Roaring out of Lionsgate: Industry vet Mike Polydoros earns Shapiro Service Award


Lionsgate executive VP of distribution operations Mike Polydoros, who has had feet in both exhibition and distribution, now steps up at ShowEast as recipient of the 2013 Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award. Each year the award honors a film industry executive who best represents the ideals and standards that the late Al Shapiro set during his distinguished career. It epitomizes Shapiro’s dedication, care and concern for the betterment of the motion picture industry, and with Polydoros’ over 30 years in the business and dedication to charities like Will Rogers, he is a perfect fit.

Based at Lionsgate offices in Santa Monica (“down the street” from the American Film market, he notes), Polydoros oversees the company’s distribution activity for the U.S., including digital cinema and exhibitor relations. And admitting to an affection for the promotional corner of the business, he also works closely with Lionsgate’s marketing department.

Polydoros began his career as a teenager in 1978 working as an usher for United Artists Theatres at L.A.‘s famed Egyptian (now the American Cinemathèque). Seduced more by the business of film than the glamour that stars and fame bring, he knew at the outset that he wanted to be on the business end of entertainment. “Right away I wanted to know how things work, how the money flows,” he declares. After college, he grew his career in exhibition and soon became a manager of the Westwood Egyptian. Along this early path in the theatres, he met both actors and some producers like Barry Diller. “I had far more interesting conversations with people like Diller than I did with the stars. I knew where I wanted to go.”

And “go” he did, continuing to work for about eight years with UA Theatres. (By 1981 he was already managing a theatre, the Westwood Egyptian.) After he finished college in 1985, there was a brief detour to a software company, but a mailroom job at Skouras Pictures brought him back to film. Exhibition again beckoned and Polydoros found himself at the Mann chain where, working in advertising, he got his first major lessons about using posters and trailers. This was his first real taste of the importance of promotion and was “early in the trailer placement game when things were easier. Trailers then were placed with the prints and you either played them or not. Things are different now, since the studio people are making sure trailers are placed correctly and have maximum effect.”

Next on his career itinerary was a job at Fox doing exhibitor relations and a rewarding stint at Trimark, where he was more deeply immersed in exhibitor relations and trailer placements. “Trimark, where we had a lot of genre pictures, gave me a great foundation because it was there that I really learned the value of promotions and stunts—even wacky ones—to get press attention and raise awareness.” His idea for the creation of the world’s largest paper airplane helped keep one film—if not the plane—airborne.

From Trimark, Polydoros moved on to Savoy Pictures. Securing his place on the distribution side, he moved to Live Entertainment in 1996. After Bain Capital bought Live, the company became the rebranded, mostly art-house purveyor Artisan Entertainment. A final chapter to the Live saga in 2004 brought Polydoros under the Lionsgate banner when Artisan was sold and merged with Lionsgate.

At Lionsgate, Polydoros has played key roles in the release of over 150 films, including such giants out of the Lion’s gate as The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn; the Saw franchise and the Academy Award-winning Crash.  

Looking back on his career, Polydoros recalls some of the releases that surprised him most and were ripe with insights. There was the challenging, critically acclaimed Precious and the “crown jewels” of surprise: The Hunger Games, The Blair Witch Project and Trimark’s Leprechaun.

Leprechaun? Explains Polydoros, “It was from my Trimark days and we came out of nowhere with this little movie. And it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve worked on because I learned so much. We tested this exhaustively and even opened test markets in cities like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and got so much feedback. So we learned the value of good testing and a lot about radio promotions and their value. With Blair, it went viral like a runaway locomotive and became lightning in a bottle. With The Hunger Games, we learned how to create a tentpole franchise and about the value of a great digital team which did such a fine job.”

The big lesson learned with Hunger Games was the importance of creating an event leading up to the opening and, in this case, the effort—for its time—was unique. As Polydoros explains, “We turned that first day when tickets became available into an event as eagerly anticipated as if it were a major concert. We did this by getting word out on the specifics—the day, time, place where they could be bought—and created a manic event around this that convinced that ‘you gotta get your tickets.’ That first day was for Fandango the most tickets it had ever sold for a single day.”

What Polydoros has learned over his decades in both exhibition and distribution is that “exhibitors are running a different business, because on the studio or distribution side we forget that weekends for exhibitors are so fraught with chaos. So from the distribution side we have to plan ahead and not ask our exhibitors to jump on a dime on what are their busy Fridays. Good communication between the two sides is so critical.”

Polydoros applauds the success and continued vigor of the theatrical business. “It’s obviously thriving. Just look at the record box office year after year and look at this summer. And other films besides tentpoles are also driving the business.” He explains this success by noting that “it comes down to us knowing that people are looking for good entertainment, so we have to give them something entertaining and fresh. Tipping his hat to Lionsgate labels Summit and Pantelion, he cites Now You See Me, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain and the Latin hit Instructions Not Included as recent examples: “Just look how these films came out of nowhere and how summer counterprogramming worked.”

But Polydoros reserves his biggest enthusiasm for future Lionsgate releases and is most excited about such fourth-quarter frontrunners as "Catching Fire, obviously, because it’s really something special. And Ender’s Game, of course, and Tyler Perry’s A Medea Christmas. All coming to theatres soon!”

And 2014 also looms large, he says. “We have at least two standouts. Divergent, our next young-adult franchise, for March 21st and Expendables 3 for August,” which will be Lionsgate’s third installment of the action-adventure franchise.

Polydoros’ outlook is as bright as screens will be when these pictures hit them. But he acknowledges the challenges ahead. “It’s gotten neither easier nor harder to reach our target audiences, but getting them is always the challenge. The rule is to stay relevant with your entertainment, especially with all the platforms out there. Thankfully, our team is doing a great job of finding the content people are looking for. It’s all about the content.”