AMC Theatres' Programming Chief Talks Franchise Fatigue and Fall Hopes

DisneyPixar; Paramount Pictures; Alcon Entertainment, LLC.; Twentieth Century Fox

Bob Lenihan, who will be honored Thursday at ShowEast, spoke with THR about the brutal summer box office and relations between cinema owners and studios.

On average, Bob Lenihan sees five movies a week. As president of programming at AMC Entertainment — the country's largest theater circuit, owned by China's Dalian Wanda Group since 2012 — Lenihan, 63, is responsible for the pipeline of movies feeding more than 8,200 screens in about 660 AMC theaters throughout the U.S. Situated in Los Angeles, the film buyer has been with Kansas-based AMC since 2009 but began his career as a film booker at United Artists Theatres in San Francisco 40 years ago. One of his first assignments was to check out a preview screening of George Lucas' original Star Wars. While some of his older colleagues were dubious, Lenihan was sold.

On Oct. 26, Lenihan will receive top honors at ShowEast, the annual fall gathering of theater owners in Miami, where film companies will plug their upcoming slates, including Disney/Pixar's Coco, Paramount's Daddy's Home 2, Warner Bros.' Father Figures, Lionsgate's The Commuter and Fox Searchlight's The Shape of Water, an early Oscar contender from Guillermo del Toro — plus a surprise Fox title. (ShowEast is hosted annually by FilmExpo, which is owned by THR parent company Eldridge Industries.) Ahead of the confab, Lenihan spoke with THR about the brutal summer box office, franchise fatigue and relations between cinema owners and studios.

What have been the biggest surprises of your career?

Steven Spielberg's E.T. was perceived to be a midrange Disney movie when it came out in 1982. Obviously it became a smash hit. Then look at today, when a small Stephen King film adaptation — It — does $300 million-plus in the U.S. I think we're always surprised when we look at the projections we made six months ago and see how they played out.

Studios often complain about how quickly a movie loses screens. How is that decision made?

When a movie drops off significantly in its second week, the public has spoken, and they aren't going to turn out in weeks four and five like they did for Wonder Woman or Dunkirk. We also look at CinemaScores on opening weekend. If a movie gets less than an A-, it probably isn't going to hold very well as a general rule of thumb. We never take a movie off that shows box-office life.

This summer largely was a disaster for Hollywood and exhibitors, who saw their stocks plummet. Will the year end down in revenue or can the gap be closed?

I think we have a shot [to close the gap], given that we have Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December and other strong titles, including Justice League [Nov. 17].

Does Hollywood rely too heavily on sequels and reboots?

There is a lot of competition for content. We see how aggressive Netflix and Amazon are, in addition to HBO and all the other channels. When the audience is given something new and fresh, they are going to embrace it. At the same time, it would be foolish to not try and recapture some of the box-office magic that exists in a property that once came out of nowhere, although it is increasingly harder to do that.

How heated are your discussions with studios over terms?

Over the 40 years I've been doing this, there has been a lot of discussion about the partnership between exhibition and the studios. I want to say that until recently, the discussion has been more lip service than actual fact. Today, I think it is a true partnership. We're intent on helping every piece of content achieve its full potential.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.