The recipient of this year’s UNIC Achievement Award at CineEurope, Hans-Joachim Flebbe, has under his belt more than 40 years in the exhibition industry—during which he has played a major role in shaping the world of cinema in Germany today.
His love of old movies led the young Flebbe to a booking – and later programming – at Hanover’s Apollo cinema, which he would help turn into one of Germany’s first arthouse cinemas. Fast forward to the 90s and Flebbe – through the CinemaxX chain he founded – was responsible for creating one of Germany’s first multiplexes. Differences of opinion about how CinemaxX should be run led to Flebbe’s departure from the company in 2008. But Flebbe loved film too much to stay away from the industry, and from CinemaxX he went on to found the Astor Group, which brings luxury movie theater experiences to moviegoers. of films throughout Germany.
“We are absolutely delighted to honor Hans-Joachim at CineEurope 2023,” says Phil Clapp, president of UNIC. “The award recognizes his extraordinary passion for the big screen, his extraordinary career and his key role in the development of the German and European cinematographic experience. At the start of CineEurope, Flebbe spoke to him Boxoffice Pro for his influential and dynamic career in the cinema industry.
Can you talk a little bit about the Apollo Cinema in Hanover? How did you end up working as a programmer there?
My start in the movie business was quite accidental. As a student I spent more time at the cinema than at university. My passion was great, but I couldn’t watch many titles because they weren’t playing in theaters anymore and there were no DVD, video or streaming services in the early 70s.
One day I asked the owner of a small cinema in Hanover if I could offer him some movie suggestions. He agreed, as he actually wanted to close his theater so he had “nothing to lose”. The result: One of the first arthouse cinemas in Germany, the Apollo Kino in Hanover, opened in 1973.
The concept of showing a different, challenging film every day was so well received that the cinema was sold out every day in the first month. Because of this success, the cinema owner offered me a part.
Then, when a project development company in Hanover wanted to create a construction project in the inner city including a cinema center, but I could not find a reputable operator, I took the opportunity to realize my first cinema (4 screens, art house ).
What made you switch from programming to starting your own cinema? When you started your career in exhibition, did you see yourself starting a big chain?
This venture was also very successful and opened up the opportunity for me to expand further. I took over and renovated many traditional, beautiful and large cinemas throughout Germany, and by the mid-80s I was among the top 10 German cinema operating companies. In 1989 I founded the cinema company CinemaxX and opened one of the first German multiplex cinemas in 1991.
Cinemas are becoming more and more technologically advanced, with exhibitors introducing things like giant screens or full-service kitchens to provide a luxurious experience for moviegoers. But the history of this industry is one of the greatest things about it. How do you integrate technological advances into some of these historic theaters?
In my cinematographic career I have made all decisions from the point of view of the cinemagoer: What should the cinema look like when I want to enjoy the film? What do I expect from a satisfying visit to the cinema? Big screens, comfortable seats, perfect technology, good service, suitable movies that entertain me. The CinemaxX concept was based on providing the largest possible image for the visitor to enjoy the film in the best possible way, in competition with TV.
Stadium seats were a must for this one. So we built all the theaters with stairs, big spaces between the rows, armchairs (instead of folding chairs) and big windows. Always in the best location in the respective city, in the center of the city center, never in the suburbs.
What major changes took place at the world cinema exhibition in Germany during your time with CinemaxX?
After competitors had watched for about five years to see if this concept would be a lasting success, multiplex theaters began popping up everywhere in the 90s and early 2000s, some of them started with great optimism. In Germany, an “over-screening” situation was created. That’s why I developed and implemented projects abroad in the early stages (Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Denmark, Poland, etc.).
Do you remember the first movie you saw on the big screen? What was your hometown theater growing up?
My first film was The story of Glenn Millerwhich I saw with my dad (a big fan of swing music) at the Riki cinema in my hometown of Hanover.
I know you’re not a fan of popcorn at the cinema – is there any other type of concession that you like, or would you rather focus 100 per cent on the movie?
For many guests, popcorn is part of the movie theater experience. Even in premium cinemas you can’t miss it. I didn’t offer it at first, but the complaints only stopped when we introduced it.
However, to this day I still resist selling nachos with cheese sauce. Instead, we have finger food (cheese, ham, olives, etc.), but mostly cocktails, champagne and wine.
Why is it important to preserve historic cinemas?
Unfortunately, there are hardly any old traditional cinemas left in Germany. Due to the multiplex boom of the 90s and 2000s, cinemas were closed in many places. In Berlin, until a few years ago there were over 15 different cinemas on the Kurfürstendamm, but today only the Astor Film Lounge still exists. This is a great shame, because these old movie palaces had a certain charm and were a real alternative to the giant multiplex cinemas.
What has been the most challenging period in your ten-year career in cinema exhibition, and what are some lessons you’ve learned from that time?
Since I started practically from scratch and had neither banks nor investors on my side in the beginning, things were always challenging. I worked hard and invested every drop in new projects, so I often couldn’t sleep well and didn’t know if I would be able to pay the next month’s rent.
The moment I was forced to take on a new shareholder in CinemaxX AG because of fear-driven bankers was my biggest disappointment. Unfortunately, we did not act in unison and I had to leave my life’s work in 2008. The new shareholder, a former friend of mine, then sold CinemaxX a few years later at a huge profit to an English cinema group.
I started from scratch and founded Astor, an idea and a company I really like. And above all, without banks and investors on board, but with a large team of employees enthusiastic about cinema. I am my own boss again and that is extremely worth it to me.
Do you have any additional movie theater restoration planned?
From 2024 my children will take over the operational business and I will look after the expansion of the Astor brand.