EVENTS – The ECM conference 2019

With the Bosphorus as a backdrop and a truly global cast-list, ECM 2019 was a big success. Patrick von Sychowski reports on its second outing.


THE SECOND annual Emerging Cinema Markets (ECM) conference held in Istanbul in late November saw a renewed focus on the territories that will be the growth engines of theatrical exhibition in the coming decade, stretching all the way from Kazakhstan over to Cote d’Ivoire. Produced by DCS Events together with the Big Picture, the event was held at a dramatic venue in Istanbul, a hotel that immediately overlooks the Bosphorus, with a significantly expanded focus, speakers, sponsors and attendees.

Organising an event with such a broad focus was never going to be easy, but the team behind the conference had clearly learned from the inaugural event and took whatever organisational challenges were thrown at them in their stride. A large delegation turning up on the morning of the first day wanting to pay for their conference passes in cash? No problem…

The focus of the conference was broad. but with each market getting its due. Between them the territories of Africa, Turkey, New Europe (the Balkans and former Soviet states), Central Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) represent a market opportunity of 1.7 billion people served by only 6,850 cinema screens! With growth peaking in China and Latin America, there is a tremendous interest in these regions.

In the first of many partnerships, before the conference there was a round table discussion by the Cinema Technology Community (CTC). This opened with a presentation of ‘The Customer’s Journey’ from Movio’s Sarah Lewthwaite, who argued for a transition from a “build it, they will come” attitude to a more customer-centric cinema approach. From a practical perspective, organising delegate seating in wide circles, instead of having everyone facing a podium, contributed to a lively discussion with inputs from Jacro, Sound Associates, IMAX, RealD and others. While recognising that different markets had different economic levels, the speakers pitched in about how to give every audience the best cinema presentation. As Jacro’s Sandie Caffelle observed, “customers don’t care if it’s a hamster in a wheel” that’s driving the presentation, so long as it is good.

Touring Istanbul
An early highlight of the ECM event has been the ‘Celluloid Junkie 21st Century Shopping Centre and Production Tour of Istanbul’, looking at some of the top cinemas in the Turkish capital. The CJ CGV Istinye Park, which included both VIP, IMAX and RealD enabled delegates to see the best that Korea’s multiplex major has to offer in Europe (its only other nearby sites are in Moscow). The visit included sampling the popcorn and the frozen yoghurt treats… A small group had also previously visited CGV’s Cinemaximum with its Gold Class and Cine Mini, with race cars for seats for the kids and a pirate’s ship of indoor climbing and activities. It all lived up to CGV’s motto of “always evolving”.

Building on trust
Welcoming everyone on the second day, Rob Arthur struck up the themes of the conference in terms of building cinema on trust and integrity. Emerging markets often face high cost of capital, lack of infrastructure (malls!) and IP piracy. Just like hotel chains and retail brands that spread across Africa and elsewhere, so too cinemas take root. He was followed by the British Chamber of Commerce and Trade’s chairman Christopher Gaunt. With Istanbul being the second-ever outpost of the BCCT when it opened in 1887, highlighting Turkey’s role as a commercial and cultural hub. Charlotte Jones of IHS Markit (now part of Informa) opened her presentation with the authoritative data that one has come to expect and some surprises, such as Ethiopia being the second-fastest regional growth market after Saudi, or that emerging markets account for 10% of total global screens with higher-than-average five-year growth rate at 51%. She also noted that often emerging markets can be trend setters as ‘built from scratch’ cinemas try new technologies, seating patterns and design.

Comscore’s Arturo Guillen laid to rest any notion of ‘the death of cinema’, showing the steady global increase of box office since 2008 from $28bn to $41bn in 2018. He also noted that at 110 minutes, cinema has a far longer uninterrupted average engagement with consumers than smartphones (nine minutes) or tablets (18 minutes). Novo’s “proud” CEO Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen leant the event dazzle with a showcase of what the operator had built across the Gulf and Middle East, that “always promise a great night out,” with “immersive social experiences.”
This was followed by the Hollywood studio’s perspective in the form of Paramount’s Cameron Saunders, who outlined the potential for New Europe, CIS, Middle East and Africa. An ECM19 exclusive was that Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” would be released dubbed in Kazakh, neatly showing the growing importance of localisation in these emerging markets.

Delegate distractions
With time for networking and talking to sponsors in the breaks, as well as an endless supply of tasty Turkish treats (and Polish vodka from POSitive!), it was sometimes hard to persuade delegates back into the venue with its dazzling wall-to-wall LED display.

Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Culture responsible for cinema was warmly received (if only more countries had a minister with a cinema brief!). In the panel session that followed, the success of local film (Turkish films regularly have a +50% market share), though Serge Plasch noted that “the only real growth market is the premium market.”

In a friendly ‘ambush’, Mariam el Bacha and Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen presented a ‘Visionary’ award to yours truly on behalf of Women In Exhibition (WIE), which was followed by a photo-call for all the women in the room. They surprised
themselves at the sheer numbers when all grouped together.

After lunch, the focus was on “How to create the ‘wow factor’ in Emerging Markets” with the growth of offerings such as 4DX/D-Box, VR and, of course, “IMAX is IMAX” one (non-IMAX) panelist opined. And 3D is still going strong in emerging markets RealD’s John Trafford-Owen explained, with much of it powered by NEC blue phosphor laser projectors according to Mark Kendall. The Big Picture’s Mike Thompson chaired the afternoon panel on film marketing and distribution, during which Movio, Aures Cinema Intelligence provided startling figures showing what dynamic scheduling could achieve in terms of maximising a film’s length of play and takings in cinemas. In the day’s final session Vista’s Till Cussman chaired a powerhouse of a panel that looked at diversifying the experience through technology, including input from IMAX, Cinionic, CinemaNext, and CGV/Mars. This was followed by the Comscore-sponsored awards, of which the most remarkable was possibly the one given to a small Turkish cinema on the border with Syria that had kept going in spite of the difficulties of a war raging next door. For anyone thinking that it was heavy going, the drinks at the rooftop bar with the shimmering lights of the Bosphorus straits behind us, was sufficient to make all the delegates feel like extras in a James Bond film.


A focus on Africa
The third and final day saw a full-on focus on Africa. With just one screen on average per one million inhabitants, it represents the single greatest global opportunity for cinemas to grow. But ‘Africa’ is not a country, and it is to the organisers’ credit that they made sure all of the differences and many facets of the continent shined through in each panel and by the speakers invited.

Urging a hands-on approach Ijeoma Onah counselled those in the room, “You need to come to Africa to understand Africa, you can’t get it from afar.” But the room was treated to the next best thing in the form of the cream of cinema people from Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Mozambique and the many other nations represented on stage and sharing their insights. The day kicked off with a video message from Andrew Crips, the global studio and IMAX veteran, freshly installed in his new role as head of global theatrical distribution at Warner Bros.
His message was that “In mature markets companies defend — cut costs, analyse the competition, follow best practices and work to established processes.” This is someone who has practiced what he preached.

The Hon. (Sen) Monica Mutsvangwa, Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services of Zimbabwe gave the ‘Focus on Africa’ day a rousing opening with her infectious optimism, talking about Zimbabwe as “an African country of promise and hope” that is “poised to deliver cinema.” She ended with an open invitation to host ECM20 with the Victoria Falls as a backdrop. (Tempting, though logistically slightly challenging.)

Susanna Hermida Barbato of NOS Audiovisuais observed that “if you were to describe the ideal cinema audience it would be African: young and mobile.” NOS has been doing a lot to grow cinema going in Portuguese-speaking African countries, with 31 cinemas and 238 screens in total, despite low average income and 66% of population living in rural areas. ECM veteran Kene Mkparu of Komworld quoted Tumi Frazier in noting that, “to succeed in Africa, it is critical to have a better understanding of how to access a broader group of consumers and how to provide offerings that are tailored to different consumers across different countries on the continent.”

Just how to do this was highlighted by speakers ranging from former Fox honcho Paul Higginson to Comscore’s Lucy Jones, with Paul declaring that “we should be extraordinarily optimistic about the potential for cinema” in Africa, giving the example of how he helped open up the ‘no-hope’ Russian cinema market. IMAX’s Ali Bernacchi highlighted the opening of the second IMAX in Nigeria (there are already two in Kenya), confirming this potential.

The session was followed by an in-depth look at Francais Africain, including the northern Maghreb region and sub-Saharan countries, courtesy of Jean-Marie Dura, with fascinating insights from Khalil Staily (Ymagis), Eric Marti (Comscore) and Stephanie Dongmo, President of Cinema Numerique Ambulant, in Cameroon, whose video message made everyone sit up and take notice, saying that cinema in Africa cannot simply be a reproduction of what it has been in the West. It was also the first time at any conference that we heard from Canal Olympia, which is building over 100 cinemas across Africa, with Simon Minkowski flying in from Africa that morning just for this talk.

The post-lunch panel ‘Spotlight On Nigeria and West Africa’ was a veritable high level summit of the great and good of the cinema industry in Nigeria and Ghana, including ‘frenemy’ rivals Silverbird and Filmhouse, as well as representatives of the Nigeria International Film Summit and Adedayo Thomas, Director General/CEO of the National Film and Video Censors Board. With a combined population of over 230m, West Africa represents the continent’s biggest potential, with just 33 cinemas opening between 2015 and 2018. The success of local content has seen the creation of a local blockbuster model whereas previously Nollywood was just for distribution on VHS, DVD or cable TV.

After this look at cinemas next ‘Eldorado’, the final session’s focus on Saudi Arabia a year on from its opening of cinemas seemed almost an after-thought. John Sullivan was not present to give an update of his ‘Singapore or Germany’ anlysis for the Kingdom, so Mike Thomson stepped into his shoes. The success of Majid Al Futtaim’s Vox in outpacing all competitors in the Saudi market should not have come as a surprise, it was agreed, given their mall connection and long preparations for the KSA market. Let’s see at ECM20 how well AMC, Muvi, Empire and Cinepolis have done in catching up.