Asia Authority: Fox's Kurt Rieder earns 2018 Passepartout Award

Cinemas Features

Though this year’s CinemaCon Passepartout Award laureate Kurt Rieder joined 20th Century Fox in Singapore less than a year ago, his career in Asia spans more than a quarter century.

Hearing his full name—Kurt Ernst Rieder—one may be forgiven for assuming he’s a German national. But then Rieder starts speaking in his distinctive West Coast accent and it becomes unmistakably clear that he’s an American. His explanation for the name is straightforward: “My paternal grandparents were German and emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. My father then kept the ‘German theme’ going when naming my brothers and me. Whenever I fly Lufthansa, even the cabin staff will address me in German until I correct them.”

Early Seeds

Now in his 50s, Rieder was born and raised in sunny California, where he also received his education. While in college, he spent two years in Indonesia as an exchange student—in East Kalimantan province from 1984 to 1985 and in Central Java from 1988 until 1989, in the process acquiring a rather sound command of the local language, Bahasa Indonesia. He might not have been fully aware of it at that point, but those two overseas stints probably planted the seeds that led to his later professional career in the Far East.

After returning to the States, Rieder graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts, South & Southeast Asian Studies, in 1989. Apart from the Orient, another subject that had always fueled his passion was the motion picture business. This prompted him to join the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program at the University of Southern California’s School of Film and Television, which he attended from 1990 to 1991.

Grabbing an Opportunity

While still engaged with the USC program, Rieder’s first job in the movie industry was an internship at Universal Studios’ international publicity department. “I was looking to convert this internship into a full-time job, as our second-year courses were shifting to night classes,” he recalls. Alas, it turned out that Universal didn’t have any job openings at the time. A little disappointed, Rieder then stumbled across an article in Variety on how Warner Bros. had recently established an office in Indonesia. Rieder saw his chance and grabbed it. After all, he had already been to that country and even spoke its language. “I wrote the executive quoted in the article, offering my services,” he says.

Soon invited in for a meeting, he was told that while no L.A.-based jobs were available, he could be a trainee in Burbank and Singapore and later move on to a home office representative position in Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, where WB’s local licensee was based. Rieder accepted the offer. Warner Bros. kept their promise, too, eventually dispatching him to Singapore, where he would serve as general manager for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia from 1994 until 1998. During that time, he also met and married his first wife, an Indonesian, with whom he had two children.

The First Career Milestone of Many

But his general manager assignment for Warner Bros. was only the first major milestone in what would turn out to be a long and distinguished career spanning decades.Leaving WB in 1998, Rieder joined Australian entertainment group Village Roadshow (VR), an outfit that has played a crucial role in developing the cinema infrastructure of many countries across Asia. However, it wasn’t Asia where VR deployed him initially. He was—of all places—sent to Argentina instead, where he oversaw the local VR-operated cinema chain Village Cines as general manager. But he was soon to return to the realm nevertheless when he was appointed CEO of the VR-owned EGV chain in Thailand (which has since been bought out by local Major Cineplex Group). He eventually returned to Singapore as managing director of the country’s largest theatre chain, Golden Village, a joint venture between Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest Co. and Village Roadshow.

From Singapore to Turkey

After his involvement with VR had ended in 2003, Rieder remained in Singapore, moving on to United International Pictures as senior VP for Asia, a position he held until 2009. He next applied his by now considerable professional experience as managing director of Artisan Gateway, Asia’s leading film and cinema industry consulting firm. But a couple of years further down the road, Golden Village once again beckoned, making him the chain’s CEO. In 2013, Rieder left Singapore for the first time in years. He had in the meantime remarried to a Chinese-Singaporean and—accompanied by his new wife —accepted the CEO position at Turkey’s leading chain, Mars Cinema Group. “Well, at least I arguably still was in Asia, sort of,” he smirks.

Joining Fox After Returning Home

During the first half of 2017, 20th Century Fox International finally put into action a long-planned relocation of its regional office from Sydney, Australia, to Singapore. Rieder, who had since returned to the city state at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula, was invited to take over as executive VP for the APAC region from outgoing industry icon Sunder Kimatrai, effective as of June 19, 2017. It was a call too enticing for him to pass up, considering that Singapore had had such a dramatic impact on his life, both on a professional and personal level. “I’ve spent 22 years in Asia, my wife’s Asian, my kids are half-Asian.Singapore’s home for me, so I didn’t regard my new role as merely a posting.”

A Carefully Orchestrated Relocation

The carefully orchestrated relocation was of course entirely based on practical considerations. “Traveling anywhere within Asia from Sydney was time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, the time zone difference, while fine for comfortably staying in touch with L.A., was problematic for the [Asian] territories, as the Sydney workday ends mid-afternoon Asia time,” Rieder explains.Although China had in the meantime matured into the world’s second-largest film market after the U.S., relocating to Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong apparently was never even contemplated, asFox’s Chinese all-division office reports directly to L.A. anyway. “Besides,” Rieder elaborates, “five out of sixMPA studio regional offices are [presently] located in Singapore.” And for good reason, too, as the city state certainly boasts some distinct advantages: “Not only is Singapore’s media and digital scene robust, but the country is also a better hub for visiting the fast-growing markets of South and Southeast Asia, where we’re ramping up oversight and support of our third-party distributors.”

Great, But Not Flawless

Yet Singapore is not a flawless dream location. Rieder is too much of a seasoned and experienced professional to not also acknowledge that there are some disadvantages. “The local theatrical market is relatively small [Singapore has barely six million people] and has plateaued in terms of annual admissions,” he notes. “I would also say that markets like China and Korea have the latest in cinema technology such as 4DX and ScreenX, while Singapore does not yet. But that being said, IMAX does exist in Singapore and it is my favorite way to screen new films.” And another issue is presently occupying his mind as well: “Clearly, all of us at Fox are eager to understand the ramifications of the proposed Disney merger, but there are so many possible scenarios it’s impossible to forecast the outcome.”

Harnessing the APEC Market

Still, Rieder feels very confident about the APAC market’s potential as a whole. While he has seen some mature territories in the region flatline or even decline, he’s also noticed rather steady growth in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the—as he calls it—“frontier markets” of Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others.And a territory that in his opinion deserves more attention from an exhibition standpoint is Bangladesh, which has a very high population density but virtually no multiplex infrastructure whatsoever. “While I think that all other developing markets such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Myanmar, Cambodia and Sri Lanka are finally being adequately addressed by both exhibition and distribution, we should direct greater focus at Bangladesh.” It’s yet another challenging task, but one that Rieder without doubt is going to master almost in his stride.

What Asians Like to Watch

So…what sort of films do Asian audiences actually enjoy watching during those precious couple of hours snuggled up in a comfy reclining seat while munching away on an array of yummy snacks and beverages? Rieder discloses that, generally speaking, action and adventure movies play well throughout the region, but particularly in China and Southeast Asia. Animation is well liked in all territories, but only selectively so in India and Korea. And audiences inJapan, Korea and Hong Kong appear to have a rather soft spot, as emotional, female-driven films dominate at the box office there. On the other hand, sci-fi titles have traditionally had a harder time to reach Asian audiences. “But [even in this genre] we’ve seen improvement in the last few years thanks in part to the integration of sci-fi themes in Marvel films and the Transformers series, not to mention Oscar-caliber films such as Gravity and Interstellar,” Rieder points out, quickly slipping in that “Fox has a sci-fi film directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt next year, called Ad Astra.”

Hollywood Struggles

However, Rieder also concedes that there are some territories where Hollywood fare has always been a bit on the backburner in terms of box-office receipts because of their own proliferating domestic film industries. “For example, in India we struggle due to the huge volume of locally produced content, both in Hindi and other languages, although the situation has improved dramatically in the last few years.” Additionally, Japan can be a difficult turf for Hollywood films as well, as the country likewise shells out a tremendous number of local movies each year. “Japan released almost 600 domestic titles in 2017 alone, and these local offerings clearly over-index outside Japan’s key cities.”

Facets of Demographics

Regarding audience demographics, there too seem to be rather clear distinctions between territories, which Rieder attributes to the prevailing cultural heritage. “Female viewers are [box-office] drivers in Japan and Korea while males over-index in China and in South and Southeast Asian territories.” Yet he adds that he’s also seeing many territories moving towards a more evened-out male-to-female audience ratio, a development he primarily attributes to gradual changes in social norms as well as the way movies are watched. For instance, India has embarked on a strong drive to upgrade and expand its multiplex landscape. Meanwhile, Pakistan is striving to bring women and families back to the cinema. There also are territories that are rolling out more sophisticated marketing, with, as Rieder remarks, “multiple campaigns designed to appeal to distinct target groups.”

An Award Well Deserved

Contemplating the sheer amount of responsibilities heaped on Kurt Rieder and the multitude of challenges he’s facing, it appears that he has bitten off quite a mouthful by accepting the appointment from Fox. It keeps him extremely busy—but gladly so and with unbridled passion. For his astounding career over the course of more than a quarter century he will this year be recognized through the prestigious CinemaCon Passepartout Award. “It’s a great honor and a nice way to recognize international executives who have played multiple roles throughout the world,” he says, modestly deflecting from his own outstanding achievements.