can lead to great success in the cinema exhibition industry,” the partners of CineEurope have selected the co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Mars Entertainment Group as their 2013 “International Exhibitor of the Year.” With over 500 screens in 24 cities operating under the Cinemaximum brand and accounting for 52% of total box office and 85% of cinema-advertising revenues in Turkey, Mars not only operates the country’s largest circuit but also its very best.

“Our main focus is on creating the utmost moviegoing experience,” Yildirim declares. “Mars Entertainment Group aims to carry out innovative projects that create positive changes in people’s lives. Our objective in all our business lines is to create an experience beyond expectations and to amaze our guests. The emotional tie that binds you to a movie theatre is, in fact, made up from all the small details you take for granted. That is why we emphasize ergonomics and function,” he states, naming one example. “Our audiences should feel extremely comfortable during the two hours they watch a movie. Cinemaximum theatres offer the widest seats, longest back-to-back seat distance and largest screens in state-of-the-art auditoriums.” And talking about the difference that attention to details can make: “Our most popular seating is in the front row closest to the screen, since our guests can rest their legs on a comfy ottoman.”

It may be a case of the cinema operator saving the best seats for paying customers, but Yildirim himself prefers to enjoy his favorite movie accompaniment of water, Turkish coffee and ice cream while sitting “in the middle seat of the middle row, when available.” His first movie memory goes back to The Love Bug at Emek Sinemasi in Istanbul, though over the years, Peter Sellers in The Party and The Godfather series have become his best-liked films. While the Cinemaximum Antalya was the first cinema Yildirim opened in July 2001, he names the Mars multiplexes in Meydan and at Marmara Forum as his personal favorites today.

Yildirim’s involvement with the cinema exhibition business goes back to 1994. “My first theatre management experience was when I was general manager of Alarko Tourism Group,” he tells us. Whereas “the holding company was hesitant about increasing their investment in this business,” beyond its four Cinecity locations with 26 “boutique” screens, Yildirim believed in the power of the experience. “I saw the growth potential and thus founded my own company to enter the market in 2001.” From the first day onwards, he singles out the Kinepolis Group as a source of inspiration, “I kept abreast of the developments in the worldwide cinema industry. This still is an important part of my daily work routine.”

Or should that be workout? With a degree from Marmara University School of Physical Education and Sports—followed by a career that also included Vakko, Turkey’s leading retailer, and The Philip Morris Company—it is not all that surprising that Mars Entertainment Group encompasses the additional business segments of fitness and wellness (Mars Athletic Club, NuSpa) and food and entertainment (NuPeople). “We thought it would be fun to be known as Martians,” he says about choosing the name. “So that each project would be naturally innovative, distinctive, weird and successful.”

Along with our readers, Martians are a curious bunch to boot. What lessons has he learned in the other segments that can be applied to cinema? “Due to close interaction with our guests in both those businesses,” Yildirim obtains “invaluable information about their social habits, expectations and complaints. By comparison, the data we get from the customer-satisfaction surveys in our theatres is very limited. We also learned that quality is all that matters and never the size of your operations. Twenty percent of our guests make up eighty percent of our income—this is why quality of service is critically important in all of our business segments.”

Of the more than 2,250 people working for Mars, Yildirim gives special credit to his partner and co-founder, Menderes Utku. “We are two partners who are eager to create a positive change in the lives of others,” he says about their shared goal of “creating unique projects without compromising on honesty and ethical principles. Our close friendship and the fact that we complement each other in business matters” is another key to success. “Menderes is very intuitive and compassionate. While he is the pessimist, I am the dreamer and optimist. I am a real ‘doer’ and I always tend to act too quickly. Thanks to him, when we sign a new project, we are always ready for the worst-case scenario,” Yildirim chuckles.

This seems like an opportune moment to address challenges in the industry. “The biggest challenge is underreporting by smaller cinemas, which is affecting industry transparency,” Yildirim acknowledges. “Some measures have been undertaken already, but it is a slow progress. Another challenge is the extreme seasonality of our business. The summer period needs to be further developed with more Turkish film release activity and programs that encourage patrons to make filmgoing part of their lives all year long and thereby creating a more robust cinemagoing culture.”

Over the past 12 years, the corporate progress has been robust, to say the least. After “signing the contract for our first movie theatre in Antalya,” he goes on to name other company highlights such as the acquisition of the Cinemaxx and AFM chains (“Trans-Continental Cinemas,” July 2008) in 2005 and 2012, respectively. “The most exciting moment for me personally was the acquisition of AFM Sinemalari. We were only an eight-year old company, while they had been in business for 45 years. This acquisition led the way to being recognized in the international marketplace and demonstrated how Mars had grown to a remarkable size in a very short time.”

How does it feel to get this recognition officially now, if you will, from one’s peers in the international industry? “There were often times that I sighed during the CinemaExpo/CineEurope award ceremonies,” Yildirim admits about keeping his hopes up. “Mars has accomplished a dream… And now, this is the most prestigious award that we can get in our business. It is the ultimate proof that what you do as a person and how you do it as a company has remained on the right track. We are very proud to be considered the best. I thank all members of my team because we have realized this dream together.”

He goes on to also thank UNIC (“It is an honor for Mars to be a part of UNIC”) and Robert Sunshine, CineEurope’s managing director and Film Journal International publisher. First and foremost, however, “I would like to thank my family –our two wonderful children are my proudest achievement. Then my partner Menderes Utku, who has played a great part in this success, and Nilgül Utku, our third partner.”

Great partners are another important part of the equation: Yildirim begins with his financial supporters, naming in chronological order, İş Private Equity, Colony Capital, Actera Group and Esas Holding. “There is a saying for me that goes, ‘He loves investment and growth as much as a bear loves honey.’” From the beginning, Mars could count on sponsorships as well. “Garanti Bank was our first brand-name sponsor, a first in exhibition worldwide. Starting with our first theatre in 2001 until April last year, our cinemas were called Cinebonus after their ‘Bonus’ credit card. Similarly now, Cinemaximum is named after the ‘Maximum’ credit card of İş Bankasi, which is Turkey’s most reputable bank. We are very pleased about working with them and signing a long-term sponsorship agreement. Turkcell, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Sony Consumer Products have also contributed to our achievement from the very beginning.”

Mars encountered a little bit of a rough start in entering the third dimension, which Yildirim ultimately ironed out by handing €200 to a waiter in Cannes. “At that time, RealD did not yet consider entering the Turkish market,” he recalls. “We corresponded with them for more than a year before, finally, they asked us if we were going to the Cannes Film Festival. We agreed to have a breakfast meeting with [CEO] Joe Peixoto at Hotel Martinez. Joe had meetings all day, so this was our only chance. And, of course, the place was full! Those euros secured us a table and our first two RealD screens. Launching in November of that same year 2007 at our Kanyon and Nautilus locations with Beowulf, Turkey became the seventh European country to offer digital 3D. Today, we have achieved 26% penetration across the circuit.”

And there is more on the horizon. “Growth, growth and growth,” Muzaffer Yildirim says about his plans for the future. “Within two-and-a-half years, Mars plans to build 27 new multiplexes and will reach 750 Cinemaximum screens. And we will have more than 1,000 for a 74% box-office share in Turkey by the end of 2017.” At the same time, he foresees Mars Entertainment Group reaching US$1 billion in total revenue and doubling the number of employees. “Our vision is to follow an aggressive growth strategy not only in theatrical exhibition but also in other business segments in the movie industry. I believe that theatrical moviegoing will still be the top social event, even another 12 years from now. No other form of film-watching can really compete with experiencing a movie on a 100 square-meter screen together with 300 to 500 people.”

Congratulations to Muzaffer Yildirim and his entire team for thinking big indeed, and making it happen.

A Conversation with Kurt Rieder

“I hope to support Muzaffer Yildirim’s goal of ensuring [that his] cinema business [is] reflecting international best practice in all aspects of our exhibition operations.” At the end of April, Kurt Rieder became chief executive officer of the Cinemaximum-branded theatrical division of Mars Entertainment Group. He joined the company from Golden Village, Singapore’s leading cinema circuit and independent film distributor, and after working with consulting firm Artisan Gateway. A 22-year industry veteran, he is best known, perhaps, for handling sales and marketing for United International Pictures in Asia, for which he received CineAsia 2006 honors.

“I always wanted to work in Europe.” Rieder says; moving to Istanbul was a homecoming of sorts. “Mars is one of the fastest growing exhibitors in Europe and certainly the largest exhibitor in Europe’s most dynamic theatrical market. I had come to know and trust Muzaffer from a consulting assignment at UIP Turkey in 2011 and was eager to work with him again. While Singapore’s exhibition market is a smooth-running machine,” he draws the comparison for our readers, “Turkey has much greater growth potential especially in light of the recent box-office improvement in Turkish films.”

In terms of cinemagoing and theatrical infrastructure, “Singapore is very mature and close to the point of saturation. While Turkey is still in its nascent growth stage with less than one per-capita visit a year, Singapore’s small size, its excellent public transportation infrastructure and English-language penetration have allowed its per-capita cinema visits to surpass four.”

Before going into further detail about operations, we asked Rieder what is the one item that sets Cinemaximum apart from the competition. “The delivery of a high-quality, world-class entertainment experience at a very reasonable price,” he replies. To him, an enjoyable night out at the movies revolves around “end-to-end convenience and comfort, from remote ticket booking, parking, ticket redemption, concessions selection and consumption to seat comfort, quality of presentation and finally the emotional resonance of the film. Cinemaximum also offers co-branded loyalty programs of exceptional value, a wide range of concessions items, great seats and a variety of content including 3D and IMAX.”

As previously reported in Film Journal International, Mars recently signed an exclusive deal with the large-format provider. “The plan is to launch another three IMAX theatres this year alone, in addition to the three we already have, and to roll out another three to four in 2014 to 2015.” The circuit is in the midst of its digital conversion with “a range of Christie projectors and IMBs,” Rieder continues. Although there are no government incentives and support “at the moment,” he plans to finalize VPF agreements by mid-June 2013, just in time for another milestone celebration at CineEurope.

Looking ahead to new technologies, Rieder mentions upgrading the ticketing platforms and further developing the “loyalty program customized to Turkish audiences,” among other items. “We are very interested in developments like immersive sound and HFR presentations, but they are all a function of content. The first question we always ask is what content is available in these new technologies. For that reason we are taking a watch-and-wait position for the moment.”

Moving on to content that is available, “Turkish films are extremely important, especially at our cinemas in the interior of the country,” Rieder explains. “Genres which work best are epic/historical, action-adventure and comedy. We continue to explore unique alternative content and recently enjoyed surprising success with Andrea Bocelli: Love in Portofino. We have also screened La Scala live and have telecasted 3D football matches on the big screen.” In another 12 years, he foresees, “cinema will be the first and premium platform for all kinds of content, be they movies, TV series such as ‘Game of Thrones’ and even more types of alternative content. While we don’t have dedicated art-house screens, Mars is committed to specialized programming and plays a great deal of artistic films, both local and foreign.”

Mars has been actively investing in content development as well, and sponsors !f—the International Independent Film Festival of Istanbul. “We engage with charities, community organizations, universities and other educational entities,” Rieder says of Cinemaximum’s involvement. “We work closely with shopping-mall management and hold pre-screening events of major Turkish and studio movies with the participation of celebrities and directors. Mars is well-known for launching unique promotions, whether with İş Bank and its Maximum credit-card customers, mobile operator Turkcell and its gnctrkcll youth-oriented programs, or internal online and social-media promotions for the Oscars or the !f film festival. Our local area outreach is achieved through events, social media and conventional forms of communication.”

Regarding the latter two, he confirms that strategies are changing. “Mars is shifting its emphasis away from traditional media to social media and online platforms. We are finding Facebook to be an extremely effective tool and are enjoying steady organic growth of our members.”

No social experience would be complete without sharing snacks, Rieder agrees. “Mars has introduced many market-first concessions items to Turkey’s cinema industry including churros, Slushies, Ben & Jerry ice cream and frozen yogurt.” Another first, at least for this author, is that Cinemaximum refreshments include products from both Pepsico and The Coca-Cola Company. “As a result of the merger between Mars (Coke) and AFM (Pepsi), we are in a unique position of having both beverage companies as partners. We have excellent relations with both Coke and Pepsi and actively work on expanding our business with both brands.”

The author wishes to thank Serde Nadirler for her assistance.