Blazing Trails In Exhib Biz

In style and sheer bravado, Sam Film topper Arni Samuelsson bears more than a passing affinity with some of the larger-than-life celluloid heroes that have flashed across the silver screens of his movie theaters for more than half his life.

Fridbert Palsson of rival exhib-distrib Haskolabio calls Samuelsson the “Lone Ranger” of Iceland’s movie industry.

“Arm broke the ice in bringing in U.S. product simultaneously with the rest of Europe,” says Palsson. “In doing so he brought a new way of thinking to the market here.”

In 30 years, Samuelsson has gone from owning one theater in the small town of Keflavik, about 40 kilometers west of the capital, to being on first name terms with some of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Now the island hosts international preems. For instance, “Lethal Weapon 3” opened in Reykjavik three months before it bowed in London.

Iceland has the highest per capita cinema attendance on the globe , 5.4 films per year (rising to 8.2 for Reykjavik alone) compared with, for example, 1.9 in the U.K. Even his competitors in the country’s fierce exhib arena give Samuelsson more than passing credit for maintaining those high figures.

Although not born to the cinema – Samuelsson and his wife inherited the Keflavik theater from her grandfather – he still relishes the role of a showman.

“He loves the business,” says Sam Film’s finance director Thor Arnason, who grew up with Samuelsson’s two sons, Bjorn and Alfred. “People in Reykjavik remember that even when Arni became successful he would always be down there taking the tickets.”

“I always found it a very exciting business,” says Samuelsson, who began dealing with Hollywood in the early ’70s after he “just got tired of waiting two years to see new films.” After that, his Keflavik theater often showed new releases before they opened in Reykjavik.

His stock of movies piled up and, when theaters in the capital refused to screen pix if they’d unspooled in Keflavik first, Samuelsson says he was forced to start building Iceland’s first multiplex (a five-screen, 1,000-seater) just to exhibit his own product.

With inflation then running at over 100% in Iceland, people thought he was mad. He now owns four sites totalling some 3,000 seats, plus distribution, homevideo and broadcast arms.

Though both his sons are clearly being groomed to take over the reins, the 53-year-old Samuelsson still calls the shots. Despite the org’s rapid growth, Samuelsson says Sam Film will “remain a family business.”

That family business not only sets the standard for exhibition in Iceland – owning 10 of the capital’s 24 screens – but has also attracted the attention of other European exhibs looking for the secrets to Sam Film’s success. Among them is Finnkino in Finland, where exhibition faces a depressing future.

Samuelsson claims he’s not surprised at others’ interest. Pressed to advise on how to succeed in a small but competitive climate like Iceland’s, he becomes philosophical. “You have to believe in yourself,” says the Sam Film topper, “and you have to offer the best there is.”

Despite a climate of co-venturing throughout Europe, Samuelsson has yet to stray from a purely Icelandic trading path. However, he admits he could be tempted to engage in pan-Scandi partnerships, especially with Swedish major Svensk Filmindustri, a sometime partner with Sam Film in deals for Icelandic rights.

Both are giants in their own territories. And both, coincidentally, have recently put TV at the top of their long-term strategic agendas.

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