Top Theater Exec on Why China's Hollywood Money Is Good for World Peace

Ahead of the annual CinemaCon convention (and previews of 'Captain America: Civil War'), AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron has a message for his peers: Box-office success is as much on them as the studios.

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The first thing to know about Adam Aron is that he has 25,000 Twitter followers, unusual for a corporate suit. The new CEO of the AMC Entertainment theater chain achieved celebrity status in the boardroom after steering Norwegian Cruise Line, Vail Resorts and Starwood Hotels, plus holding top jobs in the airline industry. But his most high-profile gig? From 2011 to 2013, he was co-owner and CEO of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, helping to explain his social media standing. The marketing and customer-service maven moved to Kansas City, Kan., in January to run AMC, majority-owned by Chinese giant Dalian Wanda Group. Right away, Aron, 62, negotiated a $1.1 billion deal to acquire Carmike Cinemas, which would make AMC the largest U.S. circuit — once the deal is approved by federal regulators — with more than 600 locations in 45 states.

He also has made waves by reportedly supporting Sean Parker's controversial $50 home-movie service, the Screening Room. Aron is sure to be quizzed about that and other ambitions when making his industry coming-out at CinemaCon, the annual exhibitors convention hosted by the National Association of Theatre Owners that runs April 11 to 14 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where Hollywood studios tout summer blockbusters and other films during a parade of star-studded presentations inside The Colosseum, the hotel's cavernous theater. The Philly native spoke recently with The Hollywood Reporter about why China money is good for world peace and his prescription for helping the stagnant box office grow.

What would you say to anyone who claims China is trying to control the film business by owning AMC, or that it dictates what AMC does?

It's greatly unfair to Wanda and a frequent misreporting by the U.S. press that every time AMC does something, it's reported that Wanda is a puppeteer. AMC is run from Kansas City, in the heart of the United States — it's not run from Beijing. Given that Wanda owns 75 percent of our shares, it would be natural to assume they support the initiatives we are making, but strings aren't being pulled in some Machiavellian way. And I've long believed that cross-ownership across borders has been probably the single biggest development that has kept the world peaceful. I think it's a very good development for the U.S. that China is investing here. It means the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, have confidence in the future of the U.S. Carmike was entirely an AMC acquisition; the companies had talked before but hadn't spoken in months. I picked up the phone and called the Carmike CEO, and here we are. Of course, Wanda was very enthusiastic.

What have been some of your biggest innovations?

When I was 27, I was one of nine people in the U.S. who could say with a straight face they were the creators of airline frequent-flier programs. Every major airline in the 1980s had one person who led the effort, and I was one of those nine people — I worked at Pan Am. Frequent-flier programs ushered in a whole new concept whereby you could learn who your best customers were and you could market to them individually.

Is it true AMC has signed a letter of intent to do business with the Screening Room? Have you met with Sean Parker?

The wise course for AMC right now is not to comment. There will be plenty of time for us to talk about the Screening Room later as we learn more information.

Another hot-button issue is clearances, whereby AMC and other theater chains will not play a movie if a studio books it in another nearby cinema. Has AMC eased its policy in the wake of various lawsuits and a Department of Justice inquiry?

AMC can thrive and prosper in an industry that has clearances, which has been a past practice going back decades and decades, and I think AMC can prosper in an industry without clearances.

What is the biggest challenge in keeping people coming to the movies?

A movie is still a very cheap date, but technology is going to make it easier and easier to see movies in other ways. Theater owners better be on their game. That's why AMC is so committed to better seats, better sight and sound, better food and drink. The second challenge is that while the box office has produced three record years out of the past four, the numbers are very close to each other — this is not an industry that is growing 4 to 7 percent a year like other mature industries. That tells me two things: Theater owners ought to smartly interact with studios to do anything we can to help grow industry box office in total; and second, theater owners — and this will certainly be the case with AMC — cannot rely solely on Hollywood to market movies. We're going to have strive harder to market to moviegoers who live and work near our theaters.

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CINEMACON 2016 HONOREES

Breakthrough Director of the Year: Nate Parker

Female Stars of the Year: Christina Applegate, Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Annie Mumolo

Male Star of the Year: Jesse Eisenberg

Cinema Icon Award: Susan Sarandon

Vanguard Award: Keanu Reeves

Award for Excellence in Acting: Bryce Dallas Howard

Male Star of Tomorrow: Stephen Amell

Female Star of Tomorrow: Gina Rodriguez

Rising Star of the Year: Jack Huston

Breakthrough Performer of the Year: Dave Franco

Producer of the Year: Jason Blum

Legend of Cinema Award: Arnon Milchan

International Filmmaker of the Decade: Frank Marshall

Comedy Stars of the Year: Anna Kendrick, Zac Efron and Adam DeVine

Ensemble of the Universe: Cast of Independence Day: Resurgence (Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Jessie Usher, Sela Ward and Vivica A. Fox)

DONNA LANGLEY AND OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

The Screening Room 
Anyone can use CinemaCon to hold meetings with theater owners. Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju’s new venture, the Screening Room, is doing just that to rally support for their proposed $50 homemovie service, which isn’t going over well with exhibitors despite a plan to share revenue. Akkaraju and consultant Jeff Blake, Sony’s former vice chairman, will work out of a suite at Caesars.

Donna Langley, Pioneer of the Year
After shepherding a record box-office year in 2015, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley will receive the Pioneer of the Year Award, bestowed by the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation and held in conjunction with CinemaCon at a dinner April 13.

Filmmaker Lunch
The Hollywood Reporter chief film critic Todd McCarthy will moderate a wide-ranging discussion with The Revenant producers Arnon Milchan and Mary Parent (recently appointed vice chairman of worldwide production at Legendary Pictures) and cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, also April 13. Milchan’s New Regency made Revenant, which earned Alejandro G. Inarritu an Oscar for best director and Lubezki his third consecutive trophy for best cinematography.

STX Entertainment
Adam Fogelson returns to the stage at CinemaCon for the first time since leaving Universal. Now he’ll tout films from STX Entertainment, Bob Simonds’ ambitious young studio, where Fogelson is chairman of the motion picture group. It’s no small feat for STX to land an official slot: Before this year, only the six major studios and Lionsgate got a turn at CinemaCon.

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