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Islands Exhibition Arena Proves Cutthroat

It’s hard to believe a tiny territory like Iceland has even one plex, let alone seven, or that it’s one of the most cut-throat exhib arenas in Europe.

It’s even harder to believe that, with 24 screens and 6,100 seats in the Greater Reykjavik area alone, someone – Sam Film – would think of adding even more.

Bucking conventional wisdom that the market is close to, or even at, saturation point, Sam Film plans to open an 850-seat four-plex in Reykjavik’s biggest mall next February. How many movies can an Icelander take?

Answer is, a lot.

Movie madness

Icelanders go to the movies more times a year than any other nation. They get to see the latest U.S. releases the same time as (and sometimes earlier than) Londoners and Parisians. They plunk down an average $3 a head for concessions on each visit, and they snap up merchandise and theater memorabilia as fast as it gets off the truck.

Annual per capita attendance rates 5.4. for the whole country, 8.2 for Reykjavik alone make other European countries look sickly by comparison. The U.K. clocks in with 1.9 times a year, Italy with 1.5, and Greece manages a lowly 0.4.

“The high admission figures and number of screens available make us attractive, even by Hollywood standards,” says Sam Film’s finance director Thor Arnason, whose father worked for owner Arni Samuelsson as a projectionist in the latter’s first theater, in Keflavik.

Distribber’s dream

Icelanders are every Hollywood distrib’s dream. The only pity is that there aren’t more of them: the population of the whole country is 300,000, of whom more than a third live in the capital, Reykjavik.

Sam Film wasn’t the first to open a plex in Iceland, but during the ’80s it developed the multiscreen concept so successfully that neither Hollywood distribs nor other theater owners in Reykjavik could ignore the potential there.

The story began in 1982, when Samuelsson built a five-screener called the Cinema Palace on the outskirts of Reykjavik. (One screen has since been converted into Sam Film offices.) Five years later, he bought out the downtown Austrub Aejarbio three-plex and renovated it into Cinema City. In 1992, the company added two screens in an annex called The Saga.

Sam Film now claims a 50% share of admissions across the country. It has 10 screens in four locations, totalling nearly 3,000 seats.

Company honchos attribute the high admission figures to state-of-the-art technology, comfortable seating and, in their own boast, “the best popcorn in town.”

Leg room

Executives proudly point out Sam Film was the first exhib in Scandinavia to go the THX route, along with Dolby Stereo Digital and DTS. It’s also paid a lot of attention to seating comfort.

“In the old days,” says Arnason, “all exhibs thought about was putting in as many seats as they could. When we opened our first multiplex in 1982, we decided to have a lot of space for people who are very tall, with long legs, so it would be comfortable for them to come to the cinema.”

Competitors like University Cinema, Myndform, Skifan and Star have been forced to add on screens, upgrade sound and and even put in new popcorn machines to match Sam Film’s. “We were the first in the country to install hot popcorn machines,” says Thor Arnason.

Statistics in this small but heavily competitive market are closely guarded, but it’s clear that competition is about as fierce as it gets in Scandinavia.

Sam Film administrative director Ingvi Thoroddsen’s grandfather ran the Austurb Aejarbio before it was bought out. “It was simply a process of evolution. The U.S. majors were more interested in dealing with the stronger cinema complexes than they were with their older customers.”

Sam Film’s plans to build new screens in a market that’s quickly reaching saturation has done nothing to calm the nerves of its competitors. On the wisdom of opening another plex, Samuelsson says he’s aware the market can only accommodate so much growth. That, he adds, is one reason why Sam Film is planning to expand into television.

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