Screening Rooms

Previewing the death of the independent kino

“Single-screen movie theaters will be dead in five years," says Lubomír Procházka, owner of Holešovice mainstay Oko. Death already rolled the credits on Hvezda a month ago (bought out to make room for a new shopping mall). And U Hradeb a year before that (which is now a Museumî of Spiders and Torture). Film clubs, which offer members reduced admission and special screenings, have been closing too (most recently Kotouc). Bohdan Pícha, director of Lucerna and Edison kinos and the man responsible for opening the Republicís first multiplex, Galaxie, in April 1996, is only slightly more optimistic than Oko's Mr. Prochazka. "In five years," he predicts, "probably only two or three art kinos will survive. The others will be multiplexes."

Here's the bottom line, straight from the bottom line: Multikinos are blacking out the single-screens, often the most beautiful movie houses in Prague, and theyíre replacing highend films with high-budget flicks. Anyone want popcorn? Here's the industry-speak: A multiplex (a meaningless neologism) is a large movie theater with multiple screens, usually defined as 15-30. They can show as many movies as they have screens and can stagger showing slots (and show the same movie on different screens at different times), providing more flexibility for the moviegoer. From whenever you show up at the multiplex, a movie is scheduled to start within 15 minutes. A mid-range theater has more than one and less than six screens. A single-screen movie theater is exactly what you think it is: one screen, one movie at a time, usually only two showing slots per evening. Show up at seven or show up at nine, or don't show up at all. On any given evening, or afternoon matinee, 9,000 asses, some larger and some smaller, can fit into the 40 halls of the four Prague multiplexes of Palace Cinemas. That's a lot of ass. And General Manager David Horácek loves ass. That much ass has allowed him to amass 60% of Pragueís moviegoing market.

"They're small, old, dirty and smelly, without money for reconstruction," Horácek says of the single- screens. "They are about artistic expression, expression of emotions. We [Palace Cinemas] are for the majority, the commercial movies."

Fine. And so the light of capitalism dims in the smaller theaters. Their houses go dark, but no movies play.

Kill (most of) the Distributors

As with many things, Prague's kinos skipped a generation. Instead of urban single-screens and mid-ranges giving way to suburban multiplexes (as in the US and Western Europe), Prague went straight from singlescreens to mega-multis, the faded grandeur of Lucerna to the mallification of Slovanský Dum.

Hey man... this is progress, yeah, the whole post-socialist reality thing... catch up or be left behind. Alternately, this whole thing could be couched as a war of aesthetics: go sit in the old theaters, soak up their nostalgic vibe; or pay into the large screen, sound systems, seats and eats. The capitalism argument is as irresolvable as the aesthetic argument. And itís not a question of art and responsibility vs. mindless entertainment and leisure; its not that simple.

The problem isn't your Saturday night options; it starts much earlier. The problem is in the Machiavellian practices of the film distributors. Say the new Return of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Mission Impossible XMatrix Part II Redux hits theaters on June 1. Well, the Republic only gets a limited number of copies; for a usual Hollywood blockbuster (meaning the crowd lines up around the block) it's around 30. These movies often go to the highest bidders. High bidding means more money. Multiplexes have more money. The movies go to the multiplexes; multiple copies go to the multiplexes. And the independent theaters get nothing. Other times, the films go directly to the film distributor's theaters. Says Ivo Andrle, director of Žižkov-landmark Aero: "Film distributors often own their own outlets."

And guess who gets the few copies?

It’s easy to lay the blame on the faceless public, but where do the directors, managers and owners go when they’re the audience?

Meanwhile, back in the Bat Cave which is Oko, Mr. Procházka has to raise ticket prices to afford films, not even blockbuster films. Why? Because the distributors' prices are rising. And so the multiplexes profit (when the blocks get busted), and the smaller theaters go broke.

"One of the most negative things," Procházka says, "is that the distributors haven't raised the number of the copies of each film to correspond with the number of halls. Therefore small cinemas have no chance to get a new movie earlier than two months [after its initial release]. Distributors, together with the multiplexes owners, push small cinema owners to raise the price of their tickets to the same level as the multiplexes, which is absurd."

Aero's Andrle doesn't want to raise ticket prices. "Though the prices here are the lowest possible, they depend on the distributor," he says. "The prices are [set] by the distributors. [They increase] every year about 10 Kc.î About distribution, multiplex pioneer Mr. Pícha says, "It's not true that there are enough film copies; it doesn't correspond with the number of the halls. [Multiplex owners] don't know how difficult it is for small cinemas to get a copy of a film. They [the distributors] push it to the mulitplexes. Small cinemas are not lucrative enough for them. The multiplexes are a monopoly."In defense of the multiplexes," Mr. Horácek says, "It used to be that a new movie, expected to be successful, got 20 copies," he says. "Now the same movie would get 35." Horácek has some funny math, in thinking this increase an improvement. He omits the fact that there are nearly 10 times the number of screens in Prague than there were 10 years ago, and a significantly greater number of movies.

You’re Sitting in my Niche

So what do the independents do? Erica Geissenhainer, Senior Partner of Silar-GeissimiË Film Services, a distribution outfit for independent film, says, "It is viable to have an independent movie theater. But the theaters have to specialize. That shift is necessary. Instead of competing directly [i.e., showing mass-market films], they should look for a niche." Tomaš Palicka is the general director of Village Cinemas, which opened its first theater in Prague in late 2000. Village Cinemas operates an eighthall, 1,900 seat multiplex in Cerný Most and what's touted as the most modern movie theater in the Republic, its 14 hall, 2,300 seat complex in Andel, named by MAPIC (International Commercial Realties Fair) the 2002 European Commercial Building of the Year, in the amusement category. He says, "It [survival] mostly depends on the general strategy of the small cinema operators. The one hall cinemas will have to find a hole on the market, will have to find their own way. Very often [their problems] are caused by [an] absence of a clear strategy, what to offer the visitor, how to differ. The visitor [has] decided not to spend money on a bad screen, bad sound, bad seats and tropical heat in the summer.

"Oko's and Aero's niche is repertory and art films. They also re-run movies (logically called "secondrun") in the limbo between when they leave the theaters (the first-run ends) and their release on DVD or VHS. Procházka says his niche is "to educate people, to show quality movies and not just amuse."

But what happens when the multikinos try to get all up in the independents' niche? Says Procházka: "As a new trend, the multikinos have special 'quality' or 'Europe' or 'cult' screenings. They show good movies to steal, or attract, people who normally wouldn't choose the multiplex.

"This is evidenced by the annual Febiofest at Palace Cinemaís Slovanský Dum. Village Cinemas," Mr. Palicka says, "Besides quality hardware, multiplexes have brought the philosophy of maximal and constant orientation on visitorsí needs. Marketing research has shown that visitors want to see art films in a comfortable multiplex. Therefore we have made two halls in Andel under the name Cinema Europa, offering quality art movies in an unobtrusive place and for a smaller price, with top technical projection."

The question is simple: Would you rather see the same art movie at the same price on a big screen with good sound or on a small screen with crappy sound? This is the stupid paradox the multis are forcing the independents into. Another niche is location, how visible you are, how much pedestrian traffic you get. Aero and Oko are located outside the city center (Aero more so). Lucerna and Edison donít take up whole city blocks. None of them are located in or adjacent to ultra-modern shopping plazas or mega-malls. Most people who attend movies at these theaters plan in advance (as a result of location and screening times). All the independent owners and managers agree: Not only are there too many multikinos, but the multikinos are too close together; the market is oversaturated.

There are two at Andel alone. "Theyíll kill each other," Andrle says, "Village Cinemas is empty most of the time. It will have to shut down." And that is why multikinos are also a question of urban planning.

Scene: One of the multikinos goes out of business. Their enormous facility lays empty. And reconstruction or re-conversion has to begin again. It would be too expensive to level the whole building and begin again. So traffic is held up and the location is noisy and polluted while the facility is turned into something else. And that second-run facility will probably fail also, because of its proximity to the first surviving facility (which was the initial problem). And so on. "Multiplexes were intended for suburbia. Multiplexes in city centers are insane-they jack up the rents of the surrounding properties and create flow issues which are nearly unsolvable," says University of Michigan Urban Planning doctoral candidate Adam Sei.


It's easy to lay the blame on the faceless public (especially faceless in a darkened hall), but where do the directors, managers and owners go when they're the audience? Oko's Mr. Procházka and Lucerna and Edison's Mr. Pícha go to multiplexes, the former to "watch his competition." Aero's Andrle goes to the multikinos for amusement. "Iím too old to be a revolutionary," he says, "I wonít go there and smash their windows. It's life. This [multikinos] will happen. It's modern... which isn't modern anymore."

Palace Cinemasí Horacek "almost never goes to the smaller theaters." And Village Cinemas' Palicka, ever the walking (or sitting) advertisement, says, "If want to enjoy a film in a more chamber atmosphere, I choose one of the Gold Class comfort halls, with a capacity of 24 seats, in Village Cinemas Andel."

There's no association of small theater owners in the Republic, and there's no government support. Owning a small theater here (and anywhere) is an exercise in measured futility. You might not lose, but youíll never win big. That's why the independents do it for the love. Thatís why Erica Geissenhainer distributes films she likes, sometimes even on a flat-fee basis to save the theater owners some money. Thatís why producers of independent films pay to play their movies at festivals. And the audience votes with their asses.

Markéta Hofmeisterová contributed to this article.

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