SYDNEY — When Hoyts Cinemas Australia and New Zealand tapped its new CEO in December, it kept the appointment very, very quiet.
The unconventional approach gave Delfin Fernandez time to settle in quietly as he set about steering the company out of a difficult 2005.
The Puerto Rican-born vet of the exhibition biz in the U.S. and South America met with key industry execs as he oversaw Hoyts’ move to new headquarters in downtown Sydney.
Fernandez’s arrival is intended to provide stability in a company that, in the last 12 months, has moved offices three times, had three chief executives, one significant change of corporate ownership and suffered a B.O. decline north of 10%.
“It’s a great honor to be in charge of such a legendary company,” Fernandez tells Variety.
He was lured to Sydney from the top job at Hoyts General Cinemas South America, a joint venture between Consolidated Press Holdings (the private company of Australian media magnates the Packer family) and AMC Entertainment (owners of General Cinemas).
Hoyts Cinemas Australia and New Zealand itself was once owned by the Packer family; it was acquired by a joint venture between the Packer’s public company, Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd., and West Australian Newspapers Holdings in 2005.
Fernandez was raised in Caracas, Venezuela, where his father worked for top TV network Venevision, but his big break came while he was a university student at Cal State Long Beach when he took a job as a cleaner at United Artists theater in Long Beach, Calif.
In time UA invited him to join its management-training program. That led to stints in Southern California and Nevada, before he was appointed director of international operations in 1994. In this role Fernandez spearheaded the development, design, construction and operation of multiplexes in Mexico and Argentina.
In 1997, Fernandez joined General Cinemas Intl., and the following year, he was appointed managing director of Hoyts General Cinemas South America. HGCSA operates multiplexes in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and in Argentina where its 10 sites constitute 23% of the market.
HGCSA was headquartered in Buenos Aires during the economic crisis that gripped Argentina at the turn of this century.
“It was a social and political crisis (as well),” says Fernandez, who describes that time as “the most difficult personal experience” of his 22 years in the exhibition business. “All the normal institutions stopped functioning. People were not allowed to take money out of the bank, all accounts were frozen so it was very difficult environment.”
During the crisis imports were frozen but film was deemed an exception. Disposable income was scarce and the range of titles available shrank as distributors tried to contain their costs.
“(But) attendance declined very little, which was an incredible thing when you think unemployment went as high as 50% and people were afraid that they wouldn’t have a job from one week to the next,” Fernandez says.
“The industry got very aggressive in promoting cinema as an inexpensive way of trying to forget about the crisis.”
Fernandez says the key was getting people to “maintain the habit of going to the movies, because once you lose it it’s very hard to rebuild.”
It was with considerable satisfaction that Fernandez saw the Argentinean market register record admissions in 2004.
Given this background, Fernandez is likely to take in his stride the challenges facing the mature exhibition business in Australia and New Zealand.
Former Twentieth Century Fox Latin America topper Marcos Oliviera was tapped to run Fox Oz just a few months before Fernandez crossed the Pacific.
“During his years at Hoyts Latin America, Delfin built a solid image of a great executive, hiring people today in relevant positions in and outside Hoyts and making important contributions to the business,” says Oliviera of his compatriot.
There were few if any Latinos working in the Oz industry before those two arrived.
“We’re taking over,” Fernandez jokes.