News / Activities

 

Activities - 19/09/2017

 

Next/Change: A Discovery of Yorck Cinemas in Berlin

 

In the summer of 2016 I attended Europa Cinemas’ Audience Development and Innovation Lab in Bologna, as part of Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. It was a hugely important formative and professional experience which brought me into contact with talented and passionate exhibitors from all over Europe. The Lab also came at a very serendipitous time, starting as it did the day after the EU referendum in the UK which produced the Brexit vote. As an Italian citizen working in Britain, married to a German, and educated in a European multilingual system, I felt particularly bruised by the political events of that time and their long-term consequences. The meeting of different cultures in Bologna was therefore incredibly refreshing, and the vitality of the group helped me get over my grief by reinforcing my belief in the force of international cooperation - particularly where culture is concerned. In Bologna I came across representatives of the Yorck Cinemas Group in Berlin and found great synergy with Curzon, the company I work for in London.

Founded in 1934, Curzon are cinema pioneers and champions of innovation in many ways. As an integrated company that includes Curzon Cinemas (13 cinemas across the UK, with 34 screens, and expanding with 3 more cinemas over 2017-18), plus Artificial Eye (the UK’s best distributor of arthouse and world cinema), as well as Curzon Home Cinema (a VOD platform that specialised in curated collections and day-and-date releases), Curzon have supported and promoted the work of major European filmmakers throughout their history, distributing the work of key international filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Agnes Varda, Michael Haneke, Aki Kaurismäki, Andrew Haigh, Paolo Sorrentino, Claire Denis and Mia Hansen-Løve. Our programming on any given week includes a large number of international arthouse and independent films (all presented in original version with English subtitles), plus documentaries, classic re-issues, sitting alongside a careful selection of more mainstream releases (which are vital to the box and to the sustenance of a healthy and varied film culture).

Why did I choose Yorck Cinemas?

Like Curzon, Yorck Cinemas are renowned for their commitment to what in English is described as “foreign-language” cinema. (Whenever I hear these words I remember Leos Carax’s wonderful assertion that “there is no such thing as foreign language cinema”, because “cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life”. Foreign-ness is such a charged, one-sided word, quite ill-suited to cinema’s protean nature.) Yorck cinemas were among the first exhibitors in Germany to offer “Originalfassung” (literal translation, “original version”) screenings, presenting films in their intended language and subtitled for German speakers - Yorck’s Odeon cinema was the first cinema in Berlin to adopt this as mission in 1985. And no city like Berlin knows how important it is to “travel to the other side of life”, to understand and appreciate other points of view, to cultivate mutual understanding and appreciation. This was my main personal and professional reason for wanting to travel there to see how Yorck Cinemas do what they do, and what I could bring back with me as a European living and working in the UK.

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In Bologna I was also impressed by Yorck Cinemas’ remarkable work with branding across its 12 cinemas. The similarities of the issues faced by an independent group incorporating different cinemas in a major European capital struck a chord with the branding work we’ve been carrying out at Curzon through my time working in marketing for the company. When your cinema group incorporates historic buildings with significant and distinctive design features, newly built technological wonders, refurbishments and alterations of existing (and well-loved) local treasures, how do you carry the balance between preserving the cinemas’ heritage and at the same time convey a coherent identity across programming, food and beverages, marketing and communications, and staff? Yorck had been through the exact same process, and so we felt that comparing notes on our experiences could be very beneficial.

Finally, both Yorck and Curzon had the same future challenge: as our regular audiences get older and older, how can cinemas continue capture the attention of new and younger audiences, whose time is claimed by a number of competing social and digital activities? How do we ensure that our mission to promote international independent cinema stays relevant, culturally significant and valuable to future generations?

Managing several cinemas

The last week of November I arrived in a beautifully Christmassy Berlin for a week of cinema visits, meetings and events to introduce me to the German capital’s cinema world. The week started at the Yorck Head Office, just moments away from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (the setting for the opening scene of one of my favourite films of all time, Wings of Desire), meeting with Daniel (who looks after the branding and marketing strategy, as well as partnerships for the group) and Lucie (who coordinates operations and F&B). Using the office as a base, I got to chat with team members about different aspects of their work, and the relationship between head office and the individual cinemas. Like Curzon, Yorck manage Programming, Marketing and Social Media, Private Hires, Press and PR centrally; with one big difference that film materials are all dispatched from the central office -  this gives more control on the brand and the visual identity of the cinemas (at Curzon we rely on distributors to deliver materials directly to the cinemas, and also on the sites’ marketing reps to create additional materials specific to their venue, with support from head office, which also creates and distributes all the group-wide campaigns).

Digital marketing

After spending some time looking at websites and comparing our digital presence, it also became apparent that Yorck customers are much more reluctant to use online booking than Curzon customers. While in Britain we’re experiencing a very rapid growth of web and app bookings (for example, ca. 50% of cinema tickets for Curzon are bought online), in Germany this is still a very small portion of bookings (ca. 10% for independents and 15% for multiplexes). This could be due to cultural habits around the use of credit cards, and also sensitivity towards online data and communications. We talked about the efficacy of digital marketing and CRM software in our respective activities - very effective for us at Curzon, and something that Yorck are considering for their future developments. Not surprisingly, the cinemas where Yorck are having success with online bookings are located in areas with a young, international population (like Dahlem Capitol, where Berlin’s Freie Universität has a campus, and the Rollberg cinema in Neukölln).

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Loyalty schemes

We also looked at pricing: not surprisingly Berlin prices are much lower than anything we’re used to in the UK (London in particular, where some cinema tickets can reach beyond the £20 mark). Priced at an average of 1€ above the standard Berlin film tickets, Yorck cinemas are perceived to be on the expensive side for the city. The way Yorck address this is a smart and very popular loyalty mechanism called the Kino Abo - a prepaid membership card which offers flat fee monthly pricing (or 6-monthly/annual options depending on tier). This is something that we at Curzon are looking into as a development of our (already very successful) membership scheme, and something that would be ideally supported by our recent adoption of Movio as a CRM system. I am now project managing the development of Curzon Cinemas’ brand new Student Membership programme, and many of these ideas about pricing, loyalty and rewards are informing the way the offer takes shape.

Break the image of arthouse as high culture

Another striking difference with the UK is that in Germany arthouse cinema seems to be perceived as high culture, with a status akin to opera and theatre in terms of its profile and coverage in broadsheets. While this signifies on the one hand a great value and respect placed on international filmmakers, on the other it may have an impact on the way younger audiences perceive world and arthouse cinema, perhaps creating accessibility problems and barriers. At Curzon we try to demystify the perceived difficulties of getting into arthouse cinema in a number of ways, from the tone of voice we use on social media and our email communications, to developing a podcast which is specifically aimed at students and younger audiences, in which their peers (staff members from Curzon Canterbury) discuss the week’s releases. Yorck are similarly investing in their Facebook and Instagram channels in order to engage younger audiences.

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Raise the individuality of each venue

Over the week I visited 8 of the 12 Yorck Cinemas - each one quite brilliant in distinctive ways. Hip and cool Babylon and Neues Off reminded me of our Soho and Aldgate cinemas with their indie programming and film-loving hipster crowds; the grand old International* could be the Socialist cousin of our massive Chelsea auditorium (we attended the launch of the French Film Festival week there, the premiere of L'Odyssée with the key cast and filmmaker in attendance, plus after party with a special DJ set from actor Lars Eidinger); Filmtheater am Friedrichshain, Yorck Kino, Cinema Paris & Delphi Filmpalast would get along with our Bloomsbury and Mayfair crowds of slightly older cinephiles who love the grand old cinema palaces. At the various cinemas I had a chance to spend time exploring the facilities, discovering some treasures in old projection booths, as well as having conversations with each cinema manager about their experiences in the different venues. My new friends, the very erudite Jan (who manages Babylon as well as Yorck Cinemas’ alternative content provision, and who had been in London for his NEXT/CHANGE just a few weeks before my Berlin visit) and the madly creative Felicks (who looks after the Yorck Instagram and manages the amazing Neues Off cinema in Neukölln) provided great insight into Berlin’s younger audiences and their relationship to cinema spaces, as well as their habits with world cinema. One great idea I observed at Neues Off, was Felick’s inventive displays of film posters, which were not simply put into frames but used to create original artworks inspired by the films. The result of this is that film posters become even more engaging, and invite people to take photos and share them on social media, thus also raising the profile and individuality of the venue.

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Schulkino

I was also delighted to observe the charismatic and inspiring Günter at work in his beloved Yorck Kino to deliver two events as part of Schulkino, a programme of film screenings and educational activities for schools and young students. Schulkino is an incredibly popular programme that takes place practically every weekday and sees most Berlin schools take part. The screenings are offered to schools in the morning at reduced costs, and the schools themselves can apply to get supported by Berlin State funding to cover the tickets. The film programme includes relevant topics tackled in accessible ways to children and young adults such as racism, dealing with family conflicts, history or other educational subjects, etc. Students attend the screenings with their teachers and then carry out guided activities to discuss what they experience. Some screenings are especially devised for students from abroad who are not German mother tongue to help them with language practice, and also to foster integration and positive cultural encounters. Having developed this programme over decades, Günter now partly curates the film selection with the help and advice of his young student son, who also works part-time in the front of house staff at Yorck Kino.

To get an even broader sense of the Berlin cinema panorama I also visited a few cinemas outside the Yorck circuit: multiplex Zoopalast, where I attended a glorious screening of Jackie (reviewed here on the Curzon blog); the grand and very fancy Astor Filmlounge (where you can order and consume dinner at your seat during a classic film screening); the small and perfectly formed Il Kino; and the (then work-in-progress, now fully launched) Wolf Kino, a brilliant cinephile hub set up by previous Curzon employee Verena Von Stackelberg.

Finally, my visit also included a very warm and informative meeting with CICAE Project Manager Benoit and AG Kino director Felix. We discussed a number of ideas and projects ranging from cinema for refugees to European Cinema Day, and I shall look forward to continuing the conversation about international collaboration with them and all our partners from Yorck cinemas.

*(Full disclosure: I wouldn’t hesitate to name the Kino International my favourite cinema in the world - receiving a behind the scenes tour was a great highlight of my stay in Berlin, particularly getting access to the Honecker Lounge, and the absolutely amazing disused live-dubbing room, from which in the olden days of the DDR, interpreters would translate films for the audience in the Soviet style of live dubbing.)

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Irene Musumeci, Curzon Cinemas Film Marketing Manager

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https://www.curzoncinemas.com/

https://www.yorck.de/