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Exhibs pay tribute to Fishman legacy

If, as seems likely, the U.K.’s long-enshrined custom of the film “alignment” system becomes history, at least one exhib maven will regret its passing.

As chief booker and then marketing director of Rank’s Odeon circuit, the recently retired Stan Fishman lived comfortably with the system in which distribs channeled product through one major loop or another. The Monopolies & Mergers Commission’s 1993 inquiry into U.K. exhibition and distribution strongly recommended that alignments cease.

Fishman’s response? “If the business moved from 54 million admissions in 1984 to north of 120 million in 1994, something seems to be working,” says the man who started out as a trainee projectionist in 1946. Fishman is receiving the Distinguished International Achievement award at this month’s Cinema Expo International confab in Amsterdam.

Adds Fishman: “Today, alignments are a lot looser than they were and distributors are free to trade with the people they want to trade with.”

In bygone days, when U.K. exhibition was still largely an oligopoly, Columbia TriStar, 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Co. and United Artists sided with Odeon, while the other majors stuck with MGM Cinemas and its predecessors.

The advent of multiplexes and formation of new chains broke down those alliances to a large extent. But the custom persists at some city center locations away from the plexes.

As Fishman says, distribs will book their films where they figure they’re getting the optimum advantage. For example, earlier this year Warners sought to book “Natural Born Killers” into MGM theaters but the loop couldn’t provide as many screens as the distrib wanted on the due date (when “The River Wild” was skedded). WB duly approached Odeon and the exhib obliged.

If alignments are formally barred, a game of musical chairs could result in a year, when distribs seek new arrangements with exhibs, says Fishman.

The British government asked the Office of Fair Trading to examine distrib-exhib practices after the MMC’s criticisms.

The OFT originally was due to deliver its report in April, but was given an extension until July, mostly because the entire exhib scene remained highly volatile while the MGM loop, Britain’s largest, was on the sales block. At press time the fate of MGM had not been resolved; Rank reportedly was one of the final two bidders.

The Odeon vet officially retired in January after 48 years with the parent Rank Organization. However, he’s been retained as a consultant, and also maintains his ties with the industry as president of the Cinema Exhibitors Assn.

Fishman opines that lengthening lead times are the biggest change in booking and marketing he’s witnessed in his career. In the early ’80s, he recalls booking films just three or four weeks ahead of release. Sometimes it wasn’t through lack of planning, but simply a shortage of product.

Nowadays, distribs regularly plan major releases six to 12 months ahead, and local cinema managers are far more involved in promoting pictures in their area. Every trainee at Odeon’s management school is taught the rudiments of advertising, marketing and promotions.

According to Fishman, Brit exhibition has broken out of the vicious cycle of experiencing six slow weeks until the next blockbuster has arrived, and after that, plunging back into the red. There’s now more consistency to the product flow, he notes.

Fishman’s farewell bash at a downtown London hotel was attended by many friends, colleagues and associates, including L.A.-based mavens Wayne Duband (Warner Bros. Intl.), Bill Mechanic (20th Century Fox) and Tony Manne and Duncan Clark (Columbia/TriStar Intl.).

Britain’s two established chains sometimes have been accused of sitting idly by while U.S. exhibs (initially American Multi-Cinema and Cinema Intl. Corp., which eventually evolved into United Cinemas Intl.) built the country’s first multiplexes and perked the cinema industry’s revival.

Fishman gives due credit to the Yank pioneers, but says that thanks to a couple of blockbusters (“Ghostbusters” and “The Woman in Red”), Blighty’s exhib biz was showing renewed signs of life a year or so before the first multis bowed in 1985.

He stresses that Odeon was busy refurbishing its city center cinemas and adding screens before the plexes’ arrival. As a result, when the Yanks came, “we were torn between moving away from city centers and going into multiplexes, and continuing to improve our (existing) cinemas,” says Fishman.

Odeon began a balanced program of building multis in areas that it figured were viable, and sprucing up city situations, he adds.

As head of the U.K. exhibs’ association, he’s involved in talks with the Society of Film Distributors on forming a panel to adjudicate spats between distribs and cinema operators.

“Progress is slow,” he noted earlier this month.

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