European Exhibition Sector Looks for Rebound

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With a slate of summer blockbusters just around the corner, European exhibitors are hoping Hollywood tentpoles can fuel a post-pandemic rebound for their beleaguered industry. But a bumpy and uneven recovery across the continent suggests the theater business isn’t quite out of the woods yet.

How to get the industry back to pre-pandemic levels is the burning question that will lead the agenda when industry executives gather in Barcelona for CineEurope, which runs June 20-23. Produced by the Film Expo Group, the annual industry event offers a showcase for Hollywood studios to present their upcoming slates to European cinema operators.

“It’s been very challenging the past two years, I’m not going to lie about it,” says Laura Houlgatte, CEO of the Intl. Union of Cinemas (UNIC), which represents the interests of cinema trade associations and operators across Europe. “But there is a definite feeling that we’re back on track. We are already on the road to recovery.” The box office showed signs of resilience in 2021, with total box office across Europe rising to €3.7 billion ($4 billion) — a 42% increase from 2020’s pandemic doldrums.

Industry analysts Gower Street Analytics forecast that box office in Europe, the Middle East and Asia could reach $7.8 billion in 2022, a 75% jump from last year.

Yet the recovery hasn’t been evenly spread out, and some industries are in crisis. In Italy, where audiences have been reluctant to return to theaters, the government announced plans to widen the theatrical window to rescue an industry in freefall. The war in Ukraine, meanwhile, prompted Hollywood studios to pull their releases from Russia, with more than one in three cinemas shuttering in the world’s sixth-largest theatrical market as a result.

That figure, however, is an outlier. Across the 39 territories covered by UNIC, there was a drop of just 0.5% in the total number of screens operating before the pandemic, according to Houlgatte. That’s not only a testimony to the industry’s resilience, she says, but to the sweeping support measures implemented by European governments throughout the pandemic.

Exhibitors are now looking ahead to a wave of blockbuster summer releases — including “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Jurassic World Dominion” — that they hope will fuel a box office turnaround. While overall attendance and box office figures are projected to be off 2019’s record-setting pace, adds Houlgatte, the industry is optimistic about a return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

In a streaming world, however, cinema operators still face the question of how to meet the increasingly fickle demands of theatergoers amid a dizzying range of home entertainment options.

Pathé subsidiary Cinémas Pathé Gaumont, one of Europe’s largest theater chains, has shelled out half a billion dollars as part of a sweeping plan to modernize and refurbish theaters and develop new and premium offerings.

“Today, the theatrical outing has to stand apart,” CEO Aurélien Bosc told Variety recently. “We have to provide our customers with an extended social outing experience and offer them a great show defying all comparison with at-home viewings.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Géke Roelink, managing director of the Netherlands’ Filmhuis Den Haag, who’ll receive the UNIC Achievement Award at CineEurope in recognition of dedication and service to European cinema exhibition.

“We live in uncertain times,” she says, “and the increasingly polarized and digital world makes it necessary to rethink our business and raison d’etre.” That means, in part, recognizing the need for communities to reconnect as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic. “We live in a digital world, but people are social creatures,” she says. For movie theaters to survive and prosper in a post-pandemic reality, theaters should function as the “connecting link” for a moviegoing experience that includes dining, live music, educational programs and other ways for people to come together and engage. “Doesn’t that sound like the ideal place to connect and get inspired?”

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