Small Cinemas Innovate to Compete With Multiplexes
In Prague, Some Work Together; Others Offer New Events
As multiplexes continue to flood the country, traditional single-screen movie houses are struggling to stay afloat and are having to come up with new strategies to compete. This trend is particularly pronounced in Prague, where only 13 small theatres remain, down from 57 in 1990. Most have simply been unable to compete with multiplexes. This winter Bio Illusion, an old art-house theater in Prague 2, became the most recent example of the trend.
Traditional theatres are on the decline all over the world. But in Prague many of the city's movie houses, such as Aero and Světozor, have a long, rich history and have essentially become cultural institutions.
Is it only a matter of time before they meet the same fate?
Some theatre operators are saying it is possible for single-screen theatres to coexist with giant multiplexes. "Small movie houses cater to a completely different market," says Oldřich Zámostný, the manager of MAT Studio, a cinema in Prague 2 that seats just 45 people.
Although Zámostný acknowledges that multiplexes can be a threat, he says Prague's market has reached equilibrium, with just the right amount of small movie houses.
David Horáček, general manager of the multiplex chain Palace Cinemas, agrees. "I'm not saying the fear that big multiplexes are threatening small theatres is unfounded. Any one-room movie house trying to compete with a big cinema chain will fail," he says. "But I think it's definitely possible for these two types of theatres to coexist by catering to different audiences."
Others say the competition has indeed become too stiff.
Pavel Rajčan, manager of the Aero theater in Prague 3 Žižkov, says he has seen a steady decline in the number of visitors that come to his theatre and that multiplexes are largely to blame. In 2003, 100,000 moviegoers visited Aero. Last year, the number was around 65,000.
"There's a yearly decrease of about 30 percent," says Rajčan. When Bio Illusion closed, Rajčan, who is also vice chairman of the Association of Film Clubs, says it was attracting only 13,000 visitors a year, not enough to cover operating costs.
Pavlína Šmídmajerová, who represents Bio Illusion's former operator, says that in the last year the theatre saw a 20 percent to 30 percent decrease in ticket sales. "The situation was unsustainable, especially when Prague 2 wasn't willing to help finance the operation costs," she says.
According to Rajčan, another big threat is DVDs, and not necessarily just the illegal ones. Another problem is the film networks that exist at many universities, where students - generally frequent patrons of art houses - have access to a large database of films they can watch for free.
To survive, many theaters are trying to come up with creative strategies to withstand the competition. Světozor, MAT Studio, Evald and Aero, for instance, have teamed up and are focusing on premiering independent films.
Together they formed the Axis 9, thus named because all four theaters are on the No. 9 tram line. This gives the theatre operators an advantage over individual small theatres when it comes to obtaining new films from distributors, says MAT Studio's Zámostný.
Distributors are reluctant to give films to smaller theatres because they want a guarantee that ticket sales will be high. They give preference to big cinema chains.
Some movie houses, such as the cultural center Zahrada in Prague 11, have begun introducing events such as concert nights in an effort to offer audiences something they can't get elsewhere. Others, like Atlas or Oko, rely on showing art films and older cult movies that big cinemas don't screen.
Bio Illusion has reopened under new owners, with a program comprising a mix of plays and movies.
While this strategy may work in large cities like Prague, where there is a relatively big market for art films, theatre operators in small towns are in a tougher position.
If the market for independent movies is too small, the traditional movie houses have to end up showing the same blockbusters the multiplexes play, says Přemysl Šoba, vice chairman of the Movie Theatre Operators Association, who runs a cultural house in Teplice, north Bohemia.
"The small theatres just can't compete here," he says. "People today are willing to drive out to a large multiplex out of town to see a film."
But even multiplexes are beginning to have trouble staying full.
Some theatre operators, such as Aero's Rajčan, say there are far too many cinemas in Prague now and that the market has become saturated.
Horáček of Palace Cinemas disagrees. "I think the number of movie theatres here is just right at the moment," he says.
There has, however, been a slight decline in the number of moviegoers overall. The number of visitors continued to go up from 2001 and peaked in 2003 at 12.1 million a year. By 2004, the number had dropped to 12.05 million, according to the Czech Statistical Office.
Horáček ascribes the decline less to competition among too many theatres than to the declining quality of films released in recent years. "Seventy-five percent of the films are Hollywood blockbusters," he says.
In the end, the decline in movie attendance may mostly come down to the country's changing society. "Fewer people go to the movies because there is a multitude of other options as to how they can spend their free time," Horáček says. "There are just too many distractions today."
Re-published with kind permission from The Prague Post