Arthouse cinemas take on the multiplexes

Once among a handful of Prague art house cinemas, Kino Aero faced little competition from the Czech capital's network of small cinemas. But the emergence five years ago of multiplex cinemas -- the enormous, multi-screen theatres -- has changed the face of Czech movie watching.

High school students at Prague's Kino Aero watch actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper buy cocaine in Mexico in the cult classic film Easy Rider. Holding special screenings for high school students is one way Kino Areo is looking to boost attendance and revenue to compete with the multiplexes, says Ivo Andrle, the cinema's director since its privatization in 1998. He spoke to Radio Prague about how multiplexes are affecting his 70-year-old movie theatre - even if they don't present direct competition.

"Multiplexes are offering different goods or a different product on a different market. ... So we thought that the multiplexes are not fighting with us in these terms. ... And I think that's true, but what happened is that when the multiplexes opened, of course, they now played the role the premiere cinemas, playing all the premiere movies and all the big hits.

"And the single-screen cinemas started getting short in their programming, because they wouldn't get the movies in the first weeks and they would not maybe get the big hits at all to screen. So they started looking for any other options they might do. And what's the other option? It's to start playing art films.

Kino AeroKino Aero "So actually our competition grew up this way. With the growth of multiplexes it also brought other single-screen cinemas in Prague to screen a similar repertoire than we do. And I think that's affecting us."

RP: How is it affecting you now?

"When we screened a certain movie five years ago, there was a certain amount of people that wanted to see the movie. And one of them would come to us because he didn't find any other option. Now, the options are many. There are many cinemas around Prague that would screen those movies."

RP: About what time did these multiplexes start appearing?

Kino AeroKino Aero "I don't have the exact data with me, but let's say it must be four years ago - about 1999 or 2000 - when they started appearing. Until today, they are still building new ones. So now, I don't know how many there are in Prague - 10 maybe. So I think we reached the top now, and it's not going to get any bigger. They're just going to compete among each other."

RP: In terms of numbers, how has it affected things here?

"That's hard to count because of course it's not the only thing that affects your admissions and box office, but ... we did not really feel any competition at the beginning. I think our best year was 2001 and even then we knew it was extremely good. We had about 120,000 admissions per year, so it was like 10,000 people every month. That was very extreme. We knew that that was not going to be forever, so we are prepared for some changes in these terms. So now this year we are hoping to reach 90,000, maybe 100,000."

"On the other hand, we started many new projects that are bringing people here that we don't register in these numbers, like we are about to start screening for high schools, which is our big focus now. And every week we have between 500 and 1000 high school kids coming to the cinema to watch classic movies, which we didn't have five years ago. They don't pay, maybe, the full price, and it's not a question of money, but we're really happy to have them here because that's the future."

Kino AeroKino Aero RP: With this new competition that you're talking about, what kind of things has Kino Aero done to distinguish itself?

"The retrospectives and film weeks we organized: they mostly focused on things that we believed that already had their audience in Prague, like we would have a Fellini retrospective - famous names - or Almodovar. Now we would like to move Aero more towards not so surely proven and safe things. ... Like for example, last month we did a Bollywood film week, which was one of the first signs of where we want to move - to explore not so well-known territories, filmmakers, genres. We want to start doing things again that no one else is doing in town."

RP: You have an arrangement with a number of similar movie theatres called Osa 9, or Line 9. What is that and what does it do for film distribution?

"In the last years, it happened a couple of times that the art house distributor would buy an art movie, which we would love to screen. But since they would only have one or two prints, and not enough single cinemas screens in Prague to keep it on screen for the first few weeks, sometimes the art house distributor would decide to put that movie in a multiplex, ... rather than have one day at Aero, then three days nothing, then one day at another cinema, one day there and one day there. A lot of gaps, and no results.

"So we sat down with a couple other art house cinemas in Prague and we thought that it would be good to offer the distributors better coordination among us. So now we sit down and we see what movies are coming in the next half a year. And if we all decide that we want to see the film, then we try to fit the movie in our schedule so there will be no gaps in the programming."

"We all together call the distributor and say, 'Hey, we like your movies, all of us. And we can guarantee three weeks of screening without any breaks. Do you want us or the multiplex?' And if we can do that, then of course the choice is us, because we have the audience. The multiplex does not have the audience for the movies."