BUDAPEST — Since multiplexes were first introduced here in the mid-1990s, exhibs have successfully expanded the cinema market into almost every demographic niche, making Hungary one of the most developed cinema markets in the former East Bloc and all of Europe.
But despite the territory’s high saturation of plexes, U.S.-owned exhib company Ucice, owner of the Palace Cinemas chain, is successfully driving business up with high-tech tools (such as digital projection), and cutting-edge marketing techniques (including live digitally transmitted concerts and special-events screenings) that are still a rarity in north America
According to Uciceco-owner V.J. Murray, a U.S. citizen who worked with American-controlled TV investment company CME before entering the exhibition business, cutthroat exhib competition has made innovation necessary.
“Budapest is a very mature and sophisticated market,” Murray says. “Exhibition here is a business of margins, and the margins are pretty tight right now.”
Murray’s Ucice Palace Cinema chain, which operates 10 sites and 103 screens in Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, has turned to the unconventional to expand these margins. The cornerstones of Palace’s innovative marketing schemes are two Texas Instruments Digital Light Projector (DLP) Cinemas, which Murray sees as exhibition’s future, featured in Ucice venues in Budapest and Prague.
Sponsored by Pepsi, the projectors have allowed Ucice to host special events like a live broadcast of a Bon Jovi concert, which sold out last fall, and more recently, a special screening of “Gangs of New York” in bigscreen digital glory.
The Palace is willing to try just about anything to lure an audience. At the digital “Gangs” screening in March, moviegoers dressed up like gangsters. Palace also hosted a sci-fi confab at its MOMPark cinema in Budapest, invited Star Trek star Patrick Stewart as a special guest and screened films for local Trekkies. In partnership with HBO Hungary, the Palace also screened a live transmission of the Academy Awards and became the scene of Budapest’s hippest Oscar party.
Marketing like this has helped Ucice to become one of the region’s most formidable exhibitors.
In 2002, Ucice’s West End Palace cinema, strategically placed in the city’s largest shopping center, controlled 19.16% of the city’s exhib market share, and its Campona cinema controlled 7.71% of Budapest’s exhib business.
In Prague, Ucice controls between 55% and 60% of the business, with four plexes and 40 screens, and in Brno, where it is the only plex player, it of course enjoys 100% of the market.
Palace Cinemas is also using new technologies to distinguish itself from competitors. Not only can moviegoers reserve a seat over the Internet, a simple key stroke can have the booking number sent as a text message to a GSM mobile phone, which in Hungary is more common than popcorn.
“I wanted to keep the process simple,” Murray says. “One idea was to have people try to print their ticket out at home, but for me this was too complicated. … So I thought: Why not send the (reservation) number to your phone, and there it is? “