Forty Years of Dedication: AMC’s Bob Lenihan is honored with prestigious Show ‘E’ Award

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“I have always had great respect for Dan throughout his long career, whether that was as an excellent exhibitor or as an esteemed distribution executive after he joined Warner Bros.”

Robert J. Lenihan, president of programming for AMC Entertainment Inc., considers it “quite an honor” to receive the 2017 Show ‘E’ Award that was recently renamed to celebrate Dan Fellman’s impressive 38-year career. “Last year,” he recalls, “the same award went to Spencer Klein at Twentieth Century Fox, who is a colleague of mine from back in the Loews days during the late 1990s. So, yes, I feel great that it is given in Dan’s name and I am honored also to be following Spencer in accepting the award this year.” According to the selection committee, the Dan Fellman Show ‘E’ Award is presented to an industry member whose accomplishments and dedication to the industry are unequaled.

Lenihan believes “longevity and consistency over the years,” had something to do with it too. “I have always been an exhibitor and I worked for nine different exhibition companies.” He takes just pride in having developed a reputation for integrity over his past four decades in this industry. “I think that probably has as much to do with me getting the award this year than anything else.”

Lenihan began his career as a film booker for United Artists Theatres in San Francisco in 1977. Joining AMC in 2009, he now leads a programming team “which explores new ways of enhancing the company’s leading position in movie marketing and expanded programming flexibility,” as the official description goes. Lenihan’s previous roles have included senior VP of film at Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas, as well as senior VP and head film buyer positions at Mann Theatres, Act III Theatres, Century Theatres and Sundance Cinemas. He also served as executive VP at Loews Cineplex from 1998 to 2002, supervising film, marketing and real estate.

Going back to the beginning, what prompted his decision to work for Bob and Marshall Naify in San Francisco? “Well, I always loved movies,” Lenihan explains. “Going to a little state school in New Jersey called Glassboro State College, which is now Rowan University, I actually ran the film program for a few years. It was kind of buying film in an ‘amateur’ fashion that set me up to persuade the people at United Artists Theatres to give me a shot and hire me. It’s been 40 quick years since then,” he chuckles.

What was it like working in exhibition as a film buyer during that time? “I first booked what we called ‘country towns,’ such as Chico, Marysville, Yuba City and Redding, all in California. In those days, probably the most screens of any theatre that I booked was four screens. The majority of theatres were either old single big-barn theatres or twins or triples and, in some cases, quads. Shortly after that, American Multi-Cinema, which is the foundation of where I work today, started building six-screen theatres and more, to the point of some 30-screen megaplexes. It is interesting to me that we are coming back around now. Most of the theatres opening are more along the lines of eight to twelve screens.

“The business has gone through a lot of changes,” he attests. “It has been, for the most part, extremely enjoyable, and it is challenging as well.” Although he admits that “every Monday is a fresh nightmare” when asked about the latter trials, he assures, “I really do not have any one particular negative moment I could name. And as far as the funny stuff is concerned, there are a lot of characters in this business. There used to be a lot more of them, but exhibition in general is still a fun business.”

Would he consider himself one of those characters? “Not compared to somebody like Erik Lomis,” he answers, naming the president of distribution at Annapurna Pictures, with obvious affection in his voice. Given the fact that Lomis previously worked at The Weinstein Company, at MGM, and as the head of the national film department at United Artists Theatres, one can assume there is plenty of good-natured rivalry along the way.

Equally, “I was inspired working with Ted Mann,” Leninhan continues. “He was really a pioneer in the business and a tough guy, but really terrific all around. Certainly, Dan Fellman is somebody that I admire. When I was a young film buyer, I competed against a gentleman named Phil Barlow, who went on to be the top Disney executive. As an exhibitor, Phil was probably the person I learned most from by competing with him. And, certainly, my good friend Travis Reid, who I worked for and who has worked for me over the past 40 years. Travis is one of the first people I met in the business and he also booked country towns.”

Asked about other experiences that mattered to him personally, Lenihan talks about “a really challenging time” while working at Loews Cineplex in New York City after the events of September 11, 2001. “We were opening our 34th Street Theatre around that time and Chuck Viane from Disney approached us about having a special screening for the families of the police officers, firefighters and other servicemen and women that had worked through these difficult times. The film was Monsters, Inc., with John Goodman and Billy Crystal coming to the theatre. That special showing celebrated and honored the first responders’ bravery and service… That was a very touching moment for me.”

An equally noteworthy event was going to see his first film. “I loved the movies since I was very young. I went to see Ben-Hur with my dad in 1959. That was the first movie I saw in a theatre. We lived in Pennsylvania at the time,” Lenihan further recalls. “I think it was an old theatre in Lehigh, because we lived in Bethlehem. But I do not know the name of the theatre, I was only five years old… Just the experience of being there with my dad was amazing.” He also remembers an important lesson that his mom bestowed upon little Bob, in view of the coming chariot races. “While going to the car, my mother told me, ‘It’s just ketchup, don’t worry about it.’”

And the lessons continued for Robert Lenihan. “My favorite film is On the Waterfront. Number one, it is a great film, but it was also the subject of a film-appreciation class when I was in high school. They taught us how movies were made. Up to that point, I just thought they were kind of random and did not realize about directing and writing; the integration of cinematography and angles; and whether you should use black-and-white or color. On the Waterfront was shot in New Jersey, where I grew up, and it starred Marlon Brando, who was my favorite actor. For all those reasons, every time I am asked that question about my favorite film, the answer is On the Waterfront.”

Staying with firsts and favorites, we ask if Lenihan recalls the first films that he booked into those country theatres surrounding San Francisco. “I do not remember, but within the first month of being at United Artists, Star Wars opened in May of 1977. That was one of the first movies that I booked into those theatres. In many cases, it played until Christmas. In fact, at the Coronet Theatre in San Francisco, we played it until Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened there in December.”

Further on the film front, 40 years later, Star Wars is still popular. In Lenihan’s opinion, did the public’s taste in movies not change and/or broaden? Other than the billion-dollar proliferation of big franchises, including Star Wars spinoffs, Marvel and DC Comics universes, “I think there is still room for romantic comedies and action films and horror movies, as is evidenced by the incredible performance of It over the past few weeks. So, while I believe the tastes are pretty much the same, they have maybe become more global in scope and passion, in particularly for those fan-boy type films.”

How about the people who bring all those films to theatres: Has the relationship between distribution and exhibition changed? Lenihan thinks “that the word ‘partner’ was given a lip service for many years during my career, but our partnership has never rung truer than today. Exhibitors work better with distributors to market their films and to establish new and unusual ways to present them to the public. That has never happened before. Certainly, this is true of AMC, and there is evidence of that with Regal and Cinemark, and with Cineplex in Canada. There is a genuine partnership, whereas before I do not think this statement was as accurate as it is today.”

Given that partnership, how does one respond to further shortening the time between theatrical showings and releases to the home? “Nobody really knows what the impact of dramatically shrinking windows will be on moviegoing in movie theatres.” Nonetheless, Lenihan remains “hopeful and optimistic that if it does come, it will be on terms that are the least hazardous to exhibition and, frankly, to the studios as well. A healthy exhibition window still creates a better runway for downstream revenue for films.”

While this is of concern to him, as well as to all of us, Lenihan goes on to set the record straight. “As exhibitors, we have met the challenges of finding innovative ways to make our theatres better, whether by serving alcoholic beverages—as we do now in almost 200 AMC theatres—along with a wide array of food choices. And the reseating to luxury recliners has just been fantastic. The IMAX Experience has improved as well, with laser projection… So, we are continuing to evolve as exhibitors to offer our guests the best moviegoing experience possible, and the studios are doing their share by making the best product that they possibly can.”

The abundance of product—good or otherwise—and its instant availability are another reason for concern. “You have Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and YouTube—all these other ways to see content,” Lenihan knows only too well. “When I started, it was either movies or TV, in some instances cable and then videocassettes, but that was still really rehashing theatrical movies, mostly. But now, consumers have a truly wide array of content that they can absorb at home and on mobile devices. This makes our business a lot more challenging, trying to keep people’s attention.”

With all that on the table, “I think that, again, this is just the best industry,” Lenihan affirms. “It is the only industry that I have ever worked in, and I cannot imagine there are better industries than the film industry. Even with all the changes that are taking place. One thing that I believe has remained consistent is the relationships between people. Working together is still a key element to our business, even as business models are getting more sophisticated… At the end of the day, I still believe that the relationship piece is invaluable.”