Of the ten countries that joined the EU in May 2004, Poland has the biggest population: it counts around 38 million inhabitants. From the perspective of cinema-going, too, it is the most important market, in view of the fact that in 2004 – an exceptionally good year – it sold 33 million tickets and in the last decade audiences have almost doubled.
Yet, if we consider that Spain, with only a slightly higher population, can count on at least four times the number of spectators, it becomes clear just how much potential there is for growth on this market.
This is clearly the reasoning followed by the companies that have invested in the opening of new cinemas over the past few years, and which seem to have the intention of continuing.
Of the just under 900 screens operating in Poland – the largest total number of cinemas of the ten new members of the Union – around one third is located in complexes with at least 8 screens and has managed to attract almost two thirds of the Country’s box-office.
This transformation in the offer of screens – which has resulted in two opposite types, i.e. 60% single-screen cinemas and 30% multiplexes – has been launched mainly by foreign investors, either alone or in joint ventures with Polish companies.
It was the alliance between the Polish group ITI and the American UCI that launched the first multiplex in Poznan in 1998, under the Multikino name.
The Polish scenario then saw the arrival of the Belgian Kinepolis, the South African Ster Century and Silver Screen, another US/Polish alliance. At present the lion’s share is held by Multikino and the Israeli IT, operating under the Cinema City brand, which have also shared out the complexes opened by Ster who, after rapid expansion in Europe, mainly on the emerging markets, have left the Continent.
It is, in fact, Multikino and Cinema City that are placing their odds on the development of the Polish market, judging from the range of their projects.
These are projects that do not regard the Capital only. Unlike other Central-Eastern European countries, Poland can count on a fairly high number of densely populated cities: at the end of 2004 the twenty-seven new-generation complexes was present in Warsaw (8 multiplexes) and in another twelve locations, including Krakow, Danzig, Stetin and Poznan. It was the latter city – an industrial and university town a few dozen kilometres from the border with Germany – that witnessed the opening of a third multiplex in 2005, under the banner of Cinema City, which thus becomes a competitor of Multikino and Kinepolis. In the second half of 2006 the new Multikino multiplex should be opening in Warsaw. Unlike the other complexes, situated mostly in the residential suburbs, it will be located in the heart of the City, a few steps away from the Central Station, where today there is forest of cranes but which is destined to become the “Golden Terraces” shopping and office centre. It will be only a short distance from the Palace of Culture and Science, which also houses a cinema, and not far from theatres such as the Muranow, the Femina and the Kultura, which offer a more varied and art-house programme.
The next phase in the strategy of the large groups will be to bring the new generation of complexes to “second level” towns, too, i.e. those with populations of around 100,000 inhabitants. “These will be smaller structures than those opened in the big cities – says Pawel Wachnik, Managing Director of Multikino – but characterised by the same comfort and technological quality”.
The objective is to increase the Country’s cinema-going, endeavouring to bring pro-capita frequency, which has remained at 0.7 even in a good year such as 2004, closer to Western European levels. In order to do this, the modernisation and extension of existing cinemas is an essential condition but not sufficient. In fact Polish audiences have the pronounced tendency to be extremely sensitive to widely popular domestic films. Films “made in Poland”, generally taken from literary works that form part of the Country’s culture and school syllabus (for example “Quo Vadis?” and “Pan Tadeusz”), have proved capable of drawing millions of spectators into cinemas, in even greater numbers than worldwide blockbusters, like Star Wars or Titanic. Seen in this light Multikino does not seem to have made such a surprising move in deciding to launch the direct distribution of films, concentrating on a title of a purely Polish nature, even though originally conceived outside Poland and for television, such as Karol. The intention is to save the destiny of a difficult year like 2005, which is experiencing a drop in audiences almost everywhere.
The crucial role of domestic productions as the engine of cinema-going has not escaped the attention of public institutions, either. In recent months a bill has been conceived which aims to tax box-office, the hire and sale of videos and dvds, advertising on private televisions, advertising and licences for public television and income from cable tv. The objective is to set up a fund on behalf of Polish film-making. And if the operators in the sector do not all view this measure favourably, the progress of the law is now fairly advanced and the new fund should come into operation at the beginning of 2006.

Great domestic hits in Poland

Film title Director Year of release Admissions
With Fire and Sword Jerzy Hoffman 1999 7.2
Pan Tadeusz: The last Foray in Lithuania Andrzej Wajda 1999
Quo Vadis? Jerzy Kawalerowicz 2001 4.3
In Desert and Wilderness Gavin Hood 2001 2.2
The Spring to Come Filip Bajon 2001 1.7
Never Again! Ryszard Zatorski 2004 1.6

Screens and admissions in Poland in 1994, 2003 and 2004

Year Screens Admissions (x 1,000)
2004 870 33,268
2003 877 25,264
1994 . 17,989

Friday 17 June: a date that did not go unobserved even by the least superstitious of Italians, but in which Polish exhibitors placed a good deal of hope. Cinemas throughout the Country saw, in fact, the release of Karol, the Italian production dedicated to the youth of John Paul II up until his election as Pope.
The Polish initiative is unique: in other countries Karol will be offered to audiences as a television series. In the country of the Pope’s birth, its theatrical release anticipates by four months its release on the small screen, foreseen for 16 October – the same date as Karol Wojtyla’s appointment to the Papal See. The film will be distributed to cinemas by Multikino, a company that has operated exclusively in the field of exhibition up to the present. It does, in fact, own 7 multiplexes, for a total of 74 screens (around 8.5% of all Polish cinemas), situated in the Country’s biggest cities.
Pawel Wachnik, Managing Director of Multikino, is the person who has insisted most on bringing Karol into the cinemas. Behind this initiative, “there are – says Wachnik – two main interests. From a business point of view, I hope that Karol will attract the same type of audience that crowded cinemas in 2004 to see The Passion of The Christ. But I also believe that – for the content and the message of the work to achieve its full potential – the cinema is the ideal place. Here it is possible to watch the whole film without the inevitable “distractions” of the home environment: the telephone ringing, the children crying, the commercial breaks”.
In line with this, Multikino has made the radical choice of showing the film, lasting 2 hours and 45 minutes, without intervals and without advertising or trailers before the screening. “A way of encouraging the attitude of respect and attention with which audiences approach this film,” continues Wachnik.
This, too, comes from the experience gained with Mel Gibson’s film, which in Poland – a country of 38 million inhabitants – had an audience of over 3 and a half million. Many spectators had not been to a cinema for years, being unused to the “new rituals” associated with cinema-going in the theatres of the 21st century.
“With the The Passion of The Christ we sold a great deal more tickets than for other films, but also less drinks and popcorn. The spectators were drawn to the cinema almost exclusively by the content of the film, not so much with a view to having an evening out”.
The Polish Catholic Church, which encourages people to see Karol, is of the same opinion as Wachnik. Not by chance cardinal Mocharski took part in the press conference in Warsaw. And at the grandiose première, by invitation only, held on 16 June in Krakow, the city of which Wojtyla was archbishop, the host was Stanislaw Dziwisz, secretary and above all friend of John Paul II, now his successor as archbishop of the most beautiful of Polish cities.
Added to the distribution strategy adopted by Multikino, based on the exceptional number of prints (150 for around 870 screens) and on a massive advertising campaign, comes the “word-of-mouth” recommendation by ecclesiastical circles. And, as an adroit marketing man, Wachnik offers price reductions in his cinemas for parish groups and youth associations.
The results seem to be proving him right: after a most satisfying opening week-end, when it was seen by 200,000 spectators, Karol has drawn up to 21 August one million, 700 thousand spectators. And it is also the only film to have sold over one million tickets in 2005.

Elisabetta Brunella