With four decades of experience in buying and booking films at some of the most heralded companies in the industry, Robert J. Lenihan (known by many as Bob), has seen firsthand the evolution of the industry from single screens to multiplexes, along with the emergence and rise of the blockbuster era in Hollywood. In a conversation with Boxoffice ahead of ShowEast, Lenihan talked about his career and lessons learned in a lifetime of film buying.
You began as a film booker for UA in 1977, a very big year for the industry.
I got a job taking care of a theater in San Francisco and worked my way to becoming an assistant general manager over the next few months. Then it was suggested by my manager that I might be more suited to being a film buyer, even though I didn’t really know what that job was. Do you actually get paid to watch movies and get into arguments with distributors about what to pay for them? That turned out to be a perfect gig for me.
Travis [Reid], who is actually going to present me with the Dan Fellman Award at ShowEast, was also a young film buyer. We were competitive at the time. I started two weeks before Star Wars came out. I got Star Wars against Travis. That was the last time I ever won anything against him [laughs]. My career proceeded with a promotion, managing a team of film buyers, also for United Artists, but in L.A. in 1980. Then on to work with the legendary Ted Mann at Mann Theaters in 1983, becoming head film buyer there in 1986. Then I moved to Norman Lear’s Act III Theaters, Norman had a company called Act III Communications and theaters were a big component of it. So I was their film buyer for 10 years until we sold to KKR and merged with Regal in 1997.
Then I went to work with Travis. I had hired Travis at Mann Theaters in 1987, and he hired me as executive vice president at Loews in 1998. Worked there for four years, then got Century Theaters back in the Bay Area in 2002, where I was head film buyer for five years until they sold their circuit to Cinemark. I actually worked for Sundance Cinemas, as a buyer for them, working from my home in California. Then Village Roadshow, which is now iPic, for a year buying film. Then lo and behold, in 2009 I came aboard as president of programming under Gerry Lopez for AMC.
Were you cognizant of how much the industry would shift toward high-profile titles in 1977, or was that something that became clearer in hindsight?
It’s hard to reflect on that period. There were so many single-screen theaters, almost nothing like today’s multiplexes back then. The advent of the blockbuster started in 1975 with Jaws, then in ’77 Star Wars came out. It played until we opened Close Encounters of the Third Kind in December, so we played it in that theater until December. And even then we moved it into what we called the “holdover theater.”
It was definitely a different environment; things used to play a lot longer, there were a lot fewer movies, there was a lot more competition for screens. Now that’s gone away, for the most part. Now it’s more about making sure you have the right number of seats and show times available. Part of AMC’s concern is we want to play a wide array, not just blockbusters but also specialized content and targeted programming, trying to engage greater. It’s really a lot more diverse than it was.
You’ve seen multiple trends from the beginning and seen them flourish in the U.S. market. One that stands out is your involvement with Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas, seeing the VIP and luxury concept expand to North America. What was your first impression of the luxury cinema concept?
It was very successful at Village Roadshow. Over there, it was one or two screens that were dedicated to the luxury experience, the delivery of high-quality high-end beverages like fine wines and cocktails. Those initial theaters in Australia were a 12-plex, and one or two auditoriums would be luxury. When we launched here in the U.S., I want to say it was 2007, the idea was to have it be a stand-alone experience. It would build up organically, where every auditorium would be outfitted with luxury recliners.
You started at AMC in 2009, which was around the time when digital cinema was well on its way to being fully converted here nationwide. How do you think digital cinema opened up the range of possibilities for you, in your role?
I alluded earlier to having multiple prints allowing for multiple show times. AMC had as many as 30 screens at one time. There aren’t many of those locations left, though certainly we still have a large number of 15-plexes, 20-plexes, 24-plexes. With the digital direction—an initiative that was accomplished by Travis Reid, when he was the head of DCIP—we had the ability to start the digital projection every five minutes if we had to. And in a wider array of formats, so you could show the same movie on the same screen in 2D for certain shows and 3D for other shows. That started around 2007, and 3D really helped progress the deployment of digital cinema in the U.S. and around the world.
It’s interesting looking back at my career, when I started in the late ’70s the concern was video cassettes, then 20 years later it was the DVD. Now we have pressure on the windows, that discussion is ongoing. There’s always been a concern that the end is near. It’s incumbent on the exhibitors to make the moviegoing experience stimulating enough to get people out of their house to see a movie on the big screen. IMAX is a great experience, or dine-in options for guests. Many of our locations now serve alcohol, which was unheard of then.