Municipal Cinema Exhibition in Norway

June 1, 2015 Film & Kino changed from beeing a member organisation  for the municipalities to a member organisation for all cinemas, both private and municipal.

Over the years this co-operative system has significantly contributed to building not only exhibition, but also distribution, film production and film culture in Norway. Its latest achievement is the successful, simultaneous digitalisation of 400 screens across the country, completed in the summer of 2011.

“Living pictures” came early to Norway: Only a few months after their Berliner Wintergarten screenings, the Skladanowski brothers brought their Bioscope to Kristiania (now: Oslo) in April 1896. But the pioneer age of exhibition was dominated by foreign itinerant cinema companies, and films were supplied from abroad. It was not until cinemas became permanent localities from 1904 onwards that Norwegians, to any degree, entered the cinema business. By 1910, however, cinema exhibition halls could be found in all parts of the country. A survey taken by the Justice and Police Ministry in 1912 revealed a lucrative business: 160 cinema theatres accrued a total turn-over of 2 million kroner (€ 15 million by today’s value) and an estimated 10 million admissions.

Legal basis

When Norway enacted its “Law on the Public Exhibition of Living Pictures” in 1913, “moral panic” over the possible harmful effects of films had released political pressure to institute centralised, national censorship of films. At the committee stage, however, a coalition of parliamentarians, representing a broad spectrum of parties, added another notion to the Bill: Picking up several strands of contemporary political doctrine – local self-government, national sovereignty over resources, paternalistic protection and popular enlightenment programmes among them – the Law mandated municipal councils to licence cinema enterprises within their respective jurisdictions.

The possibility that municipal councils would seize on this opportunity to themselves take over the operating of cinemas was evident and explicit from the moment the Law was debated in Parliament. During the coming five years some 20 municipal councils, with more than 60 theatres under their jurisdiction, would refuse to renew licences to private cinema operators. Instead the municipal councils set up their own cinemas, often buying the halls and the equipment from the former owners. Among those cinema-owning municipalities were most of the large and medium-sized towns and cities across the country. Three arguments for “municipalisation” of cinemas were salient: To counter harmful effects of films; to provide films that would serve public enlightenment as alternative or supplementary programming; and to provide income for the common, municipal good. When the 20 private cinema proprietors of Oslo finally gave in and sold their enterprises to the capital’s municipal authorities in 1925, the municipal system was complete – and in a dominant market position.

Co-op policies

The battle for control over cinema ownership had not been won without an exchange of blows. In 1915 the (privately owned) distribution companies had formed a professional association. Several distributors were closely affiliated with private cinema owners, and soon after the distributors tried to stop the spread of municipalisation by adding a 5 per cent surcharge on film rentals to municipal cinemas. The municipal cinemas responded by organising themselves into the National Association of Municipal Cinemas (now “Film & Kino”) in 1917. By 1919 the NAMC had successfully won the rental price war – which in the meantime had escalated into full-scale boycott – by taking over one of the largest film distribution companies in the country. The Municipal Films Exchange Ltd. (Kommunernes Filmscentral A/S) was to be a dominant player in the Norwegian distribution market until the mid-1990’s.

After exhibition suffered severe set-backs in admissions (and thus in income) during the 1920’s, the NAMC successfully lobbied municipal council into making the necessary investments to transit to from silent to sound projection around 1930. Using its collective bargaining power, the Association also negotiated a collective film rentals agreement which kept film rental rates at a lower level than in other European countries for decades. And when, in the early 1930’s, the call for a national film studio went out, the NAMC spearheaded a campaign to build Norway’s first sound stage and founded the production company Norsk Film AS, wholly owned by municipal subscribers, to operate it and to produce films, first and foremost for the national market.

Post-war (re)construction

A second wave of the establishment of municipal cinemas came during the post-World War II years. In the context of national reconstruction (a solidly social-democratic period) a number of municipalities embarked on prestigious and “socially relevant” building projects – homes and infrastructure, schools and hospitals, but also cinemas. Continually growing admissions – in the mid-1950’s annual per capita cinema attendance reached 10 – underpinned the investment in large and fairly sumptuous – and municipally owned – cinema theatres.

The profits generated by the municipal cinemas were ploughed back into the local economy. In Oslo, cinema money supported the construction of the Vigeland sculpture park, but also the pension fund of the philharmonic orchestra. Other towns put in street lights or built a swimming pool or a hotel for cinema profits. Filmmakers felt outraged that this capital did not return as investment in new film productions. Spurred by more personally motivated grievances, the filmmakers overthrew the (municipally appointed) board and took over Norsk Film AS in the mid-1960’s. This “revolt of the 66” was only possible with the financial support of the central government, which had begun to show an interest in film after World War II and had instituted production support programmes from the late 1940’s.

The contributions of the municipal cinemas to national film production was no longer needed – nor wanted. As contributors to the government’s policies under the “enlarged cultural concept” of the 1970’s the municipal cinemas were, on the other hand, most welcome. De-centralised, municipal administrations for culture and sports were, in many cases, implemented with the cinema (and the municipal library) as it core elements. This may have saved a number of smaller municipal cinemas from being closed down: With the arrival of television in the 1960’s, cinema admissions fell sharply and were halved by the early 1970’s. Video and cable television further eroded the cinema market during the 1980’s, but municipalities continued to subsidise their loss-making cinemas, while a number of (small) privately owned cinemas were forced to close their doors.

Market economy

The liberalist and market economy of the 1990’s brought new challenges to bear on the municipal cinema system, this time particularly to the larger municipal cinemas. Right-of-centre municipal councils sought to boost investment capital by selling off profitable enterprises. Large-city municipal cinemas were turned into limited companies, with shares that could be sold to the highest bidder. But there were few takers. However, the exhibition arm of the vertically integrated Swedish film corporation Svensk Filmindustri AB, gained a foothold by entering into co-ownership of some municipal cinemas, and by wholly taking over others. By 2010 SF owns or co-owns cinema theatres in seven locations. As of the time of writing, a battle between the municipally owned Oslo Cinema and SF over the cinema market in Oslo is simmering. Municipal elections in the autumn of 2011 may decide the outcome.

New competition regulations, partly inspired by Norway’s affiliation with the European Union through the EEA-agreement, also put an end to the NAMC’s collective negotiation of film rental rates: Large cinema enterprises now negotiate rentals directly with distributors, while the NAMC still handles rental rates on behalf of medium-sized and small cinemas.

The government, on the other hand, had meanwhile realised the importance of a nation-wide cinema structure as a means of disseminating film culture. In a series of green and white papers from the 1990’s and the 2000’s the government has recognised a de-centralised cinema structure as an essential part of film and cultural policy instruments. When the Cinema Law was rewritten in 1987, the NAMC’s “film cultural” arm, the Norwegian Cinema and Film Fund, was given charge of the 2,5 per cent cinema and video transaction (“ticket”) levy, and a mandate to develop the exhibition sector with these resources.

Digitalising Norwegian Screens

Financially, it was the resources of the Cinema and Film Fund levy that allowed the NAMC ? which was renamed “Film & Kino” in 2002, to reflect its extended role as a membership-based exhibition sector professional organisation – to organise and bankroll the digitalisation of Norwegian cinemas.

Based on an extensive trial programme for digitalisation initiated in 2006, the Film & Kino 2009 General Meeting decided to launch a nation-wide digitalisation programme, comprising 400-plus screens in 220 locations. In line with its mutuality remit Film & Kino expressly aimed at bringing all cinema theatres on board from day one. The decision to “go digital” was furthermore enshrined in the government’s 2007 White Paper on film policy, which anchored the digitalisation programme to the principle of citizens’ right to equal access to cultural benefits.

  • Earmarking NOK 100 million (€ 13 million) from the Cinema and Film Fund to leverage an NOK 400 million credit line, Film & Kino devised a model for digitalisation which comprised:
  • Agreement with six US major studios to supply digital prints at DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) standards, and based on a 40 per cent VPF (Virtual Print Fee) contribution from distributors
  • Agreement with all Norwegian distributors on contribution to the VPF funding model, at same 40 per cent rate as US distribution subsidiaries
  • A technical minimum package, comprising a 2K or 4K projector, a screening server, and installation, on-site service and technical help-line, plus optional extras, to be provided by “system integrators”, i.e. technical suppliers, chosen by tenders
  • Financial facilities, by loans or payment in instalments, to cinemas to fund another 40 per cent of costs, raised by a financial institution, chosen by tender
  • NOK 100 million from the Cinema and Film Fund to underwrite the remaining 25-30 per cent of programme costs

After successfully negotiating the VPF contributions and technical standards with the US studios, and after selecting different system integrators (to avoid monopolisation) for the ten “zones” into which the country was divided, Film & Kino commenced full digital roll-out in early 2010. Digital roll-out to all Norwegian cinemas was completed by the summer of 2011.

Challenges ahead

The Film & Kino initiative has come under criticism for “giving the Americans an easy deal” in regard to the VPF funding model: Distributors, critics feel, should be paying a larger share of the costs. This die, however, is cast, but if the criticism holds true, the additional costs of compensating disadvantaged distribution must probably be regarded as an expense to retain the mutuality concept which is at the heart of the digitalisation programme.

It still also remains for Norwegian cinemas to adjust to the new, almost limit-less supply of prints. Gone are the days of “biggest gets first” and the hierarchy of cinemas in relation to release dates. Some sceptics have pointed to the danger of “crowding out” on Norwegian screens – smaller films being squeezed out of screening space/time to make room for US blockbusters, which are now available in digital format to all cinemas on the day of national release.

The ability of cinemas to employ the wide choice of titles available in digital format to serve the cultural and entertainment needs of their audiences still has to be proven in practice. Since the political support for the digitalisation programme rests on the principle of equal access to cultural benefits, cinemas must now demonstrate that having gone digital with public support brings added cultural and social value to their audiences.

This article was originally published as “Funkcjonowanie kin miejskich w Norwegii. Anatomia unika-towego system” in Jan Erik Holst/Paw?a Urbanika (reds.): Kino Norwegii. Warszawa/Krakow: mff nowe horizonty, 2011 (linia filmowa no 15), pp. 305-314.

Sources and on-line resources
Non-Norwegian language publications only

Aas, Nils Klevjer (1988): «Cinema in Norway: Seventy Years of a Singular System», in: Peter Cowie (ed.): Internatiolnal Film Guide 1988. London: The Tantivy Press

Aas, Nils Klevjer (1994): “Municipal Cinemas 1910 – 1925: Building a Unique Exhibition” in: Jostein Gripsrud, Kathrine Skretting (eds.): History of Moving Images: Report from a Norwegian Project. Oslo: Research Council of Norway (Levende bilder nr. 1/1994)

Aas, Nils Klevjer (1996): One Hundred Years of Cinema Exhibition in Norway – a Historical Profile. At

Aas, Nils Klevjer (2010): Briefing Note on Digital Roll-Out in Norwegian Cinemas. At

Beikircher, Susanne (2003): Das kommunale Kinosystem in Norwegen. Wien: Universität Wien, Fakultät für Human- und Sozialwissenschaften ( dissertation)

Cabrera, Francisco H. (2010): Public Aid for Digital Cinema. At

Cabrera, Francisco H. (ed.) (2010): Digital Cinema. Strasbourg: European Audiovisual Observatory (IRIS plus no. 2010-2).

Cowie, Peter (1999): Straight from the Heart. Modern Norwegian Cinema 1971-1999. Kristiansund, Norway: Kom Forlag as.

Cowie, Peter (2005): Cool and Crazy. Modern Norwegian Cinema 1990-2005. Oslo: Norsk filminstitutt.

– : Film & Kino English-language website. At

Lange-Fuchs, Hauke (2005): Filmland Norwegen:100 Jahre Film und Kino in Norwegen. Lübeck, Germany: Verlag Schmidt-Römhild.

About the author
Nils Klevjer Aas (born 1950) is a film historian, former Executive Director of the European Audiovisual Observatory and since 2000 in charge of the Norwegian Film Institute’s Statistics and Analysis unit. He has published and lectured extensively on film appreciation, film history, and the cultural history of cinema, as well as on strategic market intelligence in the film sector.


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