A handshake deal between two men 35 years ago has grown into a formidable and highly lucrative showbiz partnership. There were no lawyers or bankers present when Roc Kirby and Sir Norman Rydge teamed up in 1960.

Kirby, the founder of the Village circuit, was keen to expand from his Melbourne base, despite that fact that television (introduced in 1956) was having a devastating effect on cinemas, and banks did not want to lend money to anyone in the precarious exhibition industry.

Rydge, then the chairman and managing director of the Sydney-based Greater Union loop, shared Kirby’s vision. “Build theaters, we will be with you – the industry’s best years are ahead,” he told Kirby.

The deal was sealed with a handshake and confirmed in a two-page letter. That document “is probably lost and has never been referred to since,” says Graham Burke, managing director of the Village Roadshow conglomerate, who joined in 1960.

“Our partnership with Greater Union has endured and gone from strength to strength over 35 years. The partnership operates today with the same spirit, and the good spirit implicit in the original deal is honored in every respect,” adds Burke.

Burke remembers Sir Norman, who died in 1980, as “a man that inspired, a man that made you feel you were the only person in the whole world.”

Today, Greater Union and Village own traditional cinemas and are building multiplexes in a three-way co-venture with Warner Bros. Intl. Theaters.

GU and Village are 50-50 partners in Roadshow Distributors, whose divisions include theatrical distribution, TV sales, videos, videogames, CD-ROMs and a new diskery.

Roadshow Film Distributors leads the market as the Aussie distrib for WB and Disney’s Buena Vista, and also offers product from such suppliers as Summit, New Line, Miramax Intl., Majestic and MDP.

Illustrating RFD’s dominance, the banner released 10 of the record 17 titles that grossed more than $7.4 million in the last 12 months: “Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Mask,” “The Lion King,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Interview With the Vampire” and “Batman Forever.”

RFD managing director Alan Finney says those results reflect the efforts of his team, plus the support of exhibs and the continuing investment in building and upgrading cinemas.

Finney is bullish about his upcoming lineup, including studio titles “Toy Story,” “Something to Talk About” and “Father of the Bride 2,” plus pick-ups “Mortal Kombat,” “Showgirls” and “Johnny Mnemonic.”

GU also is an investor in the Village Roadshow Corp. (the Kirby family’s private company) and the publicly listed Village Roadshow Limited.

While they collaborate in some cinemas, GU and Village compete vigorously in the downtown areas of Sydney and Melbourne. Kirby, now president for life of Village Roadshow, is less active in the company’s day-to-day affairs. Sir Norman’s son, Alan, is the chairman of GU’s parent, Amalgamated Holdings.

At the behest of his father, Alan Rydge began his career at Village. “I remember well Sir Norman coming to me and asking if we could take on Alan as a trainee,” says Burke. “His words at the time were: ‘ You guys have a fever and it’s a positive fever. Just as negative fevers like measles are contagious, so are positive fevers.'”

One of the young Rydge’s first jobs was the back-breaking task of pulling out the old seats from Sydney’s Double Bay cinema, which Village was converting into a twin.

That site is being turned into a fourplex next year, yet another offspring of the Village/Greater Union partnership.

Greater Union had its own film distrib arm, but decided to wind that up in the 1980s, in favor of buying 50% of Roadshow Distributors.

“It was the right decision at the time,” says Rydge. “It did not make sense for us to compete in that way. Roadshow (Distributors) does a sensational job – it was one of our smarter investments.”

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