With teen population falling, Euro exhibs turn to oldsters to fill emptying halls

Was it all just a bad dream? Last year saw declines in admissions from Madrid to Munich, leaving Euro exhibs scratching their heads, wondering how they could make all the bad news go away.

But last month’s boffo openings by “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “The Da Vinci Code” have given them renewed hope that with the right product the auds will come.

On New Year’s Eve there seemed little to celebrate. Spain’s experience had been typical of most mature markets in Europe. Attendance had plunged 11% in 2005 to 128 million, and B.O. dropped 8% to $819 million. The U.K. stood alone in bucking the trend, with revenue up 1% on 2004.

Now the mood has lifted. In the first four months of 2006, Spanish ticket sales rose 4.2% to 39.4 million, compared with the same period last year.

“We’ve had better product. Upcoming movies could consolidate the revival,” says Nielsen EDI Spain managing director Jose Manuel Pimenta.

But despite the good news, exhibs are not cracking open the champagne just yet. Changes in demographic and consumption patterns are making their jobs more challenging. Principal among these shifts is the shrinking number of young folk coming into theaters, which means exhibs have to find ways to attract older audiences while holding onto the youths.

People in Western Europe have stopped having as many babies as they used to. In Italy, the over-65ers now make up a fifth of the population and could reach a hefty third of the total by 2050. By that time, teens will only make up 15% of Italy’s 58 million population.

On the plus side, the population is still growing because of immigration. Spain’s population, for example, has increased 4.5 million since 1996 to 44.2 million.

More troubling than the falling birth rate is the competish posed by myriad digital distractions barking at teens. The route to the movie theaters is littered with alternative ways for them to spend their euros.

It’s not that the youth aren’t watching movies; it’s just that they are not watching them in theaters.

“Many young people are staying at home and watching movies on DVD or downloading them,” says Xavier Rigault, director of programming for French exhib UGC. “There are plenty of European countries where downloading is more frequent and the erosion is bigger. France is not at that stage yet, but it accounts for part of the drop.”

The situation in France is typical of the dilemma facing the biz. In 1994, auds aged 15-24 accounted for 35% of ticket sales. In 2005 that same group accounted for 28%. But there is good news, too. Ticket sales to cinemagoers over 50 have risen 15%.

“There’s definitely a feeling that there is work to do on this level,” says Olivier Snanoudj, topper of France’s exhib org the Federation Nationale des Cinemas Francais. “We have a double challenge: keeping the increasingly older population coming as well as attracting the audiences of tomorrow.”

Some exhibs fear that the young are losing the taste for bigscreen entertainment.

“Younger audiences have learned film viewing in a fragmented manner due to new technology,” says Nicola Grispello, commercial director of Warner Village Cinemas in Italy. “We have to ensure they are taught that cinemagoing is essential to viewing movies.”

Exhibs must provide cinemagoing experiences superior to the home ones, Grispello adds.

There is not the same concern over the viewing habits of older auds. “For 35-and-over audiences, moviegoing is part of their cultural DNA; newer technologies are an extra,” Grispello observes. In Italy, the attendance of 35- to 64-year-olds has been stable, while in other European territories it’s been rising.

Tender loving care

In order to get older folk to come more often, there will have to be more “customer care,” says Frank Mackenroth, a media analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Germany.

“Cinema has to mean more than just watching films. Cinema has to be exclusive and tailored to individual target groups. There will have to be a greater diversity of offers,” he says.

German exhibs have taken note and introduced events like special screenings for seniors as well as for women and kids.

One event that is attracting older crowds in Germany is the Kino et Vino nights, in which exhibs partner with local winegrowers for a screening followed by an evening of wine tasting.

Gallic mini-major MK2, Paris’ third-biggest exhib with 18% of the market, has been targeting an audience of cinephiles.

Topper Marin Karmitz’s strategy of offering a mix of arthouse and popular films has given the theaters a loyal following, and enabled the exhib to weather 2005 better than its competitors.

“These problems don’t really affect us. We have as many older people as young people in our cinemas because our programming is more focused,” Karmitz says.

MK2 has invested about $68 million in two new Paris multiplexes. The exhib’s approach to developing new multiplexes is to choose a surprising or particularly beautiful and underdeveloped spot for its theaters and then offer sophisticated eating and shopping.

“Going to the cinema becomes a whole-day event,” Karmitz says.

Fellow Gaul exhib UGC has its own politic vis-a-vis its multiplexes.

Dubbed Cine Cites, these theaters are strategically placed so they are equally accessible to auds living inside and outside the city center, in hopes of attracting a diverse crowd.

They, too, offer dining and shopping options, but with less upmarket appeal.

Blighty exhibs have been looking to digital projection to help boost older auds.

“With the evolution of the U.K. Film Council’s digital screen network and other developments, there is more product available, which provides us with more opportunities to offer an older audience more choice,” says Andrew Turner, Cineworld head of booking. “After all, the multiplex is meant to be about multiple choice.”

Cineworld is looking to build a more sustainable business through trailering big pics with a variety of soon-to-be-released midrange product, not just the next big blockbuster, and educating their audience by scheduling screenings of lower-profile pics.

All the chains are working hard at upgrading the cinemagoing experience to make it more attractive to older auds. The landmark Curzon Soho arthouse site in London recently unveiled an upmarket Konditor & Cook cake shop in its foyer, and across the country Vue is refitting its theaters to provide a cleaner, sleeker feel to the consumer.

“Increasingly exhibitors are having to think more and more like traditional retailers,” says Henry Piney, veep international, Nielsen NRG, who stresses that a “more innovative approach” is required to fend off the threat posed by other leisure activity options such as downloading, vidgames, the Internet and upmarket home cinema systems.

Piney works closely with the studios in targeting the right audience demographics and says “distributors are increasingly looking for product to appeal to the two older quadrants — males and females over 25.”

Although the dream of attracting old and young auds into the same multiplex is seductive, the reality is more problematic.

One dilemma for exhibs is that young and old viewers operate at different speeds. Jan Oesterlin, head of industry marketing firm Zukunft Kino Marketing in Germany, points out that older moviegoers are more interested in quality films and are much less swayed by ad campaigns and studio franchises.

While the young like their moviegoing to be fast and furious, older viewers take a bit longer to warm to a movie. Paul Zonderland, BVI’s international VP for Italy, says that when dealing with older auds, patience is required: “We are catering to younger audiences with a high turnover of films, but we should play certain films longer for the older auds who respond later.”

It’s the films, stupid

But at the end of the day, it is the quality of the product that matters most, exhibs agree.

“The most important thing for us is the films,” says Thomas Schulz of CineStar, Germany’s leading exhib chain. “If the film is not good, audience attendance will not be good. It’s that simple.”

“Audiences are becoming less easily fooled and more selective,” Rigault of French exhib UGC adds.

Ricardo Gil, marketing director of Spanish exhib Cinesa agrees: “When there’s a good film on, people go to the cinema. A clear example is ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”

Opening May 19 on a record 750 prints, “Da Vinci” grossed $20.9 million in 10 days, an all-time record in Spain.

“Da Vinci” and “X-Men 3″ weren’t just any old movie.

They filled theaters partly by tapping into a reservoir of loyal followers. Dan Brown’s novel sold in the millions across the Continent, and the first two mutant pics were sizzling hot.

But to deliver stellar numbers, these movies also had to deliver moviegoers outside these core groups. Another part of their success was their ability to draw audiences from a range of ages and tastes.

Both pics supplied enough heart-pumping action to satisfy those auds who just like to be thrilled and a modicum of philosophical meat attached for those who like to deconstruct their pleasure in the bar after the show.

Some multiplexes have found that local product is increasingly popular with all demographics.

In Italy, local productions took a 28% slice of first-quarter B.O. in 2006 compared with 25% for the same period last year. Italo auteur Nanni Moretti’s dramedy “The Cayman” has outdone his previous pics, taking E6.8 million ($8.8 million) so far.

Actively producing Italian fare, BVI will release its first local production: an all-auds pic titled “Salvatore” from tyro helmer Giampaolo Curno this fall.

Recent German hits have shown that locals will flock to theaters to see quality homemade cinema.

Since 2000, local Teuton box office revenue has only increased twice, in 2001 and 2004. In both those years, it was hugely popular German films that drew millions of viewers across the country. In 2001, Michael Herbig’s comedy Western “Manitu’s Shoe” took the country by storm. Three years later, Herbig was back with his sci-fi comedy “Spaceship Surprise,” which became that year’s biggest hit. “Downfall” and comedy “Seven Dwarfs” also bolstered 2004′s box office.

This year local exhibs are putting their money on Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and Sebastian Niemann’s live-action tyke pic “Hui Buh — The Castle Ghost,” starring Herbig as an animated poltergeist.

(Archie Thomas, Emiliano De Pablos, Sheri Jennings, Ed Meza and Liza Klaussmann contributed to this report.)

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