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PLANTING BANNER O’SEAS

Australia’s oldest and largest exhib, the Greater Union Organization, is poised to make its first foray into Southeast Asia, while continuing to expand aggressively in its home market.

Celebrating its 85th anniversary, the venerable company expects to invest a total of about A$400 million ($296 million) to create an Asian circuit, at the same time doubling the size of its Aussie loop.

There has been speculation that Greater Union initially is targeting Malaysia, India and the Philippines.

The firm also is widening its leisure and entertainment base by building a web of amusement centers, named respectively Fun and Games and Kidsports, adjacent to its cinemas in shopping malls.

Managing director Paul Oneile says GU is looking to incorporate both concepts in its Southeast Asian ventures.

The exhib is part of hotel, leisure and entertainment group Amalgamated Holdings Ltd., a publicly traded company whose stock price has doubled this year, fueled by strong profits. The cinema division contributes about 70% of Amalgamated’s revenues.

“We’re in the services industry. Our company aims to make people have a good time while they are using our goods and services,” Amalgamated chairman Alan Rydge says. “We try to focus on what tomorrow’s customer wants and to provide it for him as soon as possible.”

Amalgamated, which is valued at $313 million, posted a 345% leap in net profit to $19 million on sales of $95 million in the six months ended in December. Analysts are predicting a 150% hike in net profit to $32 million in the year to June 30.

Greater Union is pouring $29 million into establishing its overseas operation, and execs plan to spend $103 million more over the next five years.

Initially, it intends to plant the Greater Union banner in three territories. The first deal is expected to be unveiled soon. Oneile won’t release any details in advance, out of deference to its local partner, but says he’s plotting at least five multiplexes in each market.

The overseas push is being spearheaded by Robert Manson, CEO of Greater Union Intl. In the past year Manson has made 11 overseas trips in search of sites and potential partners. Manson says he’s been looking everywhere except Singapore and Hong Kong – which are well-served with cinemas – and Indonesia, which forbids foreign investment in exhibition.

He sounds especially bullish about India, noting that ticket prices there for premium films have rocketed from about 300 three years ago to as high as $3.20.

The hike resulted from a lower tax on tickets and some exhibs upgrading their cinemas, then seeking to recoup costs by raising prices. Indian theaters charge according to the B.O. value of each film, so local blockbuster “Hum Aspke Hain Kaum” (Forever Yours) commands far more than run-of-the-mill offerings.

GU had the chance to move overseas in the late 1980s when Australia’s Village Roadshow formed a co-venture with Golden Harvest and began carving out an empire in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan. Separately, VR is developing sites in India, Italy and Greece.

Although there’s a close relationship between Greater Union and VR, including a multiplex partnership Down Under with Warner Bros. Intl. Theaters, GU passed on that opportunity.

At the time, Amalgamated was pouring a lot of coin into buying hotels and the Thredbo Alpine Resort, and did not have the financial resources to commit to VR’s offshore plans. “The business was stretched,” Rydge says.

Earlier this year, GU signaled it was willing to look further afield when it lodged a bid for the MGM circuit in Britain, but lost out to a consortium headed by Richard Branson’s Virgin. Now the offshore drive reflects the company’s beliefs that Australia will reach screen saturation before the turn of the century, and that there are plenty of greenfield sites in Asia.

Currently, GU operates 222 screens Down Under, including those co-owned with Village Roadshow and WB. GU claims a 34% market share – up from just under 20% in 1990.

“We will add at least 300 screens in the next three years,” says Oneile, estimating the cost at about $185 million. “The exact number changes almost every week as we find new sites or reconfigure complexes.”

An unbroken run of seven years’ B.O. growth in Australia is encouraging GU, Village Roadshow and Hoyts, the three major circuits, to keep building.

Another record year looks likely. Nationwide receipts shot up by 15% in the first half, and GU did even better, gaining 23%. Oneile believes the national B.O. total for 1995 will for the first time hit $370 million, up from last year’s $322.3 million.

Michael Selwyn, United Intl. Pictures managing director in Australia, lauds GU as a model for other chains around the world. The loop “puts a premium on quality sight and sound, and they’re aware of the need to provide a comfortable environment for spectators,” he says.

Selwyn welcomes the trend to larger multiplexes such as the 16-screener in Sydney’s Bondi Junction planned by the GU/Village/WB partnership.

He thinks Aussie exhibs now realize it was a mistake to build multiscreens too small, and he believes 12 screens should be the minimum.

In the arrangement with its partners, GU operates multiplexes in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia; subsid Birch, Carroll & Coyle runs those in Queensland; and Village Roadshow looks after the Victorian units.

“We had a unique opportunity in the past two years to build multiplexes while Hoyts had been a little quiet in that area,” Oneile says. Hoyts had to put the brakes on growth due to a heavy debt load until it was acquired last year by a consortium led by San Francisco merchant bank Hellman & Friedman.

After receiving a major capital infusion from the new owners, Hoyts is going full steam ahead in Australia and the U.S., and eying opportunities in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Hoyts CEO Peter Ivany says its U.S. circuit will expand to 600 screens by the end of this year, and it will add at least another 300 in the next three years.

Down Under, where Hoyts has 122 screens, Ivany says the company will build 170 screens in the next five years, taking advantage of the developer-led spurt of shopping malls with cinemas. He expects to make the first moves into Asia by the end of next year. Ivany rates GU as a “very strong competitor.”

In the leisure field, GU has opened nine Fun and Games amusement centers and plans to add 42 in the next three years.

The first Kidsports site bowed in Sydney in April, and GU intends to build 27 more in the next few years. Aimed at kids younger than 12, Kidsports are indoor play centers. Oneile says both ventures are designed to attract more visitors to GU cinemas among folks who visit shopping malls.

On the hardware side, the GU group includes film lab Atlab, Filmlab Engineering (which designs and manufactures film processing equipment), Filmlab Systems IntL (a U.K-based offshoot that makes software to control film processing labs) and Greater Union Village Technology.

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