Robert Carrady’s roots always bring him back to the island. As president of Caribbean Cinemas, a circuit founded in Puerto Rico by his father in 1969, Carrady oversees the largest exhibition circuit in the region with a network of nearly 500 screens in 13 territories. Carrady returned to the family business after completing his education at Tufts University, coming back to a small circuit with six screens in Puerto Rico and a newly opened six-screen location in the Dominican Republic. With his involvement, Caribbean Cinemas has undergone a regional expansion and become a leader in bringing the latest cinema technology and concepts to audiences across the Caribbean. Boxoffice caught up with Carrady ahead of CinemaCon to discuss what sets the Caribbean region apart from any other, and how the circuit overcame terrible obstacles following 2017’s tragic natural disasters.
Like many folks in the industry, your family legacy is exhibition. What are your earliest memories of working at a theater?
I grew up in the business. Even though Caribbean Cinemas was started in 1969 by my dad, he was in the business since I was a kid. I would spend a lot of time in movie theaters, and when he went out on his own in ’69, it became the best way for me to learn the business and go through its growing pains. I was in charge of the vending machines in high school. I would work the morning shows on Sundays and be a theater manager throughout the summers. I got the bug at a young age and I jumped back into the business full time after graduating college. I thought I would go back and get an MBA, but that didn’t happen—I just stayed working.
Of all those different roles, is there one that still stands out as a personal favorite?
The excitement of figuring out the hit of the week, the hit of the month. When you were operating single- and twin-screen theaters, you really had to study what you were going to program. If you were in a downtown area, with six or seven theaters around you, it was crucial to pick the right film come Christmas or early June—because you were essentially rejecting everything else. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed the film-buying and booking part of the job. Film buying is a little easier today because you end up playing almost everything, but back then you really needed to have a historical knowledge of markets and what type of films and genres would work in them.
Caribbean Cinemas is present throughout the entire region—a diverse collection of territories with different cultures and tastes. What makes the Caribbean region so distinct?
When you look at it as a bloc, it has a lot of similarities to the global market in that action-exploitation, slapstick comedies, and mass-market-appeal movies stand out. Another distinction is that sophisticated films have a much more limited market—but that market still exists. The San Juan area of Puerto Rico and the Santo Domingo area of the Dominican Republic, they have the audience to support those films. In those very markets we have our Fine Arts theaters—three multiplex cinemas—where we cater specialty product. We’ve been doing that for over 30 years, opened the first one in 1986. That’s exciting because the theaters themselves have followings. For example, films from Spain and Argentina will only work in those cinemas as opposed to commercial cinemas, even though these are predominantly Spanish-speaking countries. In other countries, like Trinidad, for example, we’ve found that Indian films do very well because there is a sizable Indian population in the country. It all depends on the local audience.
Which amenities and new technologies are most popular across your circuit?
We absolutely love bringing the latest in amenities and technology to our theaters. We have three 4DX auditoriums, one IMAX, and 14 private-label PLFs [CXC, Caribbean Cinemas Extreme] with Dolby Atmos sound. The programming that goes along with those formats is a perfect fit for our audience in the Spanish-, English-, and French-speaking Caribbean. Over the years we’ve always introduced new concepts—from reserve seating today to high-back rockers in the ’90s and cup holders in the ’80s. Those cup holders, let me tell you, they helped us keep auditoriums clean. Back in the ’80s we didn’t think twice about it! By the time your Saturday 9 p.m. show opened its doors, it was standard operating procedure to have guests walk over the cups and popcorn bags from earlier in the day. Whether it’s innovating or renovating, it’s what helps keep us fresh and focused.
You’re coming off a very difficult year, marked by the devastation of two hurricanes. What was that experience like from your perspective as an exhibitor?
I grew up in Puerto Rico and I barely remember hurricanes in my school days. There was Hurricane Hugo in 1989, George in 1998—we used to get hit, but it would only be a piece of the island that would be affected. So if San Juan in the north was hit hard, you still had hotels and power in Ponce in the south. Hurricane Maria was totally devastating in that the entire landmass was affected; there wasn’t one square inch of the island untouched. It came two weeks after Hurricane Irma, which affected the islands of St. Thomas and St. Martin, where we have theaters. With Maria, every one of our theaters in Puerto Rico remained closed six or seven days after the storm. It was frustrating, and there was such a huge unknown around that period, we didn’t know when we’d see the light at the end of the tunnel. The hurricane came on a Wednesday, and I remember that first weekend was the first time in my life that I didn’t even want to look at weekend grosses from the U.S. I didn’t even want to know because it was too sad; it was almost like having an arm cut off. It took about six or seven weeks to start to turn the corner towards a predictable recovery.
We did have some theaters with generators, and when they started operating again the second weekend after the storm, people came back. We had curfew, so our last shows were at 4 p.m. because people had to be in their homes by sundown. When the power started to come back, it came back near the highways and areas near our theaters. We probably had around half of our theaters back operating five weeks after the storm in locations spread out across the island. We received tremendous damage—working through those insurance claims was and it still is a full-time job in itself— we had to throw out all of the chairs in some of these theaters; I think we had to buy 250 air-conditioning units within 10 weeks of the storm. The numbers are mind-boggling.
How long did it take to get your entire circuit back up and running?
We reopened our last closed theater in Puerto Rico on December 28—that’s 100 days after Maria. We opened St. Thomas on February 8, and we hope to reopen in St. Martin sometime in April.
It seems like these natural disasters are occurring more and more often. Is there any way to prepare a business like this for the next one?
All our theaters outside Puerto Rico have emergency generators because the norm in those markets is that energy is undependable. You work it into your initial design. A generator for a movie theater, once you finish getting it installed, probably runs you between $250,000 and $300,000, plus ongoing maintenance costs, so you try to avoid it unless there’s no other choice. Our theaters in Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Antigua, St. Lucia, and Guyana all have backup generators. But having them in Puerto Rico wasn’t the norm until now—now we know we need generators for half our theaters in the island ahead of the next storm season. Only 4 of our 31 theaters in Puerto Rico had generators, but we learned that those generators allowed us to get into those theaters to clean up and assess the damage faster and limited longer-term damage.
Since the island was hit head-to-toe, even getting diesel for those theaters with generators proved to be an ordeal. It’s not an exaggeration to think we will need our own diesel truck for next hurricane season.
What role did your cinemas play during that lengthy reconstruction period, as the country was in the middle of a very difficult recovery effort?
There was great appreciation [from the public] that we were able to get theaters back up and running as fast as we did. Obviously, if you own the theaters you don’t think it’s that quick. But compared to what was going on in the island, we were back up and running rather quickly. People were grateful they had a place where they could go take a break, a place with air-conditioning and snacks, where they could see a movie and escape for a couple of hours. In St. Croix, which was also hit, the governor of the Virgin Islands was tweeting away that our theaters were now open, encouraging people to go to the movies and take a break. We extended price specials for early shows, more than we usually do, which customers also appreciated.
I would like to mention and thank John Fithian for putting us in direct contact with the kind folks at the Will Rogers Foundation in California who were so comprehending and understanding to provide direct grants to over 140 of our employees whose day-to-day living expenses mushroomed, as their homes were severely damaged and being without power and water for such an extended period of time. This outreach by Will Rogers adds to my gratitude for being a part of this industry.
What do you think the future holds for exhibition? What are some of the biggest challenges ahead?
The fact that theaters today are more luxurious, more comfortable, have better picture and sound—that’s a big advantage. In terms of what we need, the variety of supply is important, making sure we don’t have too much of a homogenous offering. This year’s Oscar season is a fantastic example of a great group of diverse films, a wonderful mix of product. I keep my fingers crossed that Fox Searchlight will continue under Disney. You hate hearing that specialty films don’t have to be seen at movie theaters, that you can see them on a smaller screen—and I don’t know where that’s going, if that’s part of what you hear from younger audiences who like to see movies on their mobile devices. Let’s face it, there’s great home entertainment technology out there and we really need to keep our eye on the ball. I think that the introduction of home video made us a better industry; we couldn’t take it for granted that the only place you could see a movie was in a theater. That’s what led to a better moviegoing experience: better seats, better sound, bigger screens.