Architektur, atmosphere und service: New Zoo Palast brings grand cinema to Berlin


“We were dealing with a lot of work, but I believe it was well worth it,” says Hans-Joachim Flebbe, managing director of Premium Entertainment GmbH, the tenacious developer and operator of the all-new and all-wonderful Zoo Palast. “Looking at the result after more than three years is a wonderful feeling. I am so very proud… It’s a dream come true.” And that’s true not only for the man behind Germany’s “CinemaxX” multiplex and “Astor Film Lounge” revolutions, but also for the city and moviegoers of Berlin.

Back in 1957, the Zoo Palast was built with two auditoriums, piggybacking one on top of the other. Ever the wordsmiths, Berliners immediately coined the phrase “Bikino,” following up on the nickname of “Bikini” which they had created for the entire surrounding development that would become representative of the new Berlin City West. Although the cinema grew to nine screens over the years, last operating under the UCI Kinowelt banner (1994-2010), the original building was never altered.

Since opening with Die Zürcher Verlobung—leading actress Liselotte Pulver, famous internationally for her table-top dance in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, stepped onstage again for the festive reopening—Zoo Palast has always been a much-loved venue for movies big and small, film premieres and competition screenings of the Internationale Filmfestspiele. Across the industry in Germany and internationally, the return of this landmark Kino has been watched with eager anticipation. On a personal note as well, this author who worked there a few years back in the day couldn’t wait to share all the good news with our readers.

Even before Berlinale chief Dieter Kosslick happily returned for key screenings and the European Film Market in February, the new Zoo Palast hosted the territory premiere of Das unglaubliche Leben des Walter Mitty, amongst others. “Joel Silver asked to see all the auditoriums,” Flebbe relays about the visit. “And, just like Ben Stiller, he so enjoyed our water fountain in the main house. They just couldn’t believe it; they thought we were projecting something onto the curtain until our dancer came out to do some more Singin’ in the Rain.

“After so many years in exhibition, it is such a wonderful opportunity to revive the Zoo Palast,” he continues with audible pride in his voice. “But it was also a lot of hard work.” Calling the endeavor “as creative as it was challenging” because of its landmark protection status, Flebbe often found his ideas and plans for the Zoo Palast stuck in the middle: between the desire and need to maintain what makes the building unique and so charmingly elegant on one side, and the goal of bringing in the latest and greatest in technology and amenities on the other. One plan that was not approved was adding a canopy to keep moviegoers out of the weather in front of the traditional box office that, truth be told, had always been too small. “Thankfully, acceptance of online and print-at-home ticketing made sure that my worst fears did not materialize.” Flebbe says close to 40% of ticketing is being covered in advance.

Another issue resoundingly resolved—to the tune of 155,000 total watts—was the introduction of Dolby Atmos while having to embed and hide no less than 78 speakers of various shapes and sizes into the wood-paneled walls and plaster ceiling. (All other auditoriums feature Dolby 7.1.) “That we had to cut holes was a huge point for the landmark protection agency. As we found ways to cover them up, we then had to make sure that the quality of the sound was not diminished in the process.” Historically speaking, there had always been a bit of an echo in that room because of the hard surfaces reflecting sounds. “We spent a crazy amount of money on acoustics,” Flebbe admits before giving credit to Dresden-based Studt Akustik for their custom design for pinpointed speaker arrays. “Several specialists measured every centimeter and corner of the entire room to create the perfect environment.” Naming some 40 channels deployed during the underwater scenes from Life of Pi, he still enthuses that “listening to Dolby Atmos is something altogether amazing.”

Getting equally amazing light up onto the main screen of 21 m by 8.80 m (69 by 29 feet) was rather easy by comparison, deploying two Christie projectors at some 6,000 watts each, Flebbe estimates (more details in our sidebar). 70mm and 35mm equipment remained in place, as he is already very much looking forward to mounting some spectacular 70mm shows. All that equipment and more are put into the best possible sight and sound as part of the three-minute presentation which precedes the three-curtain riser ceremony. “Moviegoers applaud each and every time,” Flebbe has observed. “For us, this is an important part of what we term ‘Grand Cinema.’ We have revived all that makes moviegoing great. During all my years in the multiplex business, I have certainly gained my share of experience how to build those theatres effectively and efficiently... Here, and with our other Premium Entertainment offerings, quality was front and center of every decision that we made.”

By way of example, Flebbe goes on to mention the leather seats. “They are covered in two different colors to reflect the original design and to give the voluminous room a feeling of lightness and elegance.” The entire paneling was removed, to be carefully restored and polished. The same holds true for the gorgeous woodwork and velvet coverings of the original second screen, then called Atelier am Zoo or, later on, Kino 4 (now 273 seats). Throughout these two and all other auditoriums, LED lighting is used for additional effect. Best of all, perhaps, even the three all-new auditoriums (around 160 seats each) received a 1950s-type treatment in their design. “We didn’t want to have any break in the overall atmosphere and used motifs from other cinemas of that era. Our guests very much appreciate and enjoy this combination of traditional design with technology of today.”

As for the two small “Club Kinos” (formerly Kammerspiele A/B, 36 and 39 seats) located on top of each one of the curved grand staircases leading up to the Zoo Palast, he says, “We didn’t want to put back some ‘disadvantaged cinemas,’ but rather decided to take full advantage of the limited space” that these former private screening and reception rooms offered. Outfitted with private bar and shelving lined with some 60 meters of books, “they have been very popular already for private screenings, receptions and events,” Flebbe notes.

Carving out additional space, the architects added a second lobby to service four auditoriums and another concession stand. They also converted two former retail stores in front of the building that adjoin the original ticketing area. One of them was turned into ‘”Zoo Loge” as the dedicated lounge for premium ticket holders who want to enjoy more of the VIP treatment that Flebbe’s Astor-branded concepts in Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and Munich have on offer (FJI July 2012). “If they have not printed them online, they can pick up their tickets, and enjoy their welcoming cocktail. That is included in the price of admission,” he adds, “and so is the coat check that we have put back in place with a capacity for 800 guests. Our Zoo Loge is a nice way to relax before going into the loge sections of the auditoriums, where our guests can enjoy seat-side service.”

Seats are plush recliners with added footrests. Prices for snacks and beverages are the same as they are at the concession stand. “This way, our guests do not have to wait. Even though,” he assures, “we never have more than five or six people waiting in line during peak times.”

Named “Zooba,” the other retail area now houses a cocktail, beer and wine bar in the evenings and at night. Flebbe notes that it offers more of a café selection during the day, including fancy focaccia breads. In the summer season, the Zooba will become the base station for the outdoor Biergarten and café.

“In everything we do,” Flebbe feels, “we are different from the way in which multiplexes operate. With the Zoo Palast we have tried to turn everything that was considered negative into a positive experience. As a direct result, our guests are generally older than the average moviegoer and very, very satisfied with what we offer to them.”

One of the means to accomplish that level of satisfaction is to “have twice the staff that other cinemas consider workable. And that includes a huge cleaning crew that sweeps in after the shows. We also have auditorium supervisors, all dressed in black of course, that check about every 15 minutes whether all is good during the film. If someone is on the cellphone or otherwise interruptive, they ask them to stop. If guests do not oblige, we politely ask them to leave. It has happened, not very often, but we are enforcing the policy.”

Flebbe mentions another frequent in-theatre check. “Because of our very generous legroom, moviegoers cannot even reach the seat in front of them to put their feet up. We brought down the main auditorium’s original capacity from 1,200 to some 850 seats.” Row spacing is a very generous 130 cm (51 inches) that increases to an even more generous space across the loges. Along with that, Flebbe continues to deploy double armrests that he pioneered when launching CinemaxX. Adjusting the existing stadium rake to allow for the wider spacing was “a huge undertaking,” because steps had to end at the existing egress doors, to name but one challenge of the historic room. “But all our heating and venting is done through the risers as well. It is just the best way, having it arrive at each individual seat. No more drafts or noisy air conditioning… Whenever I was faced with the questions ‘What does it cost?’ and ‘What is really good?’ we always went with what is good for our guests,” he chuckles.

Not surprisingly, Flebbe is “very, very happy with what we have done. Right now I cannot think of anything that we could have done better. The only thing that is bugging me is that we could not build more screens.” With a total capacity of 1,600 seats and always busy, Flebbe wishes he could have room for another 1,000 people or so. “We had the best results in all of Germany with Der Medicus [The Physician is yet to be released internationally] and The Wolf of Wall Street is doing similarly well. After two and a half months of operations, this is only the beginning,” he feels. “We attract exactly the kind of audience that we expected and that we are targeting: namely, adults 30 years and up.”

Admission prices, which average out at €10.50 (US$14.30), have not been an issue either. Flebbe points out special pricing for children and students ranging from €6.50 to €8 (US$8.90). Even the top tier of €15.50 for a 3D film at regular length seems “reasonable in view of all the added amenities that multiplexes do not have.”

Just as Flebbe changed the way the industry looked at U.S.-style multiplexes when he launched CinemaxX, he is hoping to become part of another game-changer. “I believe that the new Zoo Palast will be the beginning of something new across Germany. My colleagues in exhibition realize how important it is to not just cater to the 15 to 25-year-old crowds. Many realize that giant bags of popcorn and equally big nacho trays, with cellphone conversations happening during the show, are not the future of moviegoing.” For Flebbe, the return to Kinokultur or cinema culture means making the experience a worthwhile one. This is not about “making something more expensive, which many are doing, but bringing more value to the experience. Right now, people are saying that numbers will not add up for all that we offer at the Zoo Palast. My only response to that is: It is adding up quite nicely. It is a matter of principle and doing something thoroughly. If you take one auditorium in a multiplex and make it beautiful, you are not initiating change.” With the Zoo Palast and his Astor Film Lounges, however, Flebbe remains “convinced that what we have done here will be influencing many future renovation and building projects throughout Germany.”

Tech Partners

Kino 1: Dolby Atmos, CP 850 Processor, Christie Duo projector
Kino 2–5: Dolby 7.1, Christie projectors
Clubkino A & Clubkino B: Dolby 7.1, NEC NC 900 projectors

Arts Alliance Media’s Screenwriter TMS was installed on all seven screens at the Zoo Palast and is connected with its sister theatre, the Astor Film Lounge.

Projection technology/installation: CineProject, Germany
Seats: Skeie, Sandnes (Norway)
Ticketing: Compeso, Munich
Lighting: Freilicht, Berlin
Architects: Maske & Suhren, Berlin
Consulting: Paul Heinen, Hamburg