(This interview was published in TheatreWorld Jul – Aug 2015 issue)
He is a man who makes you believe that an accomplished entrepreneur can also be a compassionate philanthropist. With his exemplary endeavours in cinema exhibition and humanitarian causes, Tim Richards, Founder & CEO of Vue International, sets a compelling example for the Gen-next.
In 1999, Tim left the Warner Bros. Studio in L.A. and founded a start up cinema exhibition company known as SBC International Cinemas (SBC) that developed and operated state-of-the-art multiplexes in the UK, Taiwan and Portugal. In May 2003, SBC changed their name to ‘Vue Entertainment’ with the acquisition of Warner Village’s 36 state-of-the-art stadium seating multiplex cinemas, 353 screens and a market leading position in London. Today, Vue International operates 187 state-of-the-art cinemas, with 1,741 screens across 9 countries, attracting over 80m customers a year
Vue is known worldwide for its industry leading innovations, technological advances and choice of content ranging from the first live music concert (Genesis Live at over 40 cinemas in July 2007), sporting events, live comedy and gaming to the UK’s first digital 3D movie presentation in 2005 and Europe’s first live 3D music concert (Keane, April 2009).
In June 2008, the Independent newspaper named Tim as one of the “20 Most Influential People in Film”. Over the course of the past 25 years in cinema exhibition, Tim has developed extensive international development and operational experience in over 14 major international markets in Europe, South America, Australia and the Far East. Before entering the entertainment industry, Tim was a Wall Street lawyer engaged in international finance and cross-border mergers and acquisitions while based in London and New York.
At the recently concluded CineEurope 2015, Variety – The Children’s Charity International presented the Variety International Children’s Fund Humanitarian Award to Tim Richards for his work as the Chairman of Hope and Homes for Children’s Board of Trustees. TheatreWorld catches up with the man himself for an enriching tête-à-tête.
How did SBC International Cinemas, now known as Vue International, happen way back in 1999? What was the motivation behind?
For me it was a combination of different events that happened. I think I have entrepreneurial blood in me — I’m not a big company person. I was working with Warner Bros at that time and I saw an opportunity to build cinemas in a slightly different way. I thought I could do it more cost effectively.
So I decided to start something on my own. In late 1998, I left the studios with my business plan in hand and for a year was trying to raise money.
A significant investment is required and you need to raise a lot of money – it is very tough. We were able to get some money early in 1999.
I started picking what I believed to be were the best executives anywhere to build the team.
We were able to open up our first cinema in 2000 in Scotland and that was the beginning of the company. The biggest turning point came in 2003, when we bought the Warner Village Cinemas in the UK on May 20. That was probably the first night in six years that I had a good sleep! This was the base where we started building from.
In this age of booming multiplexes, what makes Vue International different from other cinemas?
Our reputation is the quality of our cinemas and their management.
We pride ourselves in being highly analytical and we spend a huge amount of time analysing different opportunities. There are tests and trials and we are very innovative.
We have always been trying things that were slightly different. For example, we got rid of our box offices at every single cinema in 2004 because we didn’t want our customers to queue twice – instead they could buy their ticket with their popcorn in the same transaction. This makes it faster and more efficient. When we started the company, we intentionally didn’t call it Vue Cinemas; we called it Vue Entertainment. The reason was we saw these amazing assets in amazing locations that were only being used some of the time. We thought by putting in music, opera and theatre, we would be able to get more people to visit our cinemas. Everybody is doing it now but our first music concert was in 2005!
In 2007, we did our first big live concert with Genesis by satellite to
44 of our cinemas. We pride ourselves on delivering the best choice of content via the best technology to be enjoyed in the best seating.
Another thing that differentiates us from others is that our key executives in nine of our markets have equity in the company. We are an entrepreneurial company and we are careful about what we spend. So everyone works and acts as owner managers.
How many multiplex cinemas does Vue operate world over?
We now have 187 cinemas with 1741 screens in nine countries. By net box office, we are the fifth largest Cinema exhibition company in the world. We have been growing the company from day 1 by building and developing new cinemas and supplementing that growth with strategic acquisitions. We have purchased 11 companies, with four major deals in each of the last four years. We bought a company in the UK, the second largest chain in Poland, the second largest chain in Germany and the largest chain in Italy.
Europe is very fragmented so we are going to continue to consolidate the European market. But the direction of travel now is international consolidation. In the next 3-4 years, you will see 3-5 truly global players emerging and we will be one of them.
Tell us more about how takeovers and acquisitions, as a business strategy, have propelled the growth of Vue.
Fortunately, all of our acquisitions, big and small, have been very successful. It is not easy because culturally, companies are always very different. When you are working internationally, like we all do, it is very important to understand the specific cultural nuances and differences that exist and that are unique to each market. A lot of companies don’t get that. They think that because they’ve had a successful business in one country, they can easily pick that up and put that into another country. You can’t do that! And knowing that before you go in is huge.
I had promised myself a long time ago that if I ever was lucky enough to have my own company, there would be no egos. I think we have succeeded in that. Many a time, when you buy a new company, egos get in the way. So it’s very important to just make sure that those issues do not become big problems. We have a very democratic style of management and are very humble in our approach. We look to the companies we buy in new markets to help us as much as we are helping them. And by having best practices, both companies grow stronger.
Any expansion plans in Asia Pacific region?
Our focus is Europe and we still have a lot to do there but we are looking strategically at everything and anything worthwhile that comes up.
Tell us more about your latest venture in Shepherd’s Bush in the Westfield shopping centre.
It’s five years old now. We labelled it the future of cinema five years ago and I think it genuinely is. It’s an incredible cinema and it has a fantastic feel. If you look at Westfield and you look at the 10 cinemas before it, you will see pieces of it in each one of those because it’s an evolution. The shopping centre itself is going to be increasing significantly in two years. It’s been very exciting and we are very lucky with it.
Going down the memory lane, how was your experience with Warner Bros at Hollywood.
It was amazing and I still miss it. Some of the smartest people I ever met were at the studios. I was just in awe of how they would put things together creatively and corporately at the studios. I have very fond memories of the place. It was hard work though as I was travelling around the world once a month and was away from my family most of the time. I was there for six years, and those were some of the best years of my life.
How would you compare the cinema exhibition industry in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe?
I have worked in every major market of the world, except the US (with a laugh). Generally, European markets and consumers are more open to more movies. The US audience is principally just about Hollywood. While in the UK, we have a very vibrant film industry. In Poland, Germany, Italy and France, every single year, two or three top movies are either German or Polish, Italian or French. Even China and Japan get over 50 per cent of their box office from Chinese and Japanese films respectively. You don’t see that in the US and because of that it acts as a natural hedge to Hollywood.
The other thing is that you have a portfolio effect when you operate in different market with Hollywood films. Different actors and genres of films perform differently in various markets. A blockbuster in one market is not necessarily a blockbuster in another market. Jurassic Park in Poland was okay but not great, whereas in other markets it was amazing. But for us, it smooth’s out the peaks and troughs and makes a more stable market.
What role do you think technology plays in enhancing audience experience?
I think the new technologies ranging from laser to new sound systems to bigger screens… these are all part of the evolution of our business. We believe in big screens. Even if we have a small auditorium, say a 40 – 50 seat auditorium, we are okay with it as long as it has a big screen. That for us is paramount.
Talking of your growth trajectory, how would you sum up the secret of your success?
I think the secret of success is loving what you do and taking pride in what you do. We have over 8000 employees and I think everyone in the company genuinely loves what they do. I know passion is an overused word, but I would still say our team is very passionate about what we do.
We as an industry need to be responsive to what’s going on in the world. We cannot accept status quo, we need to continue to strive and find new ways of making an exciting evening for our customers. Now that’s challenging!
How does it feel being at CineEurope?
I have been coming to CineEurope,
I think, ever since it started. This is one of the best shows ever. Our studio partners have come up with some incredible movies. The mood this year is so upbeat and exciting.
How does it feel receiving the Variety International Children’s Fund Humanitarian Award at CineEurope? What does this award mean to you?
I think for me it is the opportunity to showcase the Charity itself. This award is not about me but about the amazing work that the Charity is actually doing. Not many charities can show tangible success by achieving something. Hope and Homes for Children have closed orphanages and institutions.
They were doing a great job but not telling anybody about it. So I saw an opportunity in taking them to another level and show everyone the great job they are doing. They have a policy of not hiring expats in the countries they are working with; instead try to make each of the projects self-sustainable. A lot of charities are very fanciful. But we don’t have any of that. All the money goes to help the children.
On his role in the charity:
I’m the Chairman of the board, so I have the easy job! I have so much admiration for all people who simply want to go out and make this world a better place. When you actually meet people who are not materialistic and just want to help their fellowmen, it’s inspiring.
We try and raise as much funds as we can to make the charity successful.