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Robert Earl plans Megaplex chain

By Andrew Yates

AS LONDON's Planet Hollywood restaurant gears up to celebrate its fifth birthday, Robert Earl, the Orlando-based English impresario behind the famous eaterie, is about to unveil a huge expansion plan throughout the UK. The charismatic cockney is on the verge of announcing his group's first "Megaplex" cinema complex. A new music themed restaurant is also about to be opened in Leicester Square, a concept that could be rolled out around the world.

At least eight megaplexes, incorporating cinemas and restaurants, are on the menu. Movie goers could soon be presented with a choice of themed restaurants as they make their way to up to 30 cinema screens. Mr Earl, the group's founder and chairman, has already found a venue in Manchester and has shortlisted sites in seven other British cities. The new venture raises the possibility that a chain of Planet Hollywood restaurants will be established around the UK, sitting alongside all-star cafes, the group's new sports restaurant chain, and Cool Planet ice-cream parlours. The group recently raised $250m to build 1,000 screens by 2000 with AMC entertainment, a Kansas-based cinema operator. Planet Hollywood Hotels could be next.

Speaking from Orlando, Mr Earl said he did not see himself as a mere restaurateur. "This is all about building world-wide trade marks around movies, sports and music, the three things every household in the world can identify with.... I am a brand builder."

But Mr Earl's brand-building efforts have not gone entirely to plan. Backing from Hollywood icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, ensured that Planet Hollywood was launched in a blaze of publicity. But its profits and share price fell down to earth last year after its expansion plans failed to live up to expectations.

Now Mr Earl seems more determined than ever to prove his critics wrong. "Planet Hollywood has moved from its hype to a level of establishment. Average sales are still the highest in the world," he insists.

Mr Earl suggests last year's problems were caused by growing too fast too soon. "We opened 30 new places to get to 80 in 1997. That takes up a lot of time for celebrities. We got the best sites for the future but the expense in the short term was that I took my eye off the ball. We are still market leader and are now getting back to basics."

Mr Earl believes Planet Hollywood can thrive and he is ready to invest a lot of money betting it will. "The themed restaurant sector is still growing about 15 times more dynamically than any other sector." And he is keen to point out that Planet Hollywood remains the highest-grossing restaurant in London and, for that matter, Paris.

In a business that uses no advertising, much depends on the celebrities involved. And, with the value of their 17 per cent stake in the group falling sharply last year, the founding movie stars have a big incentive to get Planet Hollywood back on track.

Only last week Arnold Schwarzenegger was opening the first Planet Movies megaplex in Ohio and Bruce Willis is planning to play in London when the fifth anniversary of Planet Hollywood is officially celebrated later this month.

Mr Earl is convinced his brands must work. "In life, as we get more and more intense, we need more escapism." Planet Hollywood is Mr Earl's own brand of escapism. "I never get bored. Being creative is the biggest excitement you could ever have."