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Cinedigm Chairman Chris McGurk: 'I Got Pitched By the Dalai Lama'

Chris McGurk
Daniel Hennessy

The chairman and CEO talks to THR about combining his past experiences at Pepsi, Disney and Universal into a "narrowcast" model, which purports to save theatrical business via broadcasts of UFC fighting and rock concerts.

This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Since taking over Cinedigm in January 2011, Chris McGurk has expanded the company from its role as a converter of movie theaters to digital presentation to what he calls "the leading independent digital studio." The publicly traded company is now a full-fledged distributor of indie films and -- thanks to April's $14 million purchase of home entertainment player New Video and its 5,000 movies and TV properties -- is expanding to include iTunes and mobile platforms. Cinedigm also is a pioneer in beaming to theaters so-called "alternative" content such as World Cup soccer, children's programming and special events. McGurk, 55, began his career at Pepsi before joining Disney in the mid-'80s and holding senior exec jobs at Universal, MGM and Overture Pictures. The married father of three (son Greg is a film editor) now presides over a $97 million-a-year business, "the first complete end-to-end digital distribution network for theaters, the home and mobile," he boasts.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: You've created an interesting platform for releasing movies. Explain the business model.

Chris McGurk: Big studios are still focused on getting their product into as many theaters as possible and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put butts in seats. That doesn't work for us at all. Meanwhile, the studios have gotten out of the independent business to a huge degree. It's created an opportunity because there are a lot of dark screens and empty seats. Theaters are looking for more independent films and other types of content to attract consumers.

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THR: How much content are youtalking about?

McGurk: We want a "narrowcast" model. We've converted 270 exhibitors to digital, which is about 10,500 screens, and now we want to program a lot of content to that universe in a very targeted and precise, narrowcast way. We might do as many as 20 or 25 indie films a year, but we would really focus on launching them on a platform of maybe 100 to 500 screens. We will rely on marketing via mostly in-theater promotion, the Internet and social media. The idea of chasing $5 million at the box office by spending $5 million in marketing isn't what our model is about. Our model is leveraging that awareness quickly so we can get it into the home and into mobile.

THR: Won't the exhibitors – your customers -- balk if you shorten the window between theatrical and home video?

McGurk: We're talking about content -- independent films -- that probably, if we weren't going to take them out to the theater, would go directly to VOD. We also are the first company that will share a piece of the downstream profits with our exhibitor partners. The old rules don't apply, so the windowing system is not an issue.

THR: Where are you with this "alternative content" business?

McGurk: We've been very successful theatrically with the events we've done -- whether it's a Foo Fighters 3D concert, a UFC fight, the World Cup or college football's Bowl Championship Series -- primarily midweek, when less than 5 percent of seats are filled in theaters. So now's the time for us to launch programs where we control the rights. Monday night might be an action sports night at the theater, and Tuesday might be a specialty film night -- almost like you're programming a cable network. We're ready to launch those channels. We're hoping to have at least one up by the end of this year.

THR: Will you invest to make movies?

McGurk: We don't need to. There continues to be a steady supply of indie films with budgets from $1 million to $25 million that are without distribution. That continues to make it a buyer's market. Down the road, if we're successful, we'll consider developing and producing.

THR: You've had top jobs at studios and are building a company now. How do you balance family life?

McGurk: My wife was eight months pregnant when I started working for Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney. His famous quote was, "If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday." And I said to myself, I was going to have to find some balance. Obviously, my wife has kept me around for 30 years, so it must be working.

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IN THE OFFICE

White Knight: His staff in Century City got him the piece, a symbol of friendship in business, since Cinedigm's aim is to help exhibitors and indies.

Dalai Lama: The spiritual leader once suggested a biopic of Buddha. "I got pitched by the Dalai Lama," McGurk says. "It doesn't get any better than that."

The Spider: Cinedigm releases a documentary about UFC fighter Anderson "The Spider" Silva on June 1 in a venture with Lionsgate.

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BIG MOVIES? NOT ON THIS MARQUEE: Cinedigm's alternative programming includes children's fare, sports and music

UFC: The first of four Ultimate Fighting Championship "combat events" in 3D beamed directly to theaters in February in about 100 theaters and attracted big crowds. More events are planned for late summer.

For the Kids: In June, Cinedigm will launch "Kidtoons," a Saturday morning event for 2 to 7 year olds with a Strawberry Shortcake movie, followed by The Wiggles, Thomas the Tank Engine and a Barbie movie in December. 

Music Events: Cinedigm has inked a deal with Eurythmics frontman Dave Stewart to produce musical events that will take fans behind the scenes of the recording process. The first is expected to premiere late this year.