European exhibs celebrated record box office grosses last year — revenue rose 12% to more than $8 billion — thanks in large part to 3D hits like “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Avatar.”

Still, cinemas face competition from 3D home entertainment systems, vidgames and trendy mobile technology.

“The cinema experience will always be bigger and better, but that advantage is shrinking. You have to keep providing new incentives to convince people to go to the cinema,” says consultant Jan Oesterlin, the former head of head of industry marketing firm Zukunft Kino Marketing.

Exhibitors are doing just that by upgrading the cinema experience, with improved presentation, amenities or both.

On the presentation side, the wave of digital and 3D upgrades continues to sweep across Europe, and Imax is expanding its European presence.

According to Milan-based exhib org Media Salles, the number of digital screens in Europe skyrocketed 206.9% in 2009 to 4,693. The boom continued in the first quarter of 2010, with a further 16.3% increase in Western Europe alone.

Digital screens accounted for 13% of the total number of theaters in Europe, up from 4.1% in 2008. Of that figure, nearly 70% were 3D-ready as of December.

While big European exhib groups have expanded their digital offerings, many small and mid-sized theater owners face major cost hurdles. Public agencies at the European, national, regional and local levels are exploring ways to support the transition.

EU watchdogs are reviewing a funding proposal from the German government that could help upgrade up to 1,200 screens across Germany, where only about 450 of the country’s total 4,734 movie screens currently offer 3D projection.

Regional funders, including the Filmstiftung NRW in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and Nordmedia in Lower Saxony, have begun their own state-level support to help exhibs digitize screens.

The French government is also looking at direct aid to exhibs after regulators blocked a broad funding plan.

While 3D has given big cinema operators a major boost and helped amortize pricey technical upgrades, Oesterlin notes “the industry cannot rely on it to solve all of its problems.”

Hans-Joachim Flebbe, cinema owner and multiplex pioneer, took a different approach to upgrading when he opened the Astor Film Lounge in December 2008.

The renovated 60-year-old theater now boasts a doorman, valet parking, cloakroom service, comfortable reclining leather armchairs and a waiting staff that brings orders to your seat.

Flebbe says the Astor’s success has exceeded expectations.

“I thought we would have needed a longer start-up time,” he says. “The audience that we wanted to bring back to the cinema is one that rarely goes to the movies because of the multiplex situation in Berlin. People with big flatscreens at home don’t really want to go to multiplexes due to the long lines and big crowds. They are prepared to pay more for better service, and many have become regulars after one visit.”

Flebbe, who founded the Cinemaxx multiplex chain in 1998, is looking to open more high-end venues in Germany but plans to open his next premium cinemas in Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.

Other leading premium movie houses in Europe include the Electric Cinema in London, the CineStar Andel in Prague, the Exklusiv (part of the Cinemaxx) in Essen, and Cine Deluxe, part of the Pathe multiplex in Dietlikon, Switzerland.


MON. June 21
8:30: Alternative content
1:45: Technicolor 3D for 35mm demo
2:45: “Geek to Sleek: The Surprising Evolution of Online Piracy”
5:30: Paramount Intl. presentation
7:30: “Sony Digital Cinema 3D on 4K: Changing the Game”
8:15: Dinner reception
9:30: Fox screening TBA

Tues. June 22
8:30: Digital Cinema rollout in Europe
11:30 Screening: “Despicable Me”
4:15 Screening: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”
7:00: Fox Intl. presentation

Wed. June 23
9:15: Coca-Cola seminar: “Profit Through Design”
4:00: Disney presentation

6:15: Screening: “Toy Story 3”
8:00: Screening: “Get Him to the Greek”

Thurs. June 24
9:30: Digital 3D Cinema
1:30: Luncheon & seminar: “Additional Programming”
3:30: Panavision 3D
4:15: Closing party