Steve Wiener; Forget the lazy sundae afternoon, there are cinemas to buy and fleapits to refit

Cineworld's chief tells Abigail Townsend that he'll keep the big screens coming to the UK even as hard times hit at the box office
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For someone working in the entertainment industry, with all its inherent hype and glamour, Steve Wiener is disarmingly honest. When Cineworld's American chief is late arriving at his west London head office for this interview, his representative apologises, explaining that an earlier meeting has overrun.

Then you meet him and, straight away, Wiener is confessing that he had, in fact, forgotten about the interview. He describes in detail the moment of horror when he realised his error and the subsequent dash, from his home in Mayfair to the Chiswick offices, to make the appointment.

He also admits to struggling to get any rest - for the past decade he has been unable to sleep more than five hours a night - and now, awake since 3am, to being "pretty wired".

Yet he shows no signs of flagging - which is just as well as the cinema industry is in something of a state of flux at the moment. Walt Disney warned last week that its studios will make a loss of up to $300m (£166m) in the current quarter as ticket sales slide and marketing expenditure increases. It is a familiar story. Box office takings are down on the previous summer and studios have suffered as big-budget films such as The Island and Bewitched fail to live up to expectations.

And in the UK, consolidation in cinemas is continuing apace. Earlier this year, British financier Guy Hands snapped up the Odeon and UCI chains, and is now thought to be considering bidding for Italy's Warner Village Cinemas - a deal that could be worth at least €100m (£68m). Even serial entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou has got in on the act and is looking to expand his his "book early, pay less" easyCinema.

The latest operator to attract investors is Vue Entertainment. Owned by Legal & General Ventures, Boston Ventures and Clarity Partners, it is thought likely that it will come to the London market early next year.

But Wiener remains unfazed. Because for him, it all boils down to a simple love of films. After spending his childhood sneaking in to his local cinema to catch movies for free, his first job was as an usher and he has never worked out of the industry since. He can't even settle on one film as his favourite, listing Field of Dreams - "if I'm feeling depressed and missing my family" - Gone with the Wind and Gentleman Jim before giving up and conceding: "I just love entertaining films."

The New York-born Wiener set up Cine UK, the parent of the Cineworld chain, in 1995. He had moved to the UK four years earlier with Warner Brothers but quit after raising £17m from backers such as JP Morgan and NM Rothschild.

Blackstone acquired Cine UK nine years later and shortly afterwards it more than doubled in size when the venture capital firm bought the UK assets of French group UGC - 408 screens in 42 cinemas - in a deal worth around £200m. Wiener now runs the combined group.

Cineworld - the UGC cinemas are being rebranded - is a specialist in multiplexes, those out-of-town entertainment warehouses that put paid to the fleapits many remember from their youth. And "fleapits", incidentally, is Wiener's term.

He uses the example of Stevenage, home to his first cinema. During the grand opening, one of the civic dignitaries - who sat shoulder to shoulder with Mystic Meg and Bob Monkhouse; Wiener obviously knows how to throw a shindig - gave a speech recalling how three different cinemas had at various times stood on the site and how all had failed.

But Wiener was undeterred. "They were all fleapits," he says "There was a huge learning curve for the British people about what a multiplex was like."

He ensured that the cinema was over-staffed on the days when new films were released - "if their experience is perfect, they will always come back" - and cut prices for Saturday morning kids' clubs, so educating the young people of Hertfordshire about the pleasures of cinema going. Soon, numbers were going through the roof. "People had got into the habit of doing something."

Nowadays, the 16-screen cinema in Stevenage is one of 77, yet Wiener is still adding to his UGC-inflated portfolio, batting away suggestions that the UK is nearing saturation point. "Absolutely not. I know of 25 cinemas already that are scheduled to be built over the next three years across the industry. And beyond that, there's scope for another 30 or 40." He concedes, though, that some of this growth will come through the refurbishment and expansion of existing sites.

Further deals have not been ruled out, though he is not interested in Vue should its backers sell rather than list. "The people at the OFT [Office of Fair Trading] would have a heart attack, so no, I can't see us buying Vue." Otherwise, it "depends on what opportunity comes along. I work with people who are very shrewd investors; Blackstone are some of the best money managers I have ever met."

As to whether Cineworld will float, he will only quip: "What do I know? I'm just a popcorn salesman."

There is little that can dampen Wiener's enthusiasm: conversation is peppered with gags, self-deprecating humour and tales dredged up from 35 years in the industry. Like the time the New York cinema he once worked at was voted a suitable spot to, ahem, get intimate in - at which point takings surged. Or when he first moved to the UK: "I lost a stone and half in the first few weeks. There was no food I could eat. I was also lost. I was on the road the whole time and the UK is notorious for giving signs up to a certain point and then saying, 'OK, now guess which way to go.'

"It was quite a thing - a lost American responsible for finding cinema sites who couldn't find his way home. People were taking bets as to whether I would last a month."

As it is, he did and, too little sleep and erratic diary-checking aside, there is no sign Wiener, 53, is growing weary of his chosen profession. As he wryly notes: "I just want to carry on doing a job that means I don't have to grow up."

This is a harsh industry: the fight for your Saturday night £7 is fierce and a summer of duff releases is bad news. But then, events move fast in entertainment. With summer over, there are now more deals to be done and, crucially, a fresh set of releases. For every failure, there is always a potential blockbuster on the way. And if Wiener sees himself as Peter Pan, he can probably also glimpse a happy ending.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 22 October 1951.

Education: BBA major in marketing, University of Miami.

Career (1970): joins Florida State Theatres as an usher, becoming assistant manager at a cinema.

1971: joins Plitt Theatres as manager, before going on to become city manager and district manager.

1981: assistant to vice-president, south-east US division.

1985: general manager, Texas, for Cineplex Odeon.

1986: vice-president, New York and Jersey.

1991: managing director, Warner Brothers Theatres, London.

1995: chief executive and founder of Cine UK.

2004: chief executive of Cineworld.

Comments