Helios is the god and personification of the sun in Greek mythology and is often depicted in art with a radiant crown and driving a horse-drawn chariot through the sky. In a similar manner, the Polish cinema chain Helios has been a shining light on the cinema scene for thirty years. The anniversary is a perfect opportunity to profile the biggest cinema operator in Poland, with 54 cinema theatres and 302 screens. The company started in Lodz, an important city for cinema in Poland, housing one of Europe’s most famous film schools.
I sat down with Tomasz Jagiello, the dynamic co-founder and president of the Management Board of the Helios cinema chain, to get a personal view of how it all started. “In the early nineties, there was a huge crisis in the business. The cinemas were very old, with only one screen, old equipment and chairs. Not that many movies, actually, so it didn’t look like a good business idea. I met some people with the same interest. We were working in a state-owned enterprise running hundreds of cinemas in Poland. We decided to rent two of them. The first movie I remember, on January 1 1993, was Home Alone 2.”
After running the business for eight months, Jagiello was not very optimistic about it. Then came the day that changed everything. September 2, 1993, was the European opening of Jurassic Park. “Suddenly, we felt rich, even though we weren’t, but it was a significant change since it was a professionally marketed product. Later, we had The Fugitive,” (October 1993).
Later in the nineties, the operation managed to secure money to grow. Why did the investment fund decide to invest in this company? Jagiello explains. “He came to our cinema in Lodz, and he was shocked that the ticket sold to him came from a computerised box office. He concluded that there must be people in the company who think about the future, development and technology, so he gave us two million USD which we invested in technology: new projectors and screens on a small scale.”
The 2000s – The start of multiplex cinemas
In 2002, the first two multiplexes were opened in Wroclaw and Rzeszow. Since Helios was a smaller player than their competitors, they initially chose to focus on cities that their competitors considered too small. That is a label that Helios still has, which is only partly true. Even though roughly half of the company’s cinemas are the only cinemas in many smaller and mid-sized cities, they are well-represented in the largest cities as well. They are number one in Gdansk and are doing well in their hometown Lodz, as well.
A premium experience
Several things distinguish Helios from its competitors. All their cinemas boast state-of-the-art equipment, with digital projectors with HFR technology capable of showing films at 48 frames per second. The sound system is also superior, and Helios introduced Dolby Atmos in Poland. Another outstanding feature is the architecture and interiors, where the company has an unusual approach. They were also first with the Dream Room concept, where all the seats are adjustable, even down to a lying position.
When I asked Jagiello about it, he said, “We really are not focused on creating a network of unified cinemas; each is different and unique. We want each cinema to be connected to the town where it’s built. In Kalisz, it’s amber looking because the amber route was there in early medieval times. Now we opened in Koszalin, and there we have a silver line [design] going through because there’s a [local] legend of a treasure of platinum. In Krosno, there is a glass factory, and they provided us with lights to show the connection to the city.”
A local company
What is the reason for this approach? In Jagiello’s words, once again, “We are a local company. Local, because we are Polish, local because we want to be part of the town, local because we let our managers really have a huge range of freedom on how to run the cinemas, and how to cooperate with partners, and who to cooperate with. This is something that makes our network different from other chains, being part of huge international players.”
The standout Helios cinema might be the one in the Warsaw mall, Blue City. The hall of the cinema, with cash desks and a cafe, resembles a New York street and features high-resolution LED screens showing trailers. On the other hand, the local connection is preserved since each of the eight rooms is named after classic Warsawian cinemas that don’t exist anymore.
Helios has several special events with different themes, such as Cinema Connoisseur, Women’s Cinema, Accessible Culture, Film Marathons, Helios for Children and Helios on Stage. One theme became special in 2022. When the war in Ukraine started, Helios decided to begin screening cartoons for kids in Ukrainian in an attempt to offer some distraction.
The screenings were free of charge and came with popcorn and ice cream. The initiative became hugely popular, and all over Poland 100, 000 such tickets were given out. One problem arose in Warsaw. One of the aforementioned classic cinemas in Blue City is called Moskva. In order not to cause any distress to the kids, the name was changed to Kyiv.
Helios also provide screenings of some films with Ukrainian dubbing for the numerous refugees that arrived in Poland.
Many Polish cinemas have unique campaigns for films with a healthy dose of humour. Helios is no exception. When “The Lion King” opened at the Helios cinema in Warsaw, viewers received “Crying Starter Packs” with tissues and a vial for their first teardrop, and members of a vocal group spread among the audience, sang “Circle of Life” from the film’s soundtrack. For big blockbusters, the audience is often invited to participate in competitions. This was the case, for example, with “Spectre”, where the prize was a James Bond-style weekend for two – including dinner at a luxury hotel, a flight in an aerodynamic tunnel, a weapons course at a professional shooting range, a sightseeing flight in a helicopter and a ride in a monster truck.
On the occasion of the premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick”, the viewers had a chance to win an aerobatic flight with a former Polish champion in aircraft acrobatics. Guests invited to the premiere screening of the Polish film “Quo Vadis” organised at Helios cinemas in 2001 were given special invitations for the event – these contained laminated Roman denarii. Interestingly, none of the invitees took the coins for real – which they were!
When I asked about the anniversary this year, Jagiello compared it to the one ten years before. “I remember the twenty-year- anniversary in 2013, huge parties, a rock concert, and hundreds of guests. It makes me think about what happened during these ten years, especially the last three. Now we have no party or guests – but we still plan to celebrate together with our audience.”
This year’s celebration invites spectators of Helios Cinemas to participate in a competition in which they can share their cinematic memories in the form of a video. The best, most touching, or most joyful stories will be rewarded with one-year passes to the cinemas. This is also a throwback to the contest organised on the 20th birthday ten years ago. At that time, the company searched all over Poland for people born exactly on the day Helios company was established – December 16, 1992. The photos of the “twins” were also screened before the movies.
Since 2010, Helios is owned by the Agora Media Group, which also owns the highly influential daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the first independent daily newspaper in Poland. At a time when many cinemas are reeling from the effects of Covid and debts, it remains to be seen what the future looks like for Helios. Jagiello suggested that it’s still too early to tell. The market has somewhat recovered, but will it ever reach pre-Covid levels? With Helios’ constant creativity, invention, and stable base in smaller cities, they still seem prepared to take the future on with optimism for the next thirty years.
So on that note – Happy 30th, Helios.
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