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Hungarian plexes go on the block

Venues failed to generate enough profit to subsidize chain

BUDAPEST — Partially state-owned exhibitor-distributor Budapest Film, a pioneer in Hungary’s multiplex revolution, has announced it will sell two of the territory’s top venues , blaming shrinking box office returns.

Budapest Film’s decision shocked the Hungarian cinema industry, mainly because its plexes in the popular (and adjoining) Mamut I and II shopping centers in the Buda district of the capital city were considered lucrative ventures.

“The Mamut I multiplex sometimes has the best box office results in the market,” says Peter Balint, managing director of Hungarian distribution company UIP Dunafilm.

For some, Budapest Film’s announcement is further evidence of the crisis gripping the motion picture industry worldwide after summer releases failed to generate expected business.

But Budapest Film, controlled by the Budapest municipality, says it decided to put the two Mamut plexes on the auction block not because the venues were losing money, but because they were failing to generate enough profit to subsidize the chain of arthouses that Budapest Film operates throughout the capital.

Running Budapest’s unprofitable arthouses costs the company $700,000 a year. After relinquishing the under-performing Mamut plexes, Budapest Film says it will establish a foundation, Metropolis Film, which will be devoted to keeping the city’s struggling art cinemas afloat.

“People have talked about a downturn in admissions,” says UIP’s Balint. “My explanation is that it simply has to do with the lack of appropriate pictures. Whenever we in Hungary have a ‘Madagascar’ or ‘War of the Worlds,’ we have great box-office figures.”

 Magyar exhibs are still turning profits, but Balint sees changes in filmgoing habits he attributes to social changes — a proliferation of summer wine and beer gardens in Budapest which are luring away potential 17-21-year-old moviegoers, an increase in DVD viewership and DVD pirates.

Some insiders see the Mamut’s $14 million expected pricetag as being too high, given the uncertainty facing Euro exhibition as it confronts the digital age and home entertainment.

But Balint is optimistic. “What is certain is that motion pictures have followed changes in the entertainment industry, and always survived. It survived the DVD, and if a revolution in digital exhibition or pay per view arrives, it will survive this as well.”

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