What does success of multiplexes mean for present and future of cinema in Czech Republic?

Refundable Bottles by Jan Sverak recently set a Czech record when it was watched by 107,000 people in its opening weekend. Most if not all of those viewers would have seen the film at a multiplex cinema; figures just released show that multiplexes now have 75 percent of the cinemas market, up from 40 percent in 2002. What does that mean for the present and future of cinema in this country?

Tomas Palicka is general director of Village Cinemas, which runs two multiplexes in Prague.

"I think we are not an exception any more. I think we can see that multiplex admissions have a growing tendency, definitely. So we are just becoming a regular part of western Europe. I could even add that in terms of technology we are on the top among European countries, because all multiplexes have been built recently, within the last four or five years maximum."

In actual fact, the first multiplex opened here eight years ago, in 1999. At the end of 2006 there were 19.

Of course many are in shopping centres, which have also enjoyed a huge boom in recent years. Tomas Baldynsky is a film critic and the chairman of the board of the state fund for the support and development of Czech cinematography.

"It's like everywhere in the world. You give people not only the chance to go to the cinema but they have a lot of other things to do as well. They can spend the whole afternoon in the complex, and they can have the cinema as just the final stage of their visit. Or they can put their kids in the cinema and have time to buy perfumes and stuff like that.

"It means we are a society which is getting richer. We don't have to think that much about whether a ticket is 160 crowns or 80. We are just going through that phase, of supermarkets and multiplexes, and this condensed leisure time spending. This was to be expected."

But Tomas Baldynsky also believes there are certain risks associated with multiplexes acquiring such a large share of the market.

"The first danger is the threat to cinemas in the regions. If they collapse and don't work we reduce the cinema experience only to people who are able to travel to get some entertainment. So you lose some part of the community culture.

"The second big threat is to the import of film. If you have this amount of money being made in that few spots the multiplexes are very strong and they can demand what they want to be screened. So there will be only be one kind of movies.

"And there is another threat and that is that big Czech distributors are directly or indirectly connected to the multiplex chains. When you are a smaller cinema it's twice as hard to get access to new films. First, you don't make as much money so they prefer multiplexes. And second even if you made as much money, you are not their business...interest, so they just give the movie to the multiplex and your viewers go to the multiplex to see the movie."

Village Cinemas' Tomas Palicka concedes that multiplexes do have exclusive access to new movies, though he counters that even they can't always get prints of the films they want. And he says Czech viewers have simply voted with their wallets.

"We all remember how in the early '90s we stood in queues at single screen cinemas, what was the quality of the projection, the quality of the chairs, the quality of the personnel. We must ask our customers why they are coming to multiplexes as their first place of choice."

The success of multiplexes in the Czech Republic has increased overall cinema attendance. In 1999 only 8.4 million cinema tickets were sold - a record low. Last year 11.5 million tickets were sold. That's the good news. The bad news is the perhaps inevitable closure of independent single-screen cinemas around the country. Ivo Anderle manages Prague's Aero and Svetozor art-house cinemas.

"I think when it comes to smaller cinemas that are closing there are two types. It's either a smaller city where a multiplex opened recently, and other cinemas decided to close...For example, in Pardubice right now the latest multiplex opened and out of the four existing single screen cinemas, three of them are closed. There is only one left - as a direct reaction to the opening of the multiplex.

"In other cases where the multiplex did not open in the city itself but the small cinemas still closed it's either because a multiplex opened nearby and people have started travelling there to see films, or in some cases it's just the decision of the people that run the cinema, which is mostly municipalities which have been supporting the cinema financially. Without city support I doubt there is a single cinema that would exist in a small city without city hall support."

Tomas Baldynsky says local authorities will be unable to afford the technology needed for new digital cinema when it comes to the Czech Republic. But he hopes a fresh bill on cinematography will help.

"The first parliament session about the bill was on Wednesday. And there is a lot in the bill about the modernisation of smaller cinemas. If the state doesn't moderate the digitalisation of cinemas, it will die out. This is our last chance to get the process going, because in ten years from now there won't be any prints on celluloid."

Getting back to the present, do independent cinemas have a future, now that multiplexes make up 75 percent of the market? Art-house manager Ivo Anderle says they can survive - with the right support and the right approach.

"If the state and municipalities decide that this is something important, that this is part of the culture that should be preserved, or supported at least, and given some system, then the single screen cinemas do have a chance.

"Especially if they are lucky enough to have management with good skills and lots of effort given - through the heart, because you cannot do it through your wallet - to the fact that the small cinema can be something different than a multiplex and bring lots of attractive things to the audience. With a different, I would say human, touch, compared to multiplexes."