Leading The Pack

Most folks would be hard pressed to come up with even one name of somebody they know in Iceland. But ask the foreign distribution heads of some of Hollywood’s most powerful majors and independents, and they’ll have no problem at all.

The name? Arni Samuelsson. The company? Sam Film.

Executives from companies including Warner Bros., Walt Disney and Morgan Creek have been rubbing elbows and signing deals for some years with Samuelsson, president and CEO of the exhib-distrib that has led the Icelandic pack for more than a decade.

In a movie-mad country where dwellers in the capital of Reykjavik average eight trips a year to theaters – twice the rate of Londoners and Parisians combined – Samuelsson and the 20-year-old Sam Film dominate the fiercely fought landscape.

Samuelsson generally is credited with bringing Iceland an island about the size of Kentucky hanging from the Arctic Circle and populated by about 300,000 people in from the cinema cold and helping make it (in relative terms) the movie admissions capital of the world.

Iceland has gone from an outback movie territory, which had to wait up to four years to see a new pic, to being a preferable choice for European premieres. In the ‘ 70s, rather than wait for product to arrive about two years after the U.S. and the rest of Europe had seen it, Samuelsson went to Hollywood to deal directly with the majors.

Even his critics admit that by doing so he became something of a local legend.

Claiming a 50% share of theatrical and 60% of the homevideo market, Sam Film is an easy target to hit in a small pond.

“Half the nation has been brought up going to Sam Film (theaters),” says Anna Maria Karlsdottir of the Icelandic Film Fund. Though sometimes critical of the company’s heavy lean toward U.S. product, she admits Samuelsson has a keen nose for the marketplace.

“Arni looks at Icelandic films the same way he looks at any other film,” Karlsdottir says. “If Arni buys an arthouse film, that means it’s likely to do OK.”

Upgrading, renovation, a tradition of service and a healthy diet of the latest product are the Samuelsson hallmarks. To have his whole family working side by side taking tickets and serving refreshments long after the business was a success may sound like an old-fashioned way of conducting business but it still works in a small community like Iceland.

“People would often stop and thank us for bringing in the new movies,” says Samuelsson’s son, G.M. Bjorn Arnason. “They were genuinely happy we were successful because they’d seen how hard we worked at it.”

The company plans further expansion of its theatrical distribution side, Arnason adds. “If all our cinemas are booked then we’ll run (the product) at another theater.”

Hot on the heels of starting up the youth-formatted Radio 95.7, Sam Film also is set to spread its wings into cable TV this fall, a further possible outlet for its U.S. product.

While sons Bjorn and Alfred ferry between markets and keep the home office fires burning back in Iceland, Samuelsson more and more stokes the business from his home away from home in Los Angeles.

A clear admirer of Swedish major Svensk Filmindustri, with which he already has some distribution ties, Samuelsson gives the impression that his next moves could be cementing alliances overseas.

Though he insists Sam Film will always remain a family concern, its multimedia interests already span exhibition, distribution, homevideo and radio, with TV soon to be plugged in. With that kind of spread, it’s only a matter of time before the company becomes a vertically integrated powerhouse with interests well beyond Iceland’s tiny borders.

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