News / Activities Imprimer
Activities - 13/10/2016
Next/Change: First steps with a Greek exhibitor discovering a French cinema
Christos Ringas, programmer of cinemas Athinea and Panathinea in Athens (Greece) travelled to Bordeaux (France) and experienced the working practices of Utopia Saint-Siméon for 3 days. He is the first exhibitor to do an exchange within the framework of NEXT/CHANGE, Europa Cinemas’ initiative for exchanges between exhibitors. We asked Christos to relate us his journey.
“The main reason for selecting Cinema Utopia Saint-Siméon is that the exhibition company was running six cinemas in different locations, which in my opinion appears as a challenge. I program myself two cinemas in two different social areas of Athens.
Furthermore, Utopia won the 2005 Europa Cinemas Best Entrepreneur award.
The aim of this exchange was:
- To understand the programming strategy used to attract local audiences;
- To identify the keys of the relationship established with the viewers;
- To observe the techniques used to attract young audiences.
Utopia working practices
Utopia in Bordeaux is a cinema not like the others. The venue is located in the former Saint-Siméon Church built around the 15th century. It served as a Naval School in the 19th and was a garage in the 20th century before being turned into a cinema in the mid 1990’s. The paintings and the statues give a very artistic touch to the lobby and the viewers can observe some of the church’s artifacts inside the screening rooms.
During my discussion with Mr. Stephen BONATO, assistant programmer in the SARL Utopia Saint-Siméon, I had the chance to exchange thoughts and ideas with an entrepreneur that operates in one of the largest European markets.
Utopia cinemas are economically independent from each other. In Bordeaux they work as a cooperative company with 10 out of the 12 people involved, having stakes in it. Most of the staff people have different posts including cashier’s desk and projection room so they have a very good understanding of what this job is.
Stephen and his colleagues are programming the cinemas in Avignon, Bordeaux, Montpellier and Tournefeuille under the supervision of the director of Utopia (except for the cinema in Saint-Ouen l'Aumône). Stephen watches around 400 films per year. Together with his colleagues, they manage to see 500 out of the 650 films released every year in France.
Being able to see the films in advance allows them to establish the programming 5 weeks ahead, which according to Stephen, has strengthened their relationship with the distributors.
Utopia has issued a gazette for almost 40 years now, in which they inform their audience about the programming choices. The gazette is the main support of communication and has become cult among the cinemagoers. Other cinemas have copied this initiative over time. As for the social media, Utopia only uses Facebook. Their page has 12,000 followers, the largest number for a cinema in France according to Stephen who is managing the page.
Utopia in Bordeaux has 5 screens (186, 146, 70, 81 & 72 seats) and a total capacity of 555 seats. Last year they had 300,000 admissions in a city of around 600,000 inhabitants. As a result, they have one of the highest filling ratio of seat capacity in the country.
The audience of Utopia is politically and socially conscious so films with artistic, political and historical content like documentaries are very popular among viewers.
Utopia also has a strong policy regarding the operation of the cinemas. Even though they have a bar, you cannot take food or drink in the halls, as management believes that the noise or smell could bother the other viewers. You cannot enter five minutes after the film start. The cinema has no commercial advertising and only one trailer precedes each film. Stephen told me that the viewers learned to respect those rules and that is what differentiates them from the other art cinemas.
Driven from the customs we have developed in our venue I also asked Stephen why they decided to give up the bar management. He replied that they prefer to let the management of the bar to a third company getting a fixed income in order to concentrate on the cinema activity only. My experience from operating the bars inside cinemas is that they can contribute with a significant income, so giving them to another company may offer an extra amount to the exhibitor but a far lesser one compared with what they could make by running the bars themselves.
Regarding young audiences, the main difficulty for Utopia (as for almost all the cinemas in France) is to approach teenagers aged between 10 and 18 who are more likely to go see blockbusters in multiplexes. Utopia participates in the national school programmes for cinema education: School & Cinema (for children from 3 to 10), College & Cinema (10 – 14) and High school (15 – 18) offering one film per trimester at €2.50.
Utopia also organises film festivals and about two screenings per week with Q&A for associations that want to screen their films.
They receive subsidies from the French Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) for participating in the Young Audience, Repertoire & Research & Documentary initiatives that contribute almost 5% of the net results each year.
My working practices
Our way of working in our cinema in Greece is different to Utopia’s. Our company currently operates two open-air cinemas in Athens that run from mid-May until late September. The open-air cinemas remain closed for 8 months with no source of income during that period. Furthermore, they are subject to weather conditions as we cannot operate if it rains or if the weather is cold during the night (which is common in May & September). Due to the time of sunset, we can only have two screenings per day, limiting the number of viewers we can attract with our programme. On the other hand, given the popularity of open-air cinemas during the summer in Greece, we are in a position to negotiate better terms with the distributors as people prefer them to regular movie theatres (most of which remain closed during that period).
Even though both cinemas are located near Lycabettus hill in the center of Athens different customer groups visit them. Therefore, we have different approaches in programming each cinema. Cinema Athinea is located in Kolonaki area, which is the high-end neighborhood of Athens with people having significantly higher income and belonging to an older average age group. Many viewers come also from other neighborhoods, as they like to visit this area. On the other hand, Cinema Panathinea is located in Neapoli neighborhood, which is mainly a student area and most of the viewers live nearby. The audience is composed of young people and families attending the cinema with their kids.
Given our situation and comparing our day-to-day operations with Utopia, another big challenge for us is attracting young audiences. Given the digital reality in the everyday life of teenagers and the limited amount of money they can spend, the big screen is not the only support on which they can watch a film. In my opinion, cinemas are facing an identity crisis on that aspect. Children who have watched all the latest films may have never been to a film theatre so far. The challenge for us is to find a way to bring them in the cinema. Utopia selects one film per each edition of their gazette every 5 weeks and communicates it to the school district offering special prices of €3.50 for feature films and €3.00 for short films (teachers can attend the screening for free). In our case, as we operate during school’s closure, it would be difficult to apply such a policy but what we did is that we included in our programme a film for children on the 1st screening of September last year in an attempt to bring youngsters to the cinema together with their parents.
The fact that each staff member has the skills for the various positions in a cinema gives everyone the ability to understand better the business in all its aspects and keeps them in close relationship with their community as they all come face to face with the audience. I think that this relationship is something that we should implement in our community, in order also to create closer ties with our viewers and make them understand that we share their needs and expectations. We already try to maintain this by having the owner of the business work in the bar inside the cinema, which brings him in direct contact to our viewers.
I believe that the main strength of Utopia is that they manage to see most of the films before the release. This way, they have developed the ability to select the ones that match their profile to the extent that even distributors use Utopia’s judgement as an indication of success for their films. Doing their programming 5 weeks in advance gives them the ability to better promote their selection and understand how to match it with their audience.
Judging from their experience it would be a good idea to propose to distributors in our market to open their catalogues to us beforehand, in an attempt to better match content with viewer’s styles and habits.
Christos Ringas, October 2016
Pictures from top: Utopia Saint-Siméon, Stephen Bonato, Panathinea, Christos Ringas, Utopia Saint-Siméon