There’s no busi­ness like show­busi­ness

Why Gra­ham Burke loves to en­ter­tain

Business First - - FRONT PAGE -

There is some­thing so sat­is­fy­ing about go­ing to the movies. Set­tling into the big chair and wait­ing for the click that tells you the screen is ex­pand­ing and the sound is be­ing turned up. In that dark­ened theatre it’s just you and the sets and the ac­tors on screen. It’s an­other world, hid­den away from the foot traf­fic in the malls or the bleat­ing of car horns. It’s un­re­al­is­tic di­a­logue and events that for two hours be­come re­al­ity. It’s the es­cape.

In re­cent years, the com­fort of that es­cape has im­proved tremen­dously. Movie go­ing has be­come an ex­pe­ri­ence. Big­ger screens, bet­ter sound, 3-D tech­nol­ogy, food and wine and com­fort­able chairs, go a long way to cre­at­ing a five star ex­pe­ri­ence for film lovers. Even those who don’t love film, find the act of at­tend­ing a theatre to be com­fort­able, if not plea­sur­able.

Vil­lage Road­show Limited has led the way in cre­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The or­gan­i­sa­tion is not just limited to movie the­atres; this is an ex­pan­sive busi­ness that in­cor­po­rates theme parks, dis­tri­bu­tion and even film pro­duc­tion. We’ll get to those el­e­ments later, but let’s dwell on the movies a lit­tle longer, be­cause that’s where the Vil­lage story be­gins. In 1954. In a drive-in theatre in the Mel­bourne sub­urb of Croy­don.

It was Roscoe ‘Roc’ Kirby who founded Vil­lage. A movie lover, Roc be­gan his ca­reer sell­ing ice creams and sweep­ing floors at his fa­ther’s cin­e­mas on the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula. In 1954, Kirby took the fi­nan­cially risky step of con­struct­ing a drive-in called The Vil­lage Drive-in and soon af­ter­wards the com­pany owned around 40 drive-in the­atres. With cin­ema at­ten­dances drop­ping due to the in­tro­duc­tion of tele­vi­sion, Vil­lage made a move into met­ro­pol­i­tan cin­e­mas.

In 1989, af­ter Vil­lage Road­show went pub­lic they made an ag­gres­sive move into other mar­kets, such as film pro­duc­tion, theme parks and ra­dio. Af­ter the float, the Kirby fam­ily re­mained the ma­jor­ity share­hold­ers, own­ing 51.5% of the shares in Vil­lage Road­show. Roc Kirby re­tired as CEO in 1988, leav­ing the run­ning of Vil­lage Road­show to his sons, Robert and John, as chair­man and deputy chair­man, and sur­ro­gate son, Gra­ham Burke, as CEO.

“I have been at Vil­lage my whole life,” Gra­ham says. “Roc men­tored me. He taught me not to get too fancy and that the busi­ness is about sell­ing tick­ets and about be­ing ex­cit­ing. If we don’t ex­cite then the pub­lic won’t go to the en­ter­tain­ment we pro­vide.”

Roc is fa­mous for his quips, but one that stood out for Gra­ham and is part of the Vil­lage phi­los­o­phy cen­tres around rein­ven­tion.

“Ev­ery sin­gle morn­ing when you get up you need to rein­vent yourself,’ Gra­ham says. “Our founder used to say flex­i­bil­ity is the key to suc­cess.”

And Vil­lage is flex­i­ble. When Robert Kirby ini­ti­ated Gold Class in Aus­tralia, it changed the stan­dard of movie go­ing. V-Max has taken the ex­pe­ri­ence an­other step for­ward. Let’s not for­get also that Vil­lage went into movie pro­duc­tion early on and is re­spon­si­ble for such Aus­tralian clas­sics as Breaker Mo­rant, Mad Max and more re­cently Red Dog, which be­came the third high­est gross­ing DVD ever in Aus­tralia.

“We have been in­volved in film pro­duc­tion for 25-30 years and it is an ex­cel­lent ad­junct to dis­tri­bu­tion and cin­ema. In this busi­ness con­tent is king.”

Reap­ing re­wards at the mo­ment is the Lego Movie.

“We look at the film pro­duc­tion busi­ness as a port­fo­lio. We have a whole on­go­ing slate of movies com­ing up.

Theme parks have also been quite lu­cra­tive. While the com­pany re­cently con­sol­i­dated its US ac­tiv­i­ties to just Las Ve­gas, sell­ing out of Phoenix and Hawaii, their fo­cus has been di­rected to­ward China and South East Asia.

“We want to fo­cus on that re­gion be­cause the sheer pop­u­la­tion and lack of qual­ity, well man­aged theme parks makes sense for us.”

Vil­lage will be em­u­lat­ing the very suc­cess­ful Gold Coast theme parks, which in­clude Sea World, Wet ’n Wild and Movie World.

“We are very proud of our theme parks on the Gold Coast, they are an out­stand­ing call­ing card for what we rep­re­sent. They are world-class parks and we will unashamedly copy what works in those parks in this foray into Asia.”

Vil­lage also had a large stake in ra­dio for a while and turned Aus­tereo into the num­ber one net­work. At that stage, they were an in­te­grated me­dia com­pany; to­day Gra­ham prefers to la­bel Vil­lage as strictly an en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness.

Along with Robert and John Kirby, they will be look­ing to con­sol­i­date their ven­tures in fu­ture, fo­cus­ing on the core busi­ness of the­atres, theme parks, dis­tri­bu­tion and pro­duc­tion.

“We have a very pru­dent growth pro­gram,” Gra­ham says. “Robert is work­ing in Asia on the theme parks and we have other projects which are too early to an­nounce. In cin­ema ex­hi­bi­tion we

“We have been in­volved in film pro­duc­tion for 25-30 years and it is an ex­cel­lent ad­junct to dis­tri­bu­tion and cin­ema. In this busi­ness con­tent is king.”

are build­ing the Gold Class cin­ema cir­cuit in the US and in Aus­tralia we are ex­tend­ing Gold Class and V-Max. In our over­seas joint ven­ture, we will be ex­pand­ing from three to four films to 10 films in pro­duc­tion (the com­pany also owns 47.6% of the Los Angeles based en­ter­tain­ment di­vi­sion, Vil­lage Road­show En­ter­tain­ment Group which in­cludes the Vil­lage Road­show Pic­tures film pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion busi­ness, and, from Fe­bru­ary 2008 to March 2013, the Con­cord Mu­sic Group). We are mo­ti­vated be­cause we want to put some­thing back into the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity and give kids in the in­dus­try a chance to learn and prac­tice their skills.”

There is only one ma­jor com­peti­tor to Vil­lage in Aus­tralia and that is Hoyts, but Gra­ham is philo­soph­i­cal about com­pe­ti­tion.

“My at­ti­tude to them is the stronger they are the stronger the in­dus­try sec­tor. We com­pete with restaurants, ho­tels, pubs, pay TV and lethargy, so the health­ier Hoyts are the health­ier we are. In the theme park space we com­pete with Ar­dent who own Dream World, we fight for mar­ket share, but you don’t want to be only one restau­rant in the street. No­body will go to that street.”

Gra­ham is 71 years old and fit. He at­tends the gym ev­ery morn­ing from 5am and though he is a self-con­fessed shy man, he speaks well for the or­gan­i­sa­tion and the in­dus­try in gen­eral. He is look­ing for­ward to the fu­ture and to con­tin­u­ing to rein­vent the brand, which means Vil­lage will be find­ing even bet­ter ways for people to get com­fort­able and be en­ter­tained.

Vil­lage Road­show CEO Gra­ham Burke

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