AMC founder dies of cancer at 78

Durwood was known as an 'innovator' in the exhib world

Stanley H. Durwood, the feisty and controversial theater exhibition magnate, died Wednesday at the age of 78.

Durwood, founder and CEO of the AMC theater chain, passed away at his Kansas City, Mo., home from esophageal cancer. He had been in failing health for several years.

Credited with fostering the multiplex era and such amenities as cup holders, stadium seating and, most recently, the love seat, he was very much a hands-on chief executive. Over the course of four decades, he took his family’s Durwood Theaters from little more than a handful of second-run venues to one of the largest exhibition chains in the world, redubbed American Multi-Cinema, with more than 2,700 screens in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain and Portugal.

He was also a true eccentric, famously tight-fisted, headstrong and mercurial. His booking policies often irritated the majors, and internal operating procedures created a rift in what was essentially a family-run biz. As a result, his brother Richard departed in the 1970s, while son Edward resigned as AMC president in 1995.

Trying new things

“There was no one who had more impact on film exhibition since the moguls,” said Barry Reardon, former distribution prexy at Warner Bros. “We had our disagreements, but you had to like and respect him. He was definitely out there trying new things right to the end.”

He was born Stanley Dubinsky, and his father and uncle were involved in traveling tent shows prior to settling in Kansas City in the 1920s, where they acquired several theaters. When his father died in 1960, Durwood took over the 10-theater operation.

The creation of the first two-screen theater has become part of movie mythology. Durwood claimed that in 1962 he was standing in the lobby of his 600-seat Roxy in downtown Kansas City mulling over its poor grosses when he realized he could double his box office by adding a second screen and still operate with the same size staff. A year later, his idea came to life with the Parkway II, built in a suburban mall.

Aggressive strategy

Durwood took AMC into the forefront of exhibition in the 1980s with an aggressive building and acquisition strategy that overextended the company and threatened to topple his empire. By the end of the decade, he had built up company debt to 100% of revenues and diminished stock value by two-thirds.

He rebounded, however, after selling off assets, including his European theater circuit, and trimming operating costs. Durwood entered the 1990s with grander plans, including the first megaplexes to feature 30 screens.

As one industry rival noted, Durwood and AMC were considered dead and buried a handful of times but always came back bigger and stronger.

“He was a great innovator,” MGM distribution chief Larry Gleason said. “Stan was full of ideas. Some were admittedly oddball, but there were always a couple that were inspired. He was the first person to make the multiplex work in Europe, too.”

He developed and patented theater sound systems and special screens. Such trial projects as microwave popcorn, film distribution and 16mm projection proved unviable, however.

In his most recent venture, he was developing a string of theater/dining/retail shopping complexes with Planet Hollywood. The first Planet Movie opened in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year.

AMC culture

“He created an AMC culture that became a part of the exhibition and distribution sectors,” AMC president Phil Singleton said. “He called himself a provocateur, and the worst thing anyone could do was tell him something was impossible. He kept on breaking through barriers, and he changed the industry for the better.”

Over the years Durwood received every top industry award, including pioneer of the year in 1993 and the NATO/ShoWester honor in 1996.

Though assertive and charismatic, he was never grandiose. Durwood drove a Honda and always flew coach.

Durwood is survived by his wife of 16 years, Pamela Yax; six children; and 13 grandchildren. Funeral and memorial arrangements were pending.