UNIC-ly qualified: CineEurope honors former UCI/Cinesa chief Pepe Batlle
It’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to receive the UNIC Achievement Award than José “Pepe” Batlle, former CEO of Cinesa in Spain and chief operating officer for Continental Europe at ODEON & UCI Cinemas Group. The UNIC Achievement Award is given each year at CineEurope by the International Union of Cinemas in recognition of dedication and service to European cinema exhibition.
During his time in the cinema sector, Batlle helped establish more than 1,000 cinema screens across five European countries (Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Portugal) and Brazil. He has been involved in the acquisition of ten companies and was responsible for more than 3,000 employees while transforming the ODEON & UCI Cinemas Group into the largest circuit in Europe. He is truly one of Europe’s most important theatrical executives of the modern era.
As UNIC President Phil Clapp notes, “Pepe has significantly shaped our industry over the past three decades, contributing to the development of incredible theatres all over Europe. He has also been an enthusiastic and committed supporter of UNIC and our ambition to bring CineEurope to his hometown, Barcelona. Pepe’s celebration of cinema-going—and of life in general—and his ability to embrace the local as well as the international dimensions of our business have all helped make him such a great cinema exhibitor.”
Robert Sunshine, managing director of CineEurope, also has high praise for the honoree. “Pepe has been a great supporter of this convention and was the person most responsible for helping us bring CineEurope to Barcelona. Pepe has an uncanny ability to make things happen and did so at so many levels over the past two years in Spain. His commitment and love of the motion picture industry are evident in everything he does and he has earned the respect and esteem of all those who have interacted with him during his 27 years in the industry.”
After completing an MBA in the U.S., Batlle started work in the consumer-electronics business as general manager of AKAI Hi-Fi and Video. “I spent six years of my life convincing everybody to buy videos and not to go to the cinemas, and after that I had to convince them to throw away the videos and come to the cinemas. Nobody has believed me since then,” he jokes.
Batlle entered the cinema business in 1986 as CEO of Cinesa, which was owned by the Forman family. After Cinesa was acquired by Paramount and Universal and became part of the UCI Group, he was promoted to senior VP, Southern Europe and Brazil.
I started with Michael Forman and Alfredo Matas,” Batlle recalls. “They showed me the principles of this business and were great teachers. After, when we were acquired by UCI, I worked with Millard Ochs, Larry Gleason of Paramount and Joe Fisher of Universal. They showed me what it was to work for big studios and big corporations and to be part of big consortiums where production, distribution, video, etc. was involved. Then I worked with a big “master” of the exhibition business: Joe Peixoto, a great person and a top professional. Finally, I began working for the U.K. private-equity firm Terra Firma [which acquired UCI in 2004].
As you can see, I started with family ownership, continued with multinational owners, and finished with a private-equity firm. Very interesting changes and interesting ways to address the business.”
As COO at ODEON & UCI, Batlle oversaw a vast number of screens in vastly different territories. “Every market is completely different,” he observes. “The people and ways of life and what the consumers like are all different. This has a direct effect as you operate and build cinemas. For example, in Brazil you should not consider building cinemas outside a shopping center, because of the question of security and because consumers only go to shopping centers. In Germany, cinemas are mainly outside shopping centers. Most multiplexes are on high streets and in city centers.
“Also, the cultural factors are a big issue. Cultures are completely different, and so is the importance of local production. People in Germany tend to plan more in advance than in Spain or Italy, so advance-sales proportions are different. There are also big differences in price sensibility. Spain and Italy are very much price-sensitive markets, more than Germany or Austria. So the marketing approach is very different.”
During his time in exhibition, Batlle has seen the market outside North America grow in importance, though not uniformly. “I would say that Europe in general has not seen tremendous growth. There are bad and good years, but not a tremendous growth. But in Russia and China, the growth is extraordinary. The reasons are several: the relaxation of the import restrictions on American product, disposable income growth, big multiplex construction activity, and also local production improvement.
“Latin America it is also an area of big growth. Brazil is the biggest market, and this is due to the increase in disposable income and the middle class, and the growth of multiplexes.”
He continues, “There are also two important factors which have led to a big improvement outside North America for the exhibition business: the consolidation of the exhibition circuits in most countries and their level of professionalism. This has improved very much the offer of the moviegoing experience, attracting more consumers than in the old years.”
Batlle says the two biggest technical advances he’s witnessed during his career are the multiplex concept and digital projection. “This has changed completely the approach of exhibition, and we have not yet seen the end of this advance. Exhibition will have to improve substantially its offer and the quality of presentation of movies outside the home. Home entertainment has improved so much in the past years, so exhibition will have to improve dramatically on its offer if we want to still get consumers to come to ‘our home’—the cinema—instead of their home and the “tablets” people use to watch movies. We will have to improve our projection quality, sound, comfort, and general offer. Otherwise, we will lose the war.”
Despite those caveats, Batlle is upbeat about the future of exhibition. “Exhibition has always had big challenges, and always comes back stronger. In 1986 when I joined the business, everybody was telling me that I was crazy because exhibition would disappear. It was the time of the boom of video, the formation of many TV channels, etc. Then in the late ’90s, many U.S. exhibitors went chapter 11. In Germany a similar thing happened, and last year in Spain attendance went down to 78 million. Now, this year, it will maybe be again 90 million.
“I am very optimistic because mankind needs to be surrounded by other people and the best place to see a movie still is the cinema. But now we have to improve this concept, as we did before. And yes, we can!”
With all the growth he oversaw, Batlle feels his greatest achievement at Cinesa and UCI was “to have helped many people to build their careers. There are executives that I had the privilege to take when they were juniors starting in the business and now they are in very high positions at the company or in other places. To give people the opportunity to grow and develop is the most rewarding asset that I take from all these years. I am very much proud of these people.”
Batlle is now moving on to a position as outside senior advisor to Dolby, a company he praises for their technological innovation and dedication to improving the cinema experience.
Aside from that post, what’s next for Pepe Batlle? “This is what my wife is asking me every day and I am not telling her. Why I should tell you?” he jokes. “Nevertheless, I still have a ‘pending subject’—to reduce my golf handicap, which I am ashamed to mention. Please ask me in a few months…"