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Indie movie houses… keepin’ it reel

It may be harder than it used be for our indie cinema paradises, but recent developments have injected some hope into the local scene.

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David Ghione

Since reunification, the indie cinema paradise of Berlin has watched movie house after movie house close its doors… but recent developments have injected some hope into the local art-house scene.

The Ku’damm once boasted a grand total of 22 cinemas – from the glamorous Gloria to the shabby corner-joint Smokey (where you could light up during the film) – giving it the densest concentration of cinemas in Germany.

Then came the bludgeoning of small cinemas in the 1990s brought on by sprouting multiplexes and escalating rents. While some cinemas in former East Berlin received state support after the fall of the Wall, those in the West were left to fend for themselves.

By 2011, Ku’damm’s army of movie magic had been reduced to four lonely soldiers. Just when cinephiles thought the worst was over, economic duress forced two of the remaining cinemas, the Broadway and the Kurbel (a block to the north on Giesebrechtstraße), to close last year, leaving only the Astor Film Lounge and Cinema Paris.

Since 1990, a total of 40 small movie theaters have shut down across the city, so it seems incomprehensible why anyone today would risk backing an independent cinema. But with Peter Latta, Martin Erlenmaier and Karlheinz Opitz saving the Bundesplatz Kino, Regina and Tanja Ziegler buying Filmkunst 66, and the Tilsiter Lichtspiele opening Kino Zukunft, that happened not once, but thrice, this past year.

The challenge

Little connects the alternative Zukunft, the Bundesplatz Kiezkino and historical Filmkunst 66 – except for their common enemy. This competitor isn’t Berlin’s 13 multiplexes, as one might expect, but the 14-cinema Yorck Kino GmbH, a veritable ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ of Berlin’s cinema-scape.

Playing Jekyll, its owner Georg Kloster rescued threatened cinemas in the 1990s (e.g. Cinema Paris) and was among the first to introduce OV films. As Hyde, the Group’s art-house programme directly threatens independent cinemas by fishing for viewers in the same pond. And more importantly, the Yorck Group is in a better position to score films from movie distributors.

“Because there are so few film prints available, getting a distributor to give you one is the biggest challenge you face as a small cinema owner,” says Bundesplatz saviour Martin Erlenmaier.

Distributors are privy to a minimum guarantee plus a percentage of earnings from the cinemas (38-65 percent, depending on the film and how soon after its release it is screened).

Meeting distributors’ interest in ensuring each print yields maximum profit, the Yorck Group can premiere a film at one of its big screens (like the 780-seat Delphi Filmpalast) and then pass it on to a smaller one to extend the playing time.

Not so independent cinemas, which have to be careful only to rent prints that will attract enough viewers to cover costs. As Erlenmaier puts it, “Picking the wrong film can be fatal for a small cinema, because if it doesn’t do well you don’t have revenue coming in from other screens to make up for that loss.”

The salvaged Kiez Kino

Improving his chances with distributors by gaining a new screen was what motivated the owner of the Eva-Lichtspiele, Karlheinz Optiz, 45, to join his friends, Erlenmaier (52) and Peter Latta (65) in saving the Bundesplatz last October.

The 1919 venue (formerly known as Bundesplatz Studio) is a neighbourhood establishment in Wilmersdorf, loved especially by older generations. As the man behind the historical movies section at Eva, Erlenmaier knows the importance of this “senior audience”.

“Older people who go to the cinema regularly are unique to Berlin,” he says. “They’re after that communal viewing experience and they’re my most loyal customers. I have one 98-year-old lady who comes all the way from Langwitz every week.”

With their locally relevant and rare historical films, the Bundesplatz Kino hopes to secure viewer fidelity by tapping this uniquely Berlin-esque feature – an astute plan, considering that many younger people favour their neighbourhood cinemas.

But despite regulars – and even though two of the three cineastes have alternate incomes, Opitz from Eva Lichtspiele and Latta’s pension from his long-time previous employer, the Deutsche Kinemathek – the Bundesplatz trio worried that ticket profits alone couldn’t cover their love child’s high rent.

Their salvation was their new library of film books and café. “Without this café, we couldn’t have the cinema,” Erlenmaier said. “We hope that over time this too will become a Kiez tradition.” Thus keeping their cinema economically viable.

Having an alternate source of income is a strategy many independent cinemas use – such as the FSK in Kreuzberg, which runs a movie rental service. Barbara Suhren of the FSK nonetheless thinks that “opening a small cinema today can only lead to self-exploitation”.

Or worse, as Paulo da Senhora, the manager of the group BWare! media and its Ladenkino in Friedrichshain can testify. B-Ware had wanted to open a bigger location on Revaler Straße.

Instead, faulty contracts dropped them in a real estate war, and before they knew it they owed a staggering €250,000! They’re now paying these off in instalments while they wait for the courts to resolve the case.

The alt-house

B-Ware’s experience shows why the right location matters; this alone is a big challenge for cinemas. It took the collective behind Tilsiter Lichtspiele years to find an affordable venue for their second cinema, Kino Zukunft, set to be finished this spring.

“Realtors know they can make more money with offices, and many owners are put off by the fact that a cinema is mainly a night-time business,” says W. Gladow, the programme director.

The home for their new theater (featuring two screens and an open air cinema set amongst ruins) is one of the last off-spaces at Ostkreuz. “It’s the perfect spot,” says Gladow.

“It’s like the Berlin of the 1990s – a place where you can produce cultural events that won’t be in the next tourist guide or placate our dear Wowereit.”

The property is as alternative and raw as the movie selection, both tailored perfectly to the collective’s interests. “Our work brings life to the city,” Gladow says, “but it’s no way to make big bucks.”

A hands-on approach that includes the collective’s manager, Stefan Kaeding, tending bar at Tilsiter, and other employees renovating Zukunft for free, is part of their survival tactic.

And while Zukunft’s income is currently supplemented by an attached bar and concert venue, the plan is to have it run self-sufficiently, aided only by grants and prize money. An important crutch, considering that the state-funded Kinoprogrammpreis (Cinema Programming Award) W. Gladow won in 2011 tallies at €12,000.

The historical cinema

State funding was also important to the new owners of Filmkunst 66, which occupies a special place in Berlin’s cinema history. It was shepherded to cult status by Franz Stadler – a pioneer of thematic film series who managed to turn obscure Westerns into smash hits.

But even pioneers have to retire, and Stadler played his last card for indie cinema resistance by not selling Filmkunst 66 to his “biggest rival”, the Yorck Group.

Instead, he sold it to Regina Ziegler and her daughter Tanja last December. “Of course competing offers were made, because this type of cinema with this much tradition, located in the heart of Berlin, is pretty unique,” Regina Ziegler said diplomatically.

As one of Germany’s most successful film producers, Ziegler’s contacts in the industry are certainly important in keeping the theatre’s programme above par, but she doesn’t plan to support the cinema through her production business.

The state funding went towards digitalising Filmkunst 66, a difficult issue for many independent cinemas. Digital copies are cheaper to produce and transport (shipping a 35mm print typically costs around €50), and many historical films are only available on 35mm film.

Plus, small cinemas worry that their considerable initial investment (at least €50,000) will quickly become outdated as technology advances. However it seems that Ziegler, whose other plans include installing 3D technology and “improving comfort”, is putting her eggs in the luxury cinema basket.

This strategy is shared by Hans-Joachim Flebbe, owner of the Astor Film Lounge and former Cinemaxx AG chairman. From valet parking to champagne, the Astor offers the ultimate lush experience, luring people away from their home screens, and so far the numbers are working in his favour.

Yet Regina Ziegler won’t go so far as to say her purchasing Filmkunst 66 was a clever financial coup. “It wasn’t a question of money; it was about being able to screen the types of films that interest us,” she says. Plus, Ziegler has emotional ties to Filmkunst 66, where the first film she produced, Ich dachte, ich wäre tot, screened in 1973.

All you need is love

The challenge is fierce. Following the DVD, TV and downloading boom, viewer numbers decreased drastically from 800 million in the 1960s to 100 million in the 1990s. Fostering bonds between viewers and cinema owners, as these three independent cinemas do, is therefore a critical step in their survival battle.

Fighting on the same side is the Berlinale’s “Kino goes Kiez” programme (in which Filmkunst 66 and the Bundesplatz Kino will be featured this year), which aims to bring in new filmgoers.

But in the end, being a cinema owner is a lifestyle choice, not a pension plan. As Latta put it: “We love what we do, and although we certainly won’t get rich doing it, here’s hoping we don’t go broke either!”

Berlin cinemas at a glance

  • 13 multiplexes with 128 screens and 32,231 seats
  • At least 67 small cinemas
  • 66 residents per cinema seat (second lowest ratio in Germany)
  • 2.8 cinema visits per resident in 2010 (It’s 1.5 in Germany, 5.6 in the US and 5.9 in France).