Roc Kirby first helped build a cinema with his bare hands, working alongside contractors to prepare ground for Australia’s first drive-in at Croydon, an outer Melbourne suburb.
‘That was in 1954. From those beginnings, Kirby created a diversified entertainment conglomerate, Village Roadshow Ltd., now valued at more than A$600 million ($460 million).
An old-fashioned showman who “lives and breathes cinema,” Kirby parlayed VR into an Australian/New Zealand powerhouse, then pioneered multiplexes in Southeast Asia.
Expanding from its exhibition base, the group’s activities now span film and video distribution, film and TV production, movie studios, theme parks and FM radio networks.
Thus, it’s fitting that the 75-year-old patriarch is being feted as exhibitor of the year at the inaugural CineAsia convention in Singapore. Kirby retired as chairman of the Village Roadshow companies (family owned Village Roadshow Corp. owns 50% of publicly traded VRL) in 1992, but he’s not exactly ready for a rocking chair just yet.
He retained the position of president and attends all board meetings, saying that enables him “to keep up to date and voice my opinions where I see fit. I will continue to do so until I go out in a box.”
Kirby’s sons, John and Robert, are VRL directors and alternate as chairman. Managing director Graham Burke is a 38-year Village Roadshow veteran.
Kirby and his exec team hope to position Village Roadshow as a “world power in the field of entertainment.”
Burke considers Kirby his mentor. As a film-obsessed youth, Burke worked initially at one of Kirby’s provincial hardtops as a jack-of-all-trades until moving to Melbourne in the role of Kirby’s protege.
Burke fondly describes Kirby as a man of “extraordinary vision and honor… in the true sense a gentleman. His guiding philosophy has given Village its inherent corporate culture that has taken us to the great heights we have achieved.”
Roc’s guiding principles, according to Burke, stress loyalty, flexibility, the need to treat employees fairly and the idea that theirs is a “people-to-people business.”
At 14, Kirby began his career selling candy and ice cream in a Melbourne cinema owned by his family. He later served as everything from cleaner to manager.
He decided to start his own drive-in chain after gathering information about their success in the United States. At the time, he recalls, he could not see American theaters first-hand because “I could not afford the fare.” Instead RCA, then the leading cinema equipment supplier in Australia, supplied him with information and all the gear for his first exhib ventures.
The contractors on his first drive-in were paid with shares in his fledgling company, Village Cinemas. The attraction became so popular, the circuit grew to 20 drive-ins. When drive-in popularity waned, the company moved into hardtops.
Village branched into film distribution in 1965 as a means of securing first-run releases for its drive-ins. At the time, major distribs were favoring hardtops.
Roadshow Distributors sourced all its product from indies, building a lasting reputation as Australia’s premier distribber of indie product. Later, Roadshow joined the major league as the Oz distrib for Warner Bros, and Walt Disney Co.
Venturing into film production, the company’s first effort was “Alvin Purple.”
Among the many productions involving the company are the original “Mad Max,” “Young Einstein,” “Fortress” and “Lightning Jack.” Greg Coote, a former co-managing director of Village Roadshow, heads Village Roadshow Pictures in L.A.
Roadshow Home Video was established in 1982 and quickly became Australia’s leading indie. Last year, Roadshow New Media was launched, representing a multimillion-dollar commitment to releasing interactive product.
Village Roadshow spearheaded the push to develop multiplexes in Asia. It formed Golden Village in partnership with Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest and opened its first cinema in Singapore in 1992. Golden Village then moved into Bangkok in league with Thai exhib Entertain. Village Roadshow plans further development in Taiwan, Malaysia, India, China and Italy.
Explaining the overseas expansion strategy, Kirby says, “After considerable research, I felt that our type of modern multiplexes would be magnificent in comparison to any competition in Asia where there was so much untapped exhibition potential.
“I feel that not only the Asian countries, but others have unbounded potential for our style of multiplex exhibition, which we’re planning in accord with my adage that ‘standing still is going backwards.'”
Certainly, no one can accuse Roc Kirby of standing still.