For some cynics and critics, the Golden Age of movies has passed, but try telling that to the Hollywood studios or the cinema operators embracing the latest technology. In the world of movie theatres, the latest revolution has been the Digital Age and that age-old pastime of going to the movies has retained its appeal, offering an exhilarating new experience for the movie goer.
Within South Africa, the largest chain of cinemas remains Ster-Kinekor, which has retained its healthy market share by enhancing its entertainment with the latest technology. The company, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Primedia Group, has bucked the recent recessionary trends by building growth to its audience figures year on year.
In addition to its general cinema offerings, the business operates a hugely successful ‘art house’ movie chain called Cinema Nouveau, which runs 34 screens across Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
The Sandton-based business began life back in 1969, when 20th Century Fox made the decision to sell its South African theatre interests to insurance company Sanlam. At that time, Sanlam already operated Ster Theatres and Ster Films under the Ster brand. Government regulation required that the two film companies be operated separately, and so the company name Kinekor was born to manage the newly acquired business.
Throughout the 1970s Kinekor embarked on a program of opening new cinemas across South Africa. However, as the popularity of television grew during the Seventies, cinema lost its lustre and viewing figures began to drop sharply. In response, the South African government then allowed Sanlam to merge its two theatres divisions, creating Ster-Kinekor.
Although the market continued to decline, Ster-Kinekor maintained its program of building high quality cinema multiplexes, focusing on integrating cinemas into large retail and leisure developments and when the country introduced a free market, following the democratic elections in 1994, the company was given the scope to expand overseas. Today the business is considered one of the world’s biggest digital movie operators.
Of course great movies have enormous appeal to the public, but Ster-Kinekor was quick to realise that technology has played an enormous role in offering potential customers many alternative sources of entertainment.
In June of last year, the company announced that it would transform all 400 of its screens in South Africa to digital in a deal signed with Arts Alliance Media (AAM). At that time the company ran 59 sites, all of which were due to be installed with AAM’s proprietary TMS software, Screenwriter, to efficiently manage all digital screens and content.
On announcing the deal, Chief Executive Officer of Ster-Kinekor Theatres, Fiaz Mahomed, gave an insight into how the business is reshaping itself into a 21st Century entertainment option:
“Converting to digital is a critical step in the progression of Ster-Kinekor Theatres as we continue to grow our business and continue to lead South Africa’s movie exhibition industry. It is also critical in meeting the very real demand from our valued audiences in seeing the best content on offer in an all-consuming, all entertaining environment. This is an evolving sector and we are committed to continuously improving the consumer experience.
“We’re delighted to announce this deal with AAM – we’ve seen their experience in Europe and are looking forward to their expertise in helping us become 100 per cent digital. The investment into the digital conversion in our cinemas will mean rapid, and in certain instances instantaneous, release of movie titles as well as alternative content such as sporting events and live concerts.
“The benefits to the consumer are the most exciting part of the project for us as this rollout will result in more 3D content being screened, superior picture quality, new genres of film content and closer alignment of local release dates with international ones”.
The move is also in line with a host of innovative developments. At the beginning of this year for example saw the opening of the luxurious and very popular Cine Prestige in Rosebank and more recently edutainment for kids in the form of Cinema Park. We are also at the forefront of online developments with the launch of our recent mobi-site (www.sterkinekor.mobi) and Ster-Kinekor mobile Apps for ease of access to information and online bookings. We are also consistently updating new innovative benefits for our Movie Club Card members. All to meet consumer demand and giving our customers a superior cinema experience,” Mahomed informed.
The drive for modernisation gained further impetus last December, when it was announced that the Ster-Kinekor mobile application had passed over 200,000 downloads, mainly through BlackBerry devices.
The app is designed to help movie goers with the cinema experience by accessing seating information and viewing synopses and trailers for films and had been launched just three months earlier.
“The fact that the BlackBerry version of the Ster-Kinekor app has reached this download milestone so quickly is testament to the power of smart user-friendly design,” said Lynette Hundermark, head of product strategy at Prezence Digital, the company that built the application.
In early January the company introduced Africa’s first 5D theatre in Windhoek, Namibia. The attraction gave the public an opportunity to experience 5D theatre rides which create a realistic experience of taking a ride at an amusement park, with simulated snow, rain and lightning accompanying the thrill.
Ster-Kinekor general manager Jaco Joubert said it is the highest in de-resolution technology and is the first 5D theatre in Africa:
“We wanted to close at around 16h00 but due to the long lines (of people) we ended up closing at 20h00. On Saturday we had just over 200 patrons,” said Joubert. “Many people who did not get a chance to experience the rides on Saturday even made bookings for Sunday.”
The new attraction offers thrill seekers a choice of approximately 30 rides, which last an average of six minutes. Such initiatives of course offer the prospective customer another reason to go to the movies.
The innovation continues and at the time of writing, Ster-Kinekor has just introduced a new Dolby Atmos sound system to its theatres. The Ster-Kinekor Gateway in Durban is the only South African cinema complex to offer this audio experience to audiences, with each speaker in the theatre individual amped.
The Golden Age of Cinema may very well have moved on, but for successful companies like Ster-Kinekor, the secret has been to move with the times.