ON THE BLOG: Irene Musumeci on taking part in the Europa Cinemas NEXT/CHANGE programme

NEXT/CHANGE is Europa Cinemas’ exchange programme for exhibitors. Launched in 2016, the main objectives of this initiative are to enable exhibitors to travel abroad and experience first-hand new working practices in other network cinemas and to improve their own skills and expertise in the areas of programming, customer relationship/data management, spaces and design, brand development and initiatives to develop new audiences.

The Europa Cinemas network receives funding from Creative Europe every two years via the Cinema Network scheme with the remit of promoting and circulating a diverse spectrum of European films. The NEXT/CHANGE programme is just one of their activities looking to foster collaboration and exchanges of best practices. 

We spoke to Irene Musumeci, who has been Film Marketing Manager at Curzon Cinemas since 2014, and who took part in the inaugural edition of the programme.

NEXT/CHANGE is a rolling programme, and you can find out more about how to apply through the Europa Cinemas website

How did you hear about the programme?

In June 2016 I attended Europa Cinemas’ Audience Development and Innovation Lab in Bologna during Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. The course gathered participants from 28 different countries and involved close collaboration with European partners. The experience was extremely positive, particularly as it provided a huge salve in the week of the Brexit referendum for those of us who felt that international collaboration may be at risk. In the context of the lab it was natural to form connections with other exhibitors, and we were encouraged to follow up with partners to participate in NEXT/CHANGE.

What did the application process involve?

First of all, it was necessary to find common ground with other exhibitors and decide on projects and focus areas that would be of interest to the respective staff members participating in the exchange. Once that was decided between us (myself and Jan Makosch from Yorck) and our line managers (Kate Gerova and Daniel Sibbers respectively), we filled in applications to Europa Cinemas presenting the proposed projects with details of the goals and objectives, plus expected costs for accommodation and travel. We also had to include a formal letter from the host exhibitor confirming that they were happy to host us.

Why did you choose to visit the Yorck Kinos in Berlin?

There was a natural affinity between Curzon and Yorck in terms of the programming ethos of the cinemas, the distinctive design and historical significance of the venues, the size of the business, and the cultural and social spaces the two groups occupy in the two capitals, London and Berlin. One of Yorck’s key strengths is in their marketing, branding and loyalty specifically aimed at younger audiences; at the time I was working on developing Curzon’s offer of a new student membership, so I was interested in seeing how they achieved their impressive results in that area. 

What did the exchange entail?

I spent a week in Berlin and divided my time between the Yorck head office and a few of their cinemas. In the head office I worked with the programming, marketing and operations teams. I had various one to one meetings that were specifically set up for me to find out about their business practices, and then I joined existing meetings to observe the team at work. It was a great advantage that I speak some German as I could follow the conversations between the team members in their natural flow, but this is not a requirement. I also met various cinema managers and had tours of the venues, receiving insight into their cinemas and audiences as well as local marketing strategies. The Yorck staff also kindly invited me to attend events and watch films in their cinemas, as well as setting up informal meetings with other Berlin exhibitors external to the group so that I could get a wider sense of the city’s offerings and Yorck’s place in it. 

What were you hoping to gain from it?

Insight into another business and a fruitful comparison between working practices. I also wanted to see if exhibitors in the UK and Germany face similar challenges and, if so, find out how they were being dealt with in a different context. From a personal point of view, I hoped to meet interesting and open-minded people who were passionate about working in cinema.

What did you learn from the experience?

Besides learning more about the Berlin cinema scene and getting a comprehensive sense of the offering, from true independent venues or film clubs to large international multiplex chains, I found great similarities in the challenges that both Curzon and Yorck face when it comes to making arthouse and world cinema accessible to younger audiences and students. There were similar strategies in dealing with these, as well as some key differences. 

Looking at websites and comparing our digital presence, it became apparent that Yorck customers are much more reluctant to use online booking than Curzon customers. While in Britain we’re experiencing a very rapid growth of web and app bookings (for example, ca. 50% of cinema tickets for Curzon are bought online), in Germany this is still a very small portion of bookings (ca. 10% for independents and 15% for multiplexes). This could be due to cultural habits around the use of credit cards, and also sensitivity towards online data and communications. We talked about the efficacy of digital marketing and CRM software in our respective activities - very effective for us at Curzon, and something that Yorck are considering for their future developments. Not surprisingly, the cinemas where Yorck are having success with online bookings are located in areas with a young, international population (like Dahlem Capitol, where Berlin’s Freie Universität has a campus, and the Rollberg cinema in Neukölln). We also looked at pricing: not surprisingly Berlin prices are much lower than anything we’re used to in the UK (London in particular, where some cinema tickets can reach beyond the £20 mark). Priced at an average of €1 above the standard Berlin film tickets, Yorck cinemas are perceived to be on the expensive side for the city. The way Yorck address this is a smart and very popular loyalty mechanism called the Kino Abo - a prepaid membership card which offers flat fee monthly pricing (or 6-monthly/annual options depending on tier).

Another striking difference with the UK is that in Germany arthouse cinema is perceived as high culture, with a status akin to opera and theatre in terms of its profile and coverage in broadsheets. While this signifies on the one hand a great value and respect placed on international filmmakers, on the other it does have an impact on the way younger audiences perceive world and arthouse cinema, perhaps creating accessibility problems and barriers. At Curzon we try to demystify the perceived difficulties of getting into arthouse cinema in a number of ways – from the tone of voice we use on social media and our email communications, to developing a podcast which is specifically aimed at students and younger audiences, in which their peers (staff members in the 20-25 age range) discuss the week’s releases. Yorck are similarly investing in their Facebook and Instagram channels in order to engage younger audiences.

I also learnt fascinating and truly inspiring things about Yorck’s long-standing and wide-ranging student activities, which start with learning programmes aimed at primary school children developed in conjunction with local schools as well as the Berlin state education authorities, foreign language schools, and a number of educational initiatives aimed at teaching German to young refugees who have settled in Berlin.

How have you actioned these learnings in the context of your own cinema?

Some of these ideas about brand loyalty and accessibility were key in the development of Curzon’s new student membership scheme, which launched in September 2017 with a goal to sign up 5.000 students. The Curzon Student Membership is free to join and offers films at £5 or £6 off-peak in all Curzon cinemas, as well as other discounts, free access to Curzon12 (Curzon Home Cinema’s SVOD library, devoted to arthouse and international independent films which are refreshed monthly with themed collections), and entry into student only special events like Meet the World (a free film festival for university students), Q&As and discussions. The scheme currently has more than 30.000 members.  

Would you recommend it to others in the exhibition industry, and if so why?

I would recommend NEXT/CHANGE to all in the exhibition industry. It is always valuable to compare working practices with like-minded colleagues in different contexts to look at one’s own work with fresh eyes. International collaboration is particularly important at times when the culture industries may be struggling or feel unsupported, and exchange programmes like this offer an amazing opportunity to foster new connections.

Image: The Delphi Lux is one of 15 cinemas in the Yorck Kinos family in Berlin.