Push to plusher plexes promises reel potential

Redstone's ready to revamp exhibs

Kick back with a pineapple martini. Then, filet mignon or coconut shrimp? Tiramisu for dessert, and then step to your seat for the main attraction. Still hungry? Some theaters let you order popcorn from your seat via a wireless device.

It’s all part of Shari Redstone’s aggressive, experimental, ever-expanding effort to pry folks away from their flatscreen TVs and iPods and get them into movie theaters. She’s got faith that she’ll succeed. It’s a matter of survival, as attendance dips and naysayers — including her own father, Sumner Redstone — call exhibition a business in inexorable decline.

“It’s not a growth business. The only reason theaters have kept up with the rest of the world is by raising admission prices. … I don’t have to agree with her because she’s my daughter,” Redstone pere said recently in a TV interview.

“I’ve always grown up in a house with lively debates,” Shari Redstone told Daily Variety.

“The challenges are real. … The issues they are raising are legitimate. The conclusions they are reaching are not,” she said. You just need “the right theater, in the right market, with the right economics.”

In other words, the business as a whole may not grow. But at individual theaters, it can.

Her grandfather Michael Redstone launched the chain, called National Amusements, in 1938, starting with a drive-in theater built on a potato farm. Her father used it as the building block of a media empire, acquiring Viacom, Paramount and CBS. Shari Redstone serves as vice chairman of both Viacom and CBS and is often in New York, where both companies are headquartered.

(During the meeting at the Pierre Hotel, a petite gray-haired woman walked through the lobby. “Hey, Mom,” called Shari. It was Phyllis Redstone, Sumner Redstone’s first wife, who mostly lives there.)

But her primary day job is still faithful standard-bearer for the family’s original enterprise as president of Boston-based National Amusements Inc.

She’s recognized as one of the industry’s savviest execs. NAI stayed healthy when many of the nation’s theater chains went bankrupt in 2000-01 after a period of massive overbuilding that was one of the darkest periods in the industry’s history.

Shari Redstone likens exhibition to the newspaper business with its steady decline in readership in recent years. Yet the well-heeled from coast to coast are vying for the properties. “Jack Welch wants to buy the Boston Globe. That’s a business with challenges. But people who are smart see the opportunity,” she said.

The Chatters restaurants in a growing number of NAI locations are no Applebee’s. The theaters have lounges specializing in infused vodka drinks, bars featuring chocolate concoctions, reserved seating and baby grands in the lobby. NAI calls it “cinema de lux,” started in 2002 and rolling out gradually to all its theaters. Redstone said in some cases the effort has boosted attendance by 20% and profitability per patron by 40%.

“You can’t control the product. You can control the experience,” she said.

“We always say, ‘We’re all in the food business.’ I live to eat, I don’t eat to live,” she said. This kind of pampering is meant to appeal in particular to baby boomers.

Looking to indoctrinate the next generation, some NAI theaters have children’s programs on Saturdays and Sundays and a Reel Cool birthday party package — “to get little kids used to coming to the theaters,” she said.

Cyberzone, the first theater with state-of-the-art videogaming, is set to open Dec. 1 at Showcase Cinemas Ann Arbor near the U. of Michigan.

NAI was the first to offer high-def sports broadcasts with corporate sponsorships. Theaters in New England have shown Boston Red Sox games, splitting ticket sales with the team. On those days, the theaters sell Red Sox merchandise, hot dogs and Cracker Jack.

And Redstone said there’s still room for growth overseas. NAI has made a big push into the former Soviet Union. It also has inked a partnership there with Sony Pictures called Monumental Pictures to produce and distribute Russian films.

It’s experimentation. She expects hits and misses. “It’s about reinventing the business,” she said.

To do that, it helps to be on the smaller side. NAI has 81 theaters in the U.S. It’s somewhat unusual in that it owns the land its theaters are built on. Other operators rent, which left them holding the bag with expensive long-term leases on underperforming theaters — one reason for the stream of Chapter 11 filings five years ago.

It also helps to be private and family-run. The lucrative Bridge cinema came to Philadelphia after Redstone’s daughter, a student at the U. of Pennsylvania, said, “Mom, you’ve got to build a theater here.” With the Bridge as a centerpiece, NAI also partnered on a film studies program with the U. of Pennsylvania.

Redstone is starting to bring her twentysomething son into the business.

Now most of the larger operators are keeping building in check, and all, like NAI, are seeking ways to maximize revenue. National Cinemedia, a consortium of chains initially spearheaded by Regal, has established a national advertising footprint for theaters, as well as event programming. Others, like Landmark, focus on arthouse and foreign films.

“It’s Saturday night. Let’s go to the movies. People want to leave their homes,” Redstone said. They just need a reason to do it.

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