Germany experiencing summer slump

Box office down 28% from last year

BERLIN — Going to see a film in Germany in the summer can be a lonely experience. Teutons tend to head to the great outdoors en masse with the first rays of sunshine each year, and no matter what’s screening, they are more likely to be found at the beer garden or pool trying to soak up every bit of warmth after a long dark and damp winter.

Even though moviegoing in the U.S. and elsewhere is a reliable summer pastime, Germans don’t make a habit of going to the movies during the summer — unless it’s a lousy, rainy summer. Despite efforts to eliminate the summer doldrums, which some say are slowly working, the seasonal ticket drought is one of the main reasons German cinema attendance figures lag — with a mere 125 million tickets sold in a nation of 82 million last year.

“We aren’t exactly spoiled with good weather in Germany, so when it does get nice, people just want to get outside and absorb as much of nature as they possibly can,” says Arne Schmidt at Cinemaxx, who tracks the box office trends for Germany’s second biggest cinema group.

Schmidt says, for instance, that “The Simpsons Movie” and “Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix” got off to nearly identical starts on their opening weekend last year, but had far different finishes. Dreary weather in July helped “Potter” get a great run with 7 million viewers, but “The Simpsons” got blindsided by an abrupt weather improvement in early August a few days into its run. In the end, the Simpsons had an aud of 4.5 million.

“It’s the same story every year,” Schmidt says of the summer doldrums. “It’s especially noticeable the first time we get a warm spell each year. Yet on the other hand, after about two weeks of nice weather, people seem to have tanked up and things sometimes return to normal.”

A look at the April figures for 2006 and 2007 illustrates the problem. There were 15.6 million tickets sold in April 2006 when the weather was poor, but only 9.3 million in an unusually bright and sunny April 2007. Similarly, a wet June in 2004 lured 12.4 million into cinemas, but a sunny June 2006 drew just 5.6 million.

The treacherous weather conditions help explain why few German distribs dare to take on the summer weather gods. And that creates a self-perpetuating summer doldrums. Hollywood seems to be more optimistic about taking on the weather than do German distribs. And the rewards for that can be rich, as “Harry Potter’s” great run in an unseasonably wet, cold July proved last summer.

“The weather does have more of an impact in Germany, like in a lot of European countries,” David Kornblum, VP of intl. sales and distribution at Disney, tells Variety. “They don’t have the weather like in the United States for a 52-week moviegoing habit. And especially this year, with the European soccer championships going on, there was a lot to keep them occupied in June.”

Industryites in Germany say the June 2008 numbers were predictably dreadful, with the second quarter overall down 50% compared with the first.

But Kornblum says he senses the aversion to summer cinema is abating.

“If you look at Germany’s overall summer performance over the last decade, it’s definitely advanced toward more of a 52-week-attendance season. There’s a ways to go, but the German moviegoer has changed habits compared to a decade ago. If you look at the growth of international as a whole, a lot of it has to do with the metamorphosis of the summer moviegoing season in Europe. It’s a challenge to change that culture of cinema-going to make it all-year-round.”

Indeed the main Cinemaxx theater at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin was packed on a recent balmy Saturday evening with a mostly female aud of nearly 1,000 watching “Sex in the City” — even though it was up against two big Euro soccer matches on TV. It was a sight you probably could not have encountered anywhere in Germany a decade ago. “Sex” was one of only three pics in the second quarter that topped a million tickets, along with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “What Happens in Vegas.”

“If you have the right movie and the right theater lineup, anytime to release the movie is the right time,” Kornblum says.

You don’t often see Germans putting up their best wares in the summer.

Martin Moszkowicz, a board member at Teuton heavyweight Constantin Film, disagrees that there’s still a general summer doldrums in Germany, saying the downturn is limited to just a few weeks right after the sun first comes out. He says other factors — such as the soccer tournament — hit the box office this year.

“It’s not really fair to say that Germans don’t like going to the movies in the summertime,” Moszkowicz tells Variety. “The European championships are to blame for the cinema fatigue right now. What does nevertheless regularly have a negative impact is the first really warm summer weekends of the year. Then you see a real drop in attendance figures, especially for films that get most of their box office during the daytime.”

Johannes Klingsporn, managing director at the German distribs association (VdF), says the staggered summer holiday season in the country’s 16 states is another factor that might make some domestic distribs leery about a summertime release. It’s yet another example of how seriously Germans take their vacations– the states have different school vacation schedules spread out from early June until late September so that not everyone will be crowding the same freeway to the Alps or Baltic shores and booking the same hotels at the same time.

“German films tend to come out in the fall,” Klingsporn says, but adds that some local family-entertainment films have succeeded in going against the grain with solid summer perfs in recent years. “I’d agree that there have been some positive developments about removing some of the reservations Germans, and others in Europe, have had in the past about going to the cinema in the summertime. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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