FILM attendance is expected to grow by over 300,000 in 2002.
As a joint venture between UCI Central Europe and the Argus media investment fund, the new 12-screen UCI Palace in Bratislava's Aupark shopping centre was opened on May 17. The opening followed UCI CE's acquisition of eight other central European multiplexes from Ster Century Cinemas earlier this year, including the eight-screen multiplex at Bratislava's Polus City Centre shopping mall.
"This weekend, other cinemas have already felt the impact of the new multiplex, but the overall impact is still hard to estimate," said Ivan Sollár, the general manager of the Slovak Union of Film Distributors, predicting that both multiplexes could gain 80 per cent of audiences in Bratislava.
"The revenues of Slovak cinemas reached Sk200 million [$4.2 million] last year, of which Bratislava claimed Sk144 million," said Sollár, voicing fears that UCI's dominance could hurt smaller cinemas.
While acknowledging that the union expected attendance of Slovak cinemas to grow by 300-350,000 people this year, Sollár added: "Aupark will definitely attract new viewers; even Polus is visited by people from [surrounding towns] Pezinok, Pieš?any or Dunajská Streda."
However, Polus multiplex manager Vojtech Kabath said the new facilities would improve the overall market rather than lead to closures.
"Before Palace really starts, it can have admittance of around 11,000 people per week, and if everything goes really well, it can reach 15,000.
"I don't know whether customers will move to Aupark, or whether the market will expand, but take [the Czech Republic's second-largest city] Brno as an example. When a new multiplex was opened there, the market grew by 80 per cent," said Kabath, adding: "the goal should not be fighting for customers, but enlarging the current market."
UCI CE invested $6 million into the construction of the 2,300-seat Au Park complex, which features Slovakia's largest screen and first digital projector.
This investment comes on top of the $18.5 million that UCI paid for Ster Century's regional network, giving UCI cinemas in 106 cities in 11 counties and market dominance in a region they see as having huge potential. Argus, co-founder of UCI CE, has so far invested $170 million, mainly in countries in central and eastern Europe.
"The countries of central and eastern Europe have a long tradition of movie-going. However, in recent decades, attendance has dropped off due to the dilapidated state of local, state-owned cinemas.
"The initial response to the arrival of the first multiplex cinemas in the region has been overwhelmingly positive, due largely to the pent-up demand among the locals for a high quality cinema experience on a par with Western standards," said UCI CE in its corporate strategy outlook.
According V. J. Maury, the firm's general director for Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary: "UCI CE now plans to focus on development and top performance of existing multiplexes, while not excluding the spread of this concept to other cities."
Over the next five years, UCI CE plans to build 8 to 10 state-of-the-art multiplex cinemas in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and potentially other countries of central and eastern Europe.
As far as Slovak expansion goes, Kabath said that the decision depends a lot on how things go at the new Aupark facility, and on developments at the Polus multiplex.
"During the first two months [at Polus], we were achieving great results; our attendance grew from 8,500 people per week to around 12,500 people.
"Performance at the new multiplex will be the basis for a decision on whether to enlarge these activities. Only Bratislava itself could feed three to four multiplexes," said Kabath.
While both Bratislava multiplexes, belonging to the same company, will cooperate to some extent, their future market positions are not clear yet, said Kabath.
"In general, both multiplexes will cooperate, but they will differ in marketing activities. The overall plans will be scripted in cooperation and both multiplexes will try not to outrun each other," he said.
While UCI has declined to specify how long they expect to wait for a return on their investment into the Aupark multiplex, Ster Century Cinemas general manager for Czech and Slovak Republics David Horáeek thinks it may take a while.
"This business in central and eastern Europe is still at an early development phase. The investments, which were very high, will naturally not return in a few weeks or months. This is a long-term investment, so we can not think in terms of instant profits," said Horáeek.