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Exhibition fever nails the Dutch

It may be a case of the right timing, or simply incurable optimism. The Netherlands, which next to Greece has the worst per capita admissions record in the European Union, has caught a bad case of exhibition fever.

Symptoms are a frenzied slapping together of new cinema complexes by majors and renovation of existing ones by local players. Plans are on Dutch exhibs’ drawing boards to boost the number of screens by a third and more than double existing seats over the next couple of years to perk the country’s miserable B.O. record.

Even blockbusters like “Jurassic Park” in 1993, and “Schindler’s List” and “The Lion King” in 1994, failed to drag the Dutch out of their homes to kick the country much beyond its puny average of one visit a year – among the lowest in Europe.

Industryites have blamed the ghastly numbers on poor facilities: mom-‘n’-pop one-and two-screeners account for over half of the Dutch exhibition business. Market leader MGM and closest rival Warners have drawn plow-shares over who will till the country’s fallow exhib ground the fastest and walk away with untapped B.O. receipts.

Here’s the score: MGM has 21 sites, 69 screens and a fat 19,394 seats, giving it a 32% share of the Dutch market. Plans are on the drawing board for more than 12,000 seats to be added at sites in Amsterdam, Groningen, Rotterdam, the Hague and Nijmegen.

Warners, in a consortium with Morgan Creek and Chargeurs, opened an eight-screen, 2,200-seater in April in Scheveningen, the seaside resort near The Hague. It has long-term plans to slap together some 50 screens and 115,000 seats in five sites in and around Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht.

In early June, it was announced that Chargeurs had inked a deal to buy MGM’s 21 sites, which have been up for sale by their owner, troubled French bank Credit Lyonnais.

Belgium’s Bert family, which runs the gigantic Kinepolis, Metropolis and Decatron theaters in its home country, was to open its first Dutch-plex early next year. But those plans have been hacked down to 3,300 seats by city authorities, worried the multiplex would drain away cinemagoers from the city center.

Homegrown exhibitors also are digging in for a slice of the action, investing in six-to 10-screeners and three-to four-screen renovations. Jogchem, with 99 screens and 18,552 seats, and Wolff (44 screens/8,870 seats) currently lead the pack.

Despite the enthusiasm by big and small players, the jury is out on whether the building craze will spark the interest of previously jaded cinemagoers. Jeroen Huijsdens, of the Dutch Assn. of Film Distributors, reckons newer venues allow theater owners to use both small and larger houses to their fullest, and cater to the blockbuster-hungry, as well as those audiences with a taste for something more specialized.

Frank van de Putte, of the Dutch Exhibitors Assn., is not so starry-eyed. “I don’t believe that the pattern of cinemagoing by Dutch audiences will change simply by building more cinemas. If you increase the number of sites, the number of prints will also have to increase, but the number of people seeing the films won’t necessarily rise proportionally.”

Hollywood, not Europe, is likely to be the beneficiary of any upgrades, he adds.

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