New doors open for director with a cinematic background

The 1950s were the heyday of the silver screen here but with upgrades around the country Paul Anderson may be looking at a sequel

Paul Anderson, managing director of Omniplex Holdings, at the group’s Swan Cinema in Rathmines, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Paul Anderson, managing director of Omniplex Holdings, at the group’s Swan Cinema in Rathmines, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Paul Anderson may be cited in various rich lists as being worth more than €50 million but his offices tell a different story. In a tiny little boardroom above the hustle and bustle of the Swan Shopping Centre (which he owns) in Dublin’s Rathmines, the Omniplex Group managing director is keen to talk attendance numbers rather than turnover figures.

The boardroom may be hard pushed to fit more than six people around the table, but it’s how many people the cinemas can fit that matters. And in terms of the Omniplex Cinema Group, it’s a lot.

The group, which has 22 cinemas located throughout Ireland, sits 5.5 million people for different films each year, although a lot of them are repeat customers.

“In the 1950s there were more than 50 million cinema admissions in Ireland per year. There are between 16.5 and 17 million admissions per year now even though the population has doubled.”

The story of Anderson’s love affair with cinema began with his father Kevin, who set up a film distribution business with his half-brother Leo Ward in 1948.

“The first movie they bought the rights of was The Hills of Donegal. The second movie they acquired was called The Rose of Tralee. It had no connection with the Rose of Tralee we know now. I don’t think the competition had even been dreamt up back then.”

“It did very well around the country and they eventually persuaded the Carlton cinema to put it on. They recovered all their costs from acquiring the film from the Carlton showing alone and that started the whole ball rolling in relation to the business.”

The two went on to purchase their first cinema in Lucan in 1955, where Paul began working as a cashier at the age of eight.

“The price of tickets was six pence for kids and one shilling for adults. Sometimes parents would come and give me a pound to pay for two adults and three kids and I’d have to work out the change in my head.”

“On three occasions the till was short at the end of the night and my father said to me I would have to make up that money. I said to him I would if I got paid for doing the job.”

Anderson officially went into the business upon finishing school at 18, opting to take a role renovating and designing cinemas.

“We had a cinema in Killarney with one screen. I decided to put two more screens into it. Everyone thought I was mad at the time, as the only two cinemas in the country that had more than one screen were in Dublin.”

“I went ahead and did it. I think my father and uncle were just waiting for me to make a mistake but it turned out to be hugely successful. We recovered all the costs from putting in the new screens within 20 months.”

Transition to digital
Anderson says the cinema business has changed rapidly over the years, not just with the transition from film reels to digital and surround sound, but also in the screening durations, with few films now staying in cinemas longer than a few weeks.

“In the early days, films were shown in Dublin first. Then they want on to Cork, Galway and Limerick. By the time the film reel got to towns such as Skibbereen it would be really worn and parts would be missing.

The Sound of Music played in Irish cinemas for three years. If you wanted to see it in the year it came out, you had to go to Dublin. The cinema on Talbot Street screened it for a year before it went to cinemas around the rest of the country.”

Back then, different cinemas showed different movies, and tough negotiations had to be done between film distributors and cinemas.

“We owned the Ambassador cinema on O’Connell Street... if the Savoy or Carlton got a film, then the Ambassador couldn’t have it. Thus we were trying to survive on a few big movies per year.

“There used to be huge politics in trying to get film rights. Since the Competition Authority came in, that has all changed because everyone has to get the film. It’s good and bad as it’s harder to have a unique selling point. It wouldn’t work in the fashion industry. Imagine if everyone was able to sell Louis Vuitton.”

While competition among cinema owners for the rights to screen a particular film may have gone, the distributors still get a huge portion of the box office.

“The distributors always get a percentage of the box office and reap their money from ticket sales. They take the lion’s share of the ticket price, which sometimes could be over 60 per cent, and we make our money on concessions.”

As well as showing the latest blockbuster films, the Omniplex group has also moved into screening alternative content, such as the Bolshoi Ballet live from Moscow, the opera live from the Met in New York, live concerts and sporting events.

“Live streaming is beginning to take a foothold and get very popular. We show live at the Met [live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York] every Saturday and it’s always booked out in advance. The opera has brought us a new audience every week – the grey-haired brigade – who might not be regular cinema goers ordinarily.”

“Last night we had the Robbie Williams concert beamed in from Tallinn. Everyone in the cinema was swaying their hands in the air like they were actually at the concert.”

Multi-million euro revamp
The Omniplex group is in the midst of a multi-million euro revamp of four of its cinemas, with €3 million being spent on the Omniplex in Newry, €2.5 million in Limerick and €4 million in Cork.

The group got final approval to build an additional four screens at the Swan Centre in Rathmines in July of this year, with construction beginning this week.

“We have been trying to put cinema screens in there ever since we bought the Swan Centre in 1999. It took over 10 years just to get the first four screens in as there were a lot of objections from residents.”

“When we went for the four-screen extension, none of the original objectors came in. I think most of them are our patrons now and they realised their original objections were groundless.”

The Swan cinema opened in 2009 at a cost of €3 million, with a further screen added in 2012 at a cost of €1 million.

The new cinema will include an OmniplexMAXX giant screen which will be the largest screen in the country after one at the group’s Mahon cinema in Cork.

But what does Paul’s father think of all the developments?
“My father came out of retirement in 2003 at the grand age of 88 to remind me how it’s done. He is now 98 and he doesn’t understand current numbers and how much everything costs. He remembers €1 million to be a lot of money so when he hears I’m spending €5 million on the Swan cinema he thinks I’m mad.”

Financial affairs

While the Omniplex group re-registered as an unlimited company in 2008, affording it secrecy in terms of financial affairs, company accounts from that year show the group had assets totalling more than €71 million.

The family netted a nice sum from the 2009 wind-up of Torgyle Holdings, in which they had a 76 per cent stake. Torgyle was an active investor in quoted companies such as Glanbia, Fyffes and Qualceram Shires, and had a surplus of €50 million in cash and investments when it was liquidated.

Paul was also involved in a consortium which purchased a south Dublin housing site for €31.75 million in 2000. The consortium sold the 11.3 acre site adjacent to the Stillorgan dual Carriageway four years later to Glenkerrin Homes for €85 million.

Things have not always been plain sailing though. While Kevin Anderson and Leo Ward maintained good relations from the time they established, the next generation didn’t inherit these close ties.

A long-running dispute between Paul and his Ward counterpart (also named Paul) ended up in the High Court earlier this year, resulting in them splitting €30.85 million worth of cinemas.

To a certain extent, the cinema interests of both families were always separate, with the Ward family owning the Irish Multiplex Cinemas or IMC brand and the Andersons controlling Omniplex. The Dublin Cinema Group, however, was owned jointly by both families.

The final credits may have rolled on the epic business relationship between the two families following the Dublin Cinema Group split, but the sequel is still playing.

Name: Paul Anderson

Position: Managing director of Omniplex Group

Age: 65

Lives: Shrewsbury Road, Dublin 4.

Education: Glenstall Abbey, Co Limerick.

Family: Married to Margaret with two sons and three daughters.

Something you might expect: He likes to see every film that is released.

Something you might not expect: He watches some of these films on Sky.