The last real showman

 

Five years ago, a gathering of cinema owners and film reviewers sat in a Dublin multiplex theatre awaiting a preview screening of Die Hard With a Vengeance when into the auditorium walked a man dressed like Bruce Willis in that movie, wearing a white vest and boxers - and a sandwich board. This was no male starlet hired for the day to promote the movie. This was the man who was releasing the film here - Brendan McCaul, vice-president and general manager of Buena Vista International (Ireland).

The film industry was founded by showmen, men who fully understood the meaning of both words in the term, "show business" and who matched their hard-nosed business instincts with the flair to promote their productions to the people who mattered, the audience. These days, there are very few showmen left in the business, very few who would swap their suits for a vest and boxers before going on stage to introduce a new movie. McCaul is one of the last of the showmen. But behind that image of a gregarious entertainer is a man whose business acumen has earned him universal respect in the film business, in which he has worked for the past 45 years.

Born in Killester, Dublin, he was the first of eight children born to Matt and Rosanna McCaul. "My parents went to the cinema occasionally," he says. "My father always wanted to know when the Grand National was on the newsreel at the cinema."

The young Brendan saw his first film when he was seven years old. "I can't remember the title," he says, "but it was a black-and-white western and we watched it on wooden seats in the Gem cinema in Malahide. We moved to Coolock in the 1950s, which coincided with the opening of the Grand cinema, and it became my second home. I went to virtually every change of film there. Fortunately, I was the oldest grandchild of the two families, so I was never short of funds."

When he finished school in 1955, an uncle offered to fund his engineering studies at college, but around the same time Brendan applied for a job with a film company, General Film Distributors (GFD).

"To my surprise, I got it," he says. "The job involved sending out stills and posters to cinemas all over the country, doing the post, and getting out the posters for the Universal newsreels which were shown before the features and changed twice a week. My starting pay was two pounds, seven shillings and sixpence. A pal of mine started in the ESB at the same time and made one pound, four shillings, so I felt I was well ahead of the posse."

At GFD, he graduated to the shorts department, supplying the programme fillers that accompanied screenings of single features around the country - cartoons such as Woody Woodpecker and travelogues with such titles as Come With Me to Berwick-on-Tweed.

There were more than 300 cinemas in the Republic when television penetrated the market in the late 1950s. "Business was booming," he says. "The entire country would have been serviced on two or three prints a film. Some cinemas were booking films as far ahead as two years in advance. In Dublin city centre, you had to pre-book for Sunday nights, or you had no hope of a seat. I had two permanent seats at the old Theatre Royal for Sunday nights. I can still remember the numbers: V12 and 13 in the stalls."

At the time the Theatre Royal had a seating capacity of 3,996 - more than in all the screens of any of today's Irish multiplexes - and the Savoy, then a single unit, seated 2,000. "Because the cinemas were so big, they usually changed programmes every week. If it was a very good movie, it would get two weeks. If it was exceptional, it ran for four weeks." He recalls how the Dublin-set comedy, Rooney, based on a Catherine Cookson novel and starring John Gregson, was one of the GFD releases which played for four weeks. "It was showing in the Savoy on St Patrick's Day that year, and it sold out at every show. It set a new one-day record of £775, on the back of very low admission prices."

Brendan McCaul speaks warmly of his first boss at GFD, Robert McKew: "He was always impeccably dressed, always wore a bow-tie. He was a real showman and he was an influence on me. He was the first one I saw doing weird and daft things. There was a character in Dublin at the time called Jack Plant, who was a bit like the Diceman, and Mr McKew would get him to dress up in different costumes to promote our films."

The advent of television decimated the smaller cinemas and swept the business with depression. "Mr McKew came to me one day and said, `Brendan, take an old man's advice and find another career. This business is on the way out'. But I stuck with it. In 1965, I cut loose, went on the road and that's when my career took off."

The Rank Organisation had taken over GFD and put him in charge of their Belfast office, with a staff of 12. "We also had the Universal Pictures franchise, so we had a hefty slate of films. I was also responsible for dealing with all the cinemas in the Republic north of a line from Dundalk to Sligo. I had to travel a lot."

There were 88 cinemas in Northern Ireland in 1965; by the time Rank closed its office there in 1973, there were only 20 left. McCaul was recalled to Dublin where, three years later, he accepted an offer from the Walt Disney Company to run its Irish office. "It was a very different company with a different ethos, which involved having to re-adapt," he says. "They had a reputation as very poor payers then, but I hammered out a deal with them and I had a lot of fun, doing weird and wonderful things with those Disney titles. In 1981, we did a deal with Maurice Pratt and toured all the Quinnsworth stores with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We had 16 of them, two groups, touring all these Snow White grottos around the country."

Disney only released family movies until 1984, when it set up Touchstone Pictures to expand its audience. Its first release was Splash, and the movie's young star, Tom Hanks, came to Dublin to promote it. "He was only starting out then," says McCaul. "A lovely guy, very professional and co-operative, and he enjoyed his pint of the native brew."

Having survived television in the 1960s, the cinemas faced a new threat when video cassettes came on the market in the late 1970s. It wasn't just the competition from video, but also the video piracy - which was widespread. "I remember seeing Rocky III in a Dublin suburban pub before it played on O'Connell Street," he says. "The pirates were having a field day with the Disney classics like Snow White, Dumbo, Cinderella and The Jungle Book, because these were re-released every six or seven years and were never even sold to television at the time. So they were perfect fodder for the pirates. It was so serious we had to get the Anti-Racketeering Unit involved. Our copyright laws were pretty archaic, which didn't help, although they have been tightened up since."

Another problem then was the long gap between a US release and the rest of the world, which offered a wide-open window of opportunity to the video pirates. Times have changed. On June 1st 2001, McCaul will release Buena Vista's biggest production to date, the $185 million Pearl Harbour, eight days after it opens in the US. "That is a forerunner of things to come," he says. And he notes that a mass release here amounted to just a dozen prints in 1976, but that this month he is releasing more than 70 prints each of 102 Dalmatians and Unbreakable.

By 1987, a holding company, UK Film Distributors, handled the release of films from Disney and 20th Century Fox, and when that link was severed at the end of the year, McCaul was made redundant. He was offered the job of running the Fox office in Dublin and got it off to a cracking start when one of his first releases, Crocodile Dundee, starring Paul Hogan, broke the all-time Irish box-office record, taking £1.81 million at a time when there were no multiplexes. Paul Hogan and Tom Hanks are just two of the many movie stars and directors McCaul has hosted in Dublin over the years. His other favourites include Maureen O'Hara and the fast-rising Brendan Fraser. Back in his Rank days in the 1960s, he recalls that each Rank office was provided with its own starlet from the Rank Charm School. "I can't remember the name of our starlet," he says. "She was best known for being bumped off at the beginning of Dr No. She used to visit us very infrequently."

In 1990, Brendan McCaul presided over another record-breaker when he released The Commitments, the first film to pass the £2 million mark at the Irish box-office. He says he enjoyed handling that film more than any other in his first 45 years in the cinema business. "For a geriatric rocker, it appealed to me personally," he says. Everything gelled, and he had the full co-operation of director Alan Parker and his cast. The Dublin premiere was a wonderfully emotional experience, followed by a very lively party in the Waterfront. And the managing director of Fox in London rewarded him for passing £2 million by getting him plane tickets and a hotel for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. When Buena Vista opened its Dublin office in 1993, McCaul moved there from Fox, and had fun with promoting A Bug's Life by commissioning three Volkswagens dressed as bugs and driving them around the town. They were so popular that they went on loan to the Buena Vista offices in the UK, Spain, Italy and Scandanavia.

Encouraged by the success of The Commitments, he tried to acquire the Irish cinema rights to the second Roddy Doyle film, The Snapper, but the BBC, which funded it, insisted on transmitting it before a cinema release could be organised. "I took my life in my hands," he says. "I acquired it for release after the TV transmission. Everyone was very nervous about it, including Stephen Frears, who directed it. Until we screened it at the Galway Film Fleadh and the reaction was just tremendous. Our belief in what was going to happen was vindicated."

The Snapper took close on £300,000 at Irish cinemas - a remarkable figure for a film seen so recently on TV and widely circulated on home-taped video afterwards. "That really got the juices going," says McCaul, who went on to release more than 10 Irish feature films, with three taking over £600,000 at the Irish box-office: I Went Down, This Is My Father and A Love Divided. He is approached "all the time" to distribute Irish movies, but he has to approach each prospect cautiously because it costs so much - around £150,000 to cover poster and trailer development, prints, advertising and censorship costs. "You would need to take in at least £200,000 in gross boxoffice to get out of jail," he says, "and at that you're not making a pile of money." He notes in racing parlance that he has "an unraced two-yearold in the stable" in the form of Gerry Stembridge's exuberant romantic comedy, About Adam, which he releases here on January 19th, and he is confident that it will be a very big hit.

McCaul has been married to his wife, Marie, since 1968. They have three children, Oonagh, a schoolteacher; Matt, a software engineer; and Niamh, who has followed him into the film business. She is head of theatrical distribution manager of the independent Irish company, Clarence Pictures. "We are restrained by her mother from talking shop at home," he says. "When she went into the business first, I was concerned, but she's really taken to it. I was surprised she did it, but she's the one most like her old man - slightly daft, with a pretty easygoing disposition and a broad outlook on life."