Inter-National Amusements: Mark Walukevich upholds high standards of film and event programming

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“It starts with great teams in each market, individuals that in many instances have been with me from the start in those countries.”

Mark Walukevich, this year’s recipient of the ShowEast International Exhibitor of the Year Award for his worldwide work at National Amusements, Inc. (NAI), goes right to the heart of the matter. “As I have consistently stated, all members of the Showcase team are instrumental to our success, and they share equally in this award. Without them, it would not have been possible to have achieved the great success that we have enjoyed over the years.”

Good people and great film programming go hand in hand, he finds. “The fact that each group has an awareness of not only their own market, but also possesses a global outlook, is imperative in determining the importance and proper placement of each film. While leveraging the entire estate, negotiations are done by individual market,” Walukevich explains.

In his recently created role as senior VP, film and event cinema worldwide, that estate encompasses 80 locations with over 930 screens across the United States (407 screens), the United Kingdom (264), Argentina (75) and Brazil (188), operating under Showcase, Multiplex, SuperLux and Cinema de Lux brands. “Film programming has certainly changed since Showcase first ventured outside of the U.S. 28 years ago,” Walukevich notes, speaking from experience. “I wouldn’t say that the process has become easier, but Showcase’s philosophy has always been to maximize each and every film’s potential and we certainly would like that to be reflective in the deals that are made.”

After joining the NAI family in 1980, Walukevich became instrumental in expanding the international reach as head film buyer in the U.K. with their first opening in Nottingham, England (1988). With a degree in psychology, “jobs were very scarce and not much available in my field,” he admits. Instead, he “applied to a small ad in the newspaper and interviewed with both Sumner [Redstone] and Ed Knudsen.” Since he was hired only “six months and three trainees later,” Walukevich chuckles, “I guess I wasn’t their first choice.” But he definitely was the last, even as Mark left a mark on his first bookings. “My most vivid memory was both the most exciting and the one that turned quickly into a nightmare,” he elaborates. “I had booked my first drive-in with a racy B-movie double bill, and was thrilled with the grosses that came in throughout the weekend. My elation quickly subsided when I learned on Monday morning that we had been cited by local police because the screen faced a highway, and, for obvious reasons, had caused a substantial traffic backup!”

In equally substantial roles as VP and senior VP of international film, respectively, Walukevich backed negotiations to eliminate the practice of barring, to name but one change that helped open up markets for multiplex expansion, not just across the U.K. He continued to bring NAI’s cinema Showcases to Chile, Argentina, Russia and Brazil.

“It was an overall company decision to explore new avenues of cinema expansion,” he recalls. “As the U.S. engaged in an overbuilding period that was both difficult and somewhat destructive to our business,” he says that NAI recognized “the actual need for cinemas would be found elsewhere.” And that markets outside the U.S. “could be just as successful, with room for growth.” Best of all, he still sees “opportunities for growth both in new builds and reenergizing older cinemas, in every market, some more difficult to find than others.”

“International was so distant and different from domestic,” he continues. Since then, “both exhibition and distribution have worked closely together to grow emerging markets with a tremendous amount of patience. All parties embraced the understanding that the international markets represented the future growth of the industry. Many of the individuals from the early days have gone on to become significant global leaders on both sides of the business.”

What most of them, if not all leaders (many of whom will gather at ShowEast 2015), share is their belief that business still gets done locally and that local tastes in films and entertainment choices do differ. “Our success is certainly tied to our very good relationships with our partners in each territory,” Walukevich concurs. “Together, they possess the knowledge base and experience necessary to accomplish our collective goals. Film anomalies occur constantly–who would have ever thought that Woody Allen would perform best in such wide-flung cities as Manhattan, Paris and Buenos Aires?” Or that Straight Outta Compton would be number one in Germany, this author would add. “Each country has both its own unique challenges and its own rich and vibrant film history and business practices. One mistake that is commonly made is trying to force traditional concepts, without awareness of each country’s distinct culture and moviegoing habits,” he cautions. “It is a huge learning curve, but the successful players find how to assimilate and become part of the local community.”

Part of NAI’s international success is that Walukevich understands the “tremendous benefit” provided by local product. “Years can be made or broken by films such as El Clan, which recently had tremendous success in Argentina. Brazil is also a phenomenal market for local productions, with such blockbusters as Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro. Given our global footprint, one challenge is to find audiences for these phenomenal films outside of their native markets. We continually strive to do so by, for example, placing Brazilian Portuguese prints in Revere, Massachusetts, which has a sizable Brazilian population.”

Event cinema has just begun on its way from finding an audience to making sizeable contributions to the bottom line. “Despite unavoidable growing pains, the U.K.’s approach of embracing event cinema has spurred tremendous success,” Walukevich acknowledges about the world’s leading market for what has traditionally been called alternative content. “There are numerous distributors and content providers constantly searching for the next best event. The native product stream is incredibly rich, with the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and top West End productions… The year-on-year increase in attendance has been remarkable, and there appears to be no end in sight. Great credit for raising the consciousness of the U.K. patron to these offerings goes to the Event Cinema Association, a dedicated group of like-minded individuals, which I am proud to serve as a board member [since its foundation]. The attraction to these high-end events also provides tremendous crossover impact for upscale feature films, which tend to attract similar audiences, enhancing our core business.”

If event cinema represents one of the great opportunities for theatrical exhibition, what are some of the challenges? “Competition to our core business from the plethora of entertainment options is here to stay,” Walukevich knows. “What we can offer–that those other options cannot–is experiential enjoyment. People are already able to watch a film in their homes on a large flat-screen television while sitting on their comfortable couch. We need to offer much more, and we do: from huge screens, with immersive sound, showing a bright and crisp image; to fantastic food and beverage offerings; to leather, motorized recliners; to a new MX4D auditorium in our Revere, Massachusetts location; to the sheer joy of laughing at a comedy, shrieking as the killer jumps from the shadows in a horror film, or sharing a tear as the guy loses the girl in a drama–all with a hundred or so other people enjoying the same experience. We have to constantly innovate, ceaselessly searching for ways to make our theatres the place to experience a film.”

That said and done, Mark Walukevich maintains a most positive outlook. “The moviegoing experience is timeless, and we will certainly be enjoying films in theatres for the next ten years, and far beyond… I am confident that Showcase will continue to be a global leader and innovator in the space for years to come.” All of us, at ShowEast and elsewhere around the globe, face a very exciting time for the industry, he adds in closing. “We will continue to face new challenges and obstacles, but we should look at these things as opportunities, and use them to spur us on to further success. We are all privileged to work in a very cool industry, and should appreciate that fact every day.”

Even though he would like to change one thing about it. “Everybody should be on the same time zone, it would be much easier!”

Walukevich’s Words of Thanks

“I am truly humbled by this recognition, and would like to thank Bob and Andrew Sunshine for choosing me to receive this award. There are so many people that were and are instrumental in my success. Beginning with Sumner Redstone, who hired me and brought me under his wing; to George Levitt and Carl Reardon, who taught me the film business; to Ed Knudsen, who taught me there was a wonderful world outside of East Walpole, Massachusetts. Continuing on through the years from Richard Leonard, my right hand in the U.K.; to Luiz Silva and Mariela Mosso, my leaders in Brazil and Argentina; to my U.S. team of Steve Cooper and Jack Monahan; to Laura Correia and James Dobbin, who assist me globally; to my consigliere, Shawn Sullivan. It is truly a team effort.

I have to give tremendous thanks to Shari Redstone for her trust and support in allowing me the privilege of heading the best film and event cinema department in the world.

Most importantly, I have to thank my wife Anna and five children, who have faithfully supported me and my chosen profession. Without them, all of my achievements would be completely empty.”