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As Berlin Film Festival Gets Ready to Open, Movie-Going in Germany Flags

As Germany gears up for Thursday’s opening of the Berlinale, one of the world’s biggest and most important film festivals, the country’s exhibition sector is dealing with its worst downturn in a decade.

Local box office fell 14.8% to €899.3 million ($1.03 billion) last year, according to figures released Wednesday by the German Federal Film Board. That’s the lowest level since 2008, when it reached just €794.7 million ($908.6 million). It was also the first time since 2014 that annual box-office revenue failed to clear the €1 billion threshold ($1.14 billion).

A number of factors came together to keep moviegoers out of cinemas in 2018. Record summer temperatures, the World Cup soccer tournament, a dearth of must-see movies and growing competition from streaming services all took their toll on theater admissions, which declined from 122.3 million to 105.4 million – the lowest since 1992.

“It was really not a good year for German cinemas,” said Peter Dinges, the federal film board’s CEO. “There have always been sharp fluctuations over the years, and in 2018 the curve unfortunately bent downward.”

Indeed, since first surpassing the €1 billion mark in 2012, the German box office has been on a rollercoaster ride. Revenue fell 4.2% in 2014, soared 19.1% in 2015, plunged 12.3% in 2016 and rose 3.2% in 2017.

The problem is that the drops are getting bigger, said Tomas Negele, chairman of German theater association HDF Cinema. “Last year was not just one of the usual setbacks,” he recently told local trade publication Blickpunkt:Film. “It was a year that had to ring all of the alarm bells.”

For Dinges, the many months of exceptionally hot and sunny weather were a chief factor behind last year’s decline.

“We had a summer of the century in Germany that went from April to October,” he said. “While people in other countries do not hesitate to go to the cinema in good weather, Germans head outdoors, especially when there’s a lack of particularly attractive films, as was the case last year.”

Only one summer release, Sony’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” managed to surpass the 2.5 million admissions mark. Topping the charts was “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” with about €39 million ($44.7 million) and 3.6 million tickets sold, followed by “Avengers: Infinity War,” with nearly €38 million ($43.6 million) from 3.4 million admissions. German films maintained a strong market share, down just slightly from last year’s 24%.

While last year’s soccer World Cup also kept sports fans out of cinemas over the summer despite Germany’s early exit from the tournament, the overall impact on business was expected and in line with past World Cup years, according to the Assn. of German Film Distributors.

The proliferation of streaming services is another factor influencing movie-going behavior. “It has certainly contributed,” Dinges said. “We see that people are going to the movies less on weekdays, but they are definitely going on weekends.”

Cinema operators recognize the challenges and are trying to adapt to a more competitive entertainment environment, said Negele, who urges exhibitors to better engage and target customers digitally. Cinemas are already looking to become more digital and technologically enhanced, he added.

Ideas to boost business include 360-degree cinemas, LED screens, 3D without the need of glasses, gaming corners dedicated to film-based offerings and VR stations in cinema lobbies that put moviegoers in the film.

The film board expressed hope that 2018 would go down as an anomaly in view of the strong titles headed to screens this year, which include such anticipated crowd-pleasers as “Star War: Episode IX,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and “Shazam.”

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