MUNICH — Going to a cinema in Central Europe can be like entering a time warp. The 1960s Soviet chic decor and worn-out chairs will take your mind back to the reign of hammer and sickle — or at least your backside will feel like you’re sitting on one.
However, while the exhibition sectors in Romania and Croatia are still in dire need of investment, things are changing for the bigger and better in Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
According to a report by Dodona Research, Polandentry to the European Union in May 2004 has led to a property boom, which fuelled the building of shopping malls with anchoring multiplexes. In 1998 there were only eight multiplexes in Poland, but by 2005 the total rose to 374.
However, more multiplexes doesn’t mean more cinemas. In the Czech Republic the number of screens has declined over the last 10 years, but there are now 18 multiplexes with 156 screens, equalling 23% of all screens.
Bulgaria, too, has seen a dramatic decline of cinemas since the fall of the Iron Curtain. More than two-thirds of all cinema screens have closed since 1992, while admissions dropped from 19.5 million to an all-time low of 1.9 million in 1999. Yet, a third multiplex cinema opened in the Bulgarian capital Sofia last year, bringing the total number of multiplex screens in Bulgaria to 38.
In Hungary, however, the picture is very different. Here the exhibition market is already so mature that recently two multiplexes had to close.
In terms of admissions, 2005 was a terrible year across the region. Romania experienced the most dramatic downturn with 29% and even in Bulgaria, where the market was on the way to recovery, admissions dropped from 3.12 million in 2004 to 2.42 million.
Despite such depressing results, Dodona’s predictions for the region are anything but gloomy. In the recent Cinemagoing Central Europe report, analysts forecast that admissions should pass 80 million by 2010, an increase of almost 40%.
Steady economic growth and increase in foreign investment across the region is one reason to be cheerful, another one being the advance of the multiplex and further investment into the exhibition sector. Also, the fact that Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia are now members of the European Union and that Bulgaria and Romania will soon be is has given the region a massive economic boost, which eventually should translate into B.O. figures.
Dodona points out that cinemagoing habits vary widely across the Central European countries.
U.S. imports are usually the strongest performers across the region. In 2005 the biggest B.O. hits were “Star Wars Episode III,” “Madagascar,” and “Mr. and Mrs Smith.”
Yet, the Czech Republic and Poland stand out from the rest of the Central European crowd because home-grown pics or pics with local content regularly top the annual B.O. chart.
In 2005 the highest grossing pic in the Czech Republic was the Czech-language laffer “Roman Pro Zeny” and in Poland the biopic of the late Polish-born pope John Paul II “Storia di Carlo” came out on top.
In Hungary, too, local pics such as $1.2 million grosser “Fateless,” perform well and cornered 12% of the Hungarian market in 2005. Hungarians are the most avid cinemagoers in the region with the average Budapest resident visiting the cinema at least four times a year.
In contrast, while Poles like Polish content, they need event pics to draw them to cinemas. As a result, Poland as a territory might be large and attractive but it’s also unpredictable.
Juggling the differences between local tastes and cinema standards are three pan-regional exhibs: Palace Cinemas operates in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia while Cinema City operates cinemas in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and will open its first cinema in Bulgaria in July . However, according to Dodona, the third exhib and distributor, Budapest-based InterCom, is currently selling its cinemas in Croatia, Romania and Hungary.