dialogue with Shari Redstone
EmptyNational Amusements president Shari Redstone oversees 1,500 movie screens, about 500 of which are located in Latin America, the U.K. and Russia. She has been making aggressive pushes into digital projection, 3-D, online movie ticketing and interactive video gaming. Redstone will not be in Las Vegas for ShoWest because she just opened a new theater in Brazil and then flew to St. Petersberg, Russia, to open another. Before she left, the peripatetic executive gave The Hollywood Reporter a picture of the state of exhibition today.
The Hollywood Re- porter: Are you rapidly expanding your theater chains overseas?
Shari Redstone: I'm very excited about the international marketplace; there's tremendous opportunity. A lot of markets have insufficient theaters; they are underscreened. I love to enter new markets and bring quality to the moviegoing experience. In Russia, nobody wanted to go there. We now have one to two theaters in towns all over Russia. In terms of boxoffice, we're up 30% there in the last two years. We're producing pictures for the Russian market with Sony Pictures through National Amusements; our first two will open in April. We're doing well in Russia, the U.K., Scotland, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. There are also a lot of opportunities in South America. We acquired UCI, a circuit in Brazil with 10 theaters, and we're expecting to buy another one next week. In the U.K. we're expanding four or five major cinemas in the U.K. for 2009 and 2010.
THR: On the other hand, the U.S. is not an expanding market, right?
Redstone: There are lots of opportunities in the U.S. as well, but of a different kind. We're overscreened. In 2000 when the industry reorganized, I hoped that screens would be reduced to 27,000 or 25,000, but that never happened. We have way too many screens in this country. There is no rationalization for it. We are aggressively closing older theaters and building new theaters. We are letting go. Everyone has to. To be a viable business, we have to provide a quality experience to our patrons. Older theaters need to be closed, we need fewer and better theaters. It's in exhibition's interest to be generating more revenue per screen.
THR: After a tough 2005, when exhibition was beleaguered, boxoffice was up in 2006.
Redstone: This year is up over last year; the industry does work in cycles. I take offense at the word beleaguered. I won't buy into that. We have our challenges in creating a quality moviegoing experience. We also need to focus on the movies themselves, on release date windows. We often have several wonderful movies released at the same time, which limit the potential of each of the movies. Exhibitors should work together to rationalize the release cycle so that when movies are released we can maximize the value of their run.
THR: Why is it so difficult to convince the studios of that?
Redstone: The problem is that we have created a society with a short attention span. It used to be that movies had longer runs and people got more excited about a movie for a longer period of time. Part of that is to not have as many releases at the same time and not as wide. Few movies justify a wide release. One movie gets a five-week theatrical window, when you have to give a movie at least 12. The studios are shortening windows because they're worrying about getting out a DVD for Christmas so they can meet their numbers in a given quarter. They stopped thinking about the whole picture, the possibilities in all windows going toward that DVD date. People used to see movies two or three times; now they only see them once. That's part of it. Is this a movie I'll see in a theater, or will I wait for the DVD? Six months seemed so far away that if they wanted to see it, they saw it right away. We fight back by not showing movies in theaters if they're day-and-date. We fight back by doing things that are not as dependent on product and release schedules that we can't control.
THR: Is there a future for movie theaters?
Redstone: There was a study that said that 70% of people believe movies should be seen in a movie theater. As much as there are all these changes in technology, most people want a social experience, whether it's radio, concerts, clubbing or interactive video games. They find something in the social experience that's compelling.
THR: How did your experiment in high-end moviegoing turn out at Los Angeles' the Bridge?
Redstone: It has been extremely successful for us. In reality, it's not about deciding how people are going to spend their money, it's about how they spend their time. We need to provide a compelling reason for them to spend time in our theaters. We looked at the quality moviegoing experience — levered seating, ushers, a concierge desk — to create a community entertainment destination. In New England, we broadcast the Red Sox, live comedy and music. People are responsive to it. We're building a community and an environment, with bars, restaurants, our own infused vodka martinis, desserts and sandwiches, a lounge with magazines, newspapers and Starbucks where people can hang out.
THR: You're also expanding your art-film programming.
Redstone: Thanks to the Oscars, a lot of indie movies are doing well in theaters. We do a number of Cine Art films, and people do come back. The same old theaters that played current movies now play art films and indies and are packed. We're seeing a resurgence of the indie art film bringing back customers. We're selling wine and cheese and offering in-seat dining. And there's an increase in the frequency of baby boomer audience.
THR: Would you ever raise the price, as some like James Cameron has suggested, for big tentpole movies?
Redstone: It's hard to distinguish what movie is worth one price. I'm very uncomfortable with dictating that to our patrons. I'm not Pollyanna, but I recognize every cloud has a silver lining. We have an opportunity as an industry to help keep the movie business vibrant. We try to cater to all audiences. We have senior days where they play cards and see a movie, and have that social experience they can't get at an assisted living place. We look at catering to kids with CyGamZ and extremely successful international tournaments in theaters and interactive video game leagues.
THR: Are you embracing the digital revolution?
Redstone: Yes, we already have digital projectors in several theaters, and we're expanding and experimenting with different ones. We haven't finalized the final rollout plan. We are also in 3-D — there's a great opportunity for exhibition. We'll see a lot more 3-D theaters in 2009. Filmmakers like (Jeffrey) Katzenberg, (Steven) Spielberg, Cameron and (Robert) Zemeckis are committed to that. It's another opportunity to reinvent the business. We're being very aggressive in 3-D. A lot of our projectors are Real D in this country and in the international market, we're also investing in Imax systems in Argentina and St. Petersberg.
THR: Why has it taken so long to fulfill the promise of digital projection?
Redstone: It has proved difficult for everybody with issues of financing looming large. Exhibitors don't get the benefit. I don't feel we should have to pay for it. Coming up with financing took some time, coming up with standards took time, encryption took time. It doesn't help as 2k (projection) yields to 4k. You don't want to put something in theaters when there's something better coming in the next six months. 4k is not necessarily better. It's a marketing device, but you've got to make sure it's state of the art. Perception is nine-tenths of reality.
THR: What did you learn as the daughter of Viacom founder Sumner Redstone?
Redstone: Growing up, we watched films in the basement in Massachusetts. If we liked a movie, we wondered, would it do business? We came to understand that a good movie does not always do business. I learned from my father that it's easy to be 100% committed to what you do. If you work with wonderful people, you can be happy working seven days a week.