Brian D. Johnson September 28 1987


Brian D. Johnson September 28 1987



In the office of a Hollywood studio executive, a screenwriter pitches his newest script idea:

WRITER: It's a movie about an entertainment lawyer who starts out with nothing and ends up with everything. Sort of a cross between Rocky and Citizen Kane.

EXECUTIVE: Sounds awful.

WRITER: Wait, here's the hook. The guy is a Canadian. He's crippled by polio asa child. But he fights back. He's a born contender. When he grows up he starts producing films, but that's a bit of a dead-end street, because this is Canada, right? So he starts building these little movie theatres in shopping malls. People think he 's crazy, and he almost goes bankrupt. But five years later this guy who could barely pay the rent is in charge of a company with assets of $1 billion—about $18 million of it in his own name. And he 's only 38. The company owns movie screens all over North America. It's a popcorn kingdom gilded with real butter. The guy wants desperately to be a class act: he

collects art like it's going out of style. But his ambition knows no bounds. One day he's busting cartels. Then he teams up with the biggest entertainment conglomerate on the planet. The next thing you know, it looks like he 's about to take over Hollywood itself.

EXECUTIVE: I like it. But let 's get rid of the Canadian angle.

The story of Garth Drabinsky’s meteoric rise is the stuff of legend. And if he ever did become the subject of a movie, Drabinsky’s own burgeoning empire would have the resources to produce, promote, distribute and exhibit it on a grand scale. The brash chairman and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon Corp. has become the classic example of a Canadian entrepreneur beating Americans at their own game. By building stylish new cinemas and restoring old ones, Drabinsky has almost single-handedly rejuvenated the stagnating art of moviegoing. Art deco design, Italian marble, wool carpets

and cappuccino bars have become Drabinsky trademarks in theatre lobbies from Edmonton to Manhattan. At last count, Cineplex owned 1,511 screens in more than 465 locations across the continent. But Drabinsky is not content to be a mere merchant. In fact, he has begun to act more like a statesman— Canada’s Hollywood connection.

At Toronto’s Festival of Festivals last week Drabinsky’s influence was on full display. At his bidding, Paul Newman arrived to provide the festival with a glamorous finale. The actor appeared with Drabinsky at a gala weekend screening of The Glass Menagerie— a movie version of the Tennessee Williams play that Newman directed and Drabinsky financed. Drabinsky also opened the Toronto festival’s trade forum with a speech that Cineplex billed as “a major policy statement” dealing with free trade and government film legislation. Major policy statements usually come from cabinet ministers,

not entrepreneurs. But to some observers, Drabinsky holds more influence over Canada’s movie industry than anyone in Ottawa. Said one federal department of communications official: “He’s the biggest player in Canadian film. He’s very powerful.”

Rivals: The size of Drabinsky’s game board took a quantum leap last year when MCA-Universal, Hollywood’s largest studio conglomerate, became Cineplex’s major shareholder. MCA Inc. now owns 48 per cent of Cineplex. Last June on MCA’S Universal lot in Los Angeles, Cineplex opened the world’s largest cinema, a two-acre complex with 18 screens. In another co-venture, Cineplex and MCA are building a 414-acre studio and theme park to compete with Disney World in Orlando, Fla.—a prototype for an international chain that Drabinsky predicts will be a multibillion-dollar business by the year 2000.

With his Napoleonic drive and aggressive style, Drabinsky is not univer-

sally liked. There has been a high turnover among new Cineplex executives unable to adjust to a boss who has been known to phone them at 2 a.m. to talk business. Pushing competition to extremes, he has earned the nickname Garth Vader—and other derogatory epithets. Twice he has finessed his rivals at the Famous Players Theatres chain with deals that whisked cinema properties out from under their feet. And last month his takeover of New York’s Regency Theatre, a venerable home of repertory cinema, made him the target of a protest led by stars Woody Allen and Tony Randall.

Ferocity: Generally, however, Drabinsky draws high praise from the film industry. Said Newman, in an interview with Maclean's: “His personality, at first look, appears to be somewhat abrasive, but underneath that is a guy with incredible taste and aspiration and charity.” Referring to The Glass Menagerie, Newman added, “He’s husbanded this film with a kind of ferocity that’s really fresh.” Another star, Warren Beatty, has hailed Drabinsky as “the most astute person in exhibition that I have spoken to.”

And now, by integrating exhibition with production and distribution, Drabinsky has helped realign Hollywood’s power structure. “He’s seen as a tremendous shot in the arm for the industry,” said David Puttnam, who last week resigned as president of Columbia Pictures. “In our industry, as in most, vertical integration is the way to go.” Puttnam, who discussed future plans with Drabinsky last week in Toronto, noted that Hollywood’s “perceptions of Garth have shifted. Eighteen months ago he was seen as a transient force. Now he’s a very important figure.”

But unlike his Hollywood colleagues, Drabinsky faces a special dilemma. On the one hand, he loudly champions the cause of independent Canadian film production. On the other, he has strong and binding loyalties to Hollywood’s major studios, which have a virtual monopoly over the nation’s movie distribution. Communications Minister Flora MacDonald recently proposed legislation that would force the major studios to allot a larger share of film and video distribution to Canadian companies. The idea excited local producers, but aroused outright hostility in Hollywood. And in the heat of free trade talks, the legislation has been indefinitely delayed. “It’s like D-Day,” said an aide to MacDonald. “The troops are in the boats, and we’re all waiting to see if the weather is clear enough for us to hit the beaches. But the matter is out of our hands.”

If Drabinsky’s view prevails, the boats may never set sail. In his speech

to 500 delegates at the Toronto trade forum, he bluntly rejected MacDonald’s proposal as “too draconian.” Then, to sweeten the medicine of his message, Drabinsky painstakingly detailed a new tax-deduction system for Canadian film producers. Drabinsky had already discussed it with Communications and Finance ministry officials in Ottawa, where he claims “it was very well received.” As Toronto festival director Helga Stephenson has observed: “Garth has always worked with the government. And the government has always come up with policies that helped him.” Drabinsky promotes himself and his ideas with Olympian self-confidence. Last month Montreal’s World Film Festival presented him with a special “Renaissance Man of Film Award” at a $50-a-plate luncheon organized by Drabinsky’s own staff. About 600 industry insiders dutifully paid homage to a man acutely conscious of his place in history. In accepting his award, Drabinsky declared that he stood “in direct line with the remarkable designers and builders” of ancient Greek amphitheatres. Regrettably, he added, “the great impresarios” have not been remembered along with the playwrights whose works they staged, Sophocles and Euripedes.

Gruff: The phalanx of head table guests testifying to Drabinsky’s accomplishments was impressive. Among them: Columbia’s Puttnam, MCA president Sidney Sheinberg and Donald Kehoe, CEO of Coca-Cola Ltd.—which owns two per cent of Cineplex and controls Columbia—as well as actor Michael Caine, director Norman Jewison and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. “It was not a typical Hollywood gathering,” Drabinsky observed later. “It was peppered with erudite individuals. Even the Hollywood people there were men of substance.” Sitting next to Trudeau at the head table, Drabinsky urged him to make a political comeback: “It would be like Ivanhoe returning triumphant on a white horse. I told him, ‘You’ve got to use my expression, carpe diem—seize the day.’ ”

Currently, Drabinsky seems to enjoy the occasional dash of Latin. He used it when he took the podium at the Toronto festival, opening his remarks to the industry with the gruff challenge “Quo vadis?” (Where are you going?) But the ancient maxim sounded more colloquial than classical in Drabinsky’s tough-guy accent. It is the diction of a carnivorous deal-maker who bites off his words and chews them thoroughly before spitting them out—of a man who has fought his way to the top.

Garth Howard Drabinsky was born in Toronto in 1948, the eldest of three sons. His father, a professional engi-

neer, ran a modest air-conditioning installation business. Both his parents are still alive and were proudly snapping pictures of their son at the Montreal tribute. At age 4, polio dramatically changed Garth’s life. He was placed in a hospital quarantine ward for two months. “There were about 150 kids,” he recalled, “three-quarters of them in iron lungs. And each day some

would be wheeled off as they died.” Drabinsky spent his childhood checking in and out of operating rooms. “The pain I was subjected to in surgery was indescribable,” he recalled. “I remember screaming at nurses, screaming for morphine. They had to wean me off the stuff. It was embarrassing, because whatever self-pride you had, you’re reduced to a shrivelling idiot. The ordeal,” Drabinsky added, “is probably the reason I’m so intolerant of people complaining over menial matters.” Champion: He underwent corrective surgery for five summers, returning to school each fall in a cast. Finally, he was able to walk without a brace, although he still has a pronounced limp. He compensated for his disability by becoming a hardworking competitor in high school. “I wasn’t winning any dance contests,” he said—but he was getting outstanding class marks, and acquiring a reputation as a debater and, generally, as a student leader. Later he studied commerce and finance at the University of Toronto, where he also met his wife, Pearl. Taking the direct approach, he simply walked up to her in the cafeteria one day and asked if she liked the music of Charles Aznavour. “I thought he was exceptionally mature,” recalls Pearl. “He was tremendously in-

terested in securities and the stock market.” They married in 1971.

Nausea: At Pearl’s urging, Drabinsky entered law school after two years as an undergraduate. There, he launched Impact, a national monthly cinema magazine, and later published a biweekly movie trade paper The Canadian Film Digest. After his call to the bar, Drabinsky set up a successful en-

tertainment law practice and authored a 1976 textbook titled Motion Pictures and the Arts in Canada: the Business and the Law, which still serves as a standard reference.

Next, putting his theories to the test, Drabinsky plunged into the heady world of Canadian film production and made an auspicious mark on a fledgling industry. He produced six movies, including The Silent Partner (1977), with

Christopher Plummer; The Changeling (1979), starring George C. Scott; and Tribute, for which Jack Lemmon received an Oscar nomination in 1981.

He also made a less successful stab at conquering Broadway. In 1978 he coproduced A Broadway Musical, a $1million venture which New York critics panned. Deciding to pull the plug after only one night, Drabinsky took a long

walk along rain-soaked streets from the theatre back to his hotel. “I had this tremendous nausea,” he recalled, “but the experience made me that much more determined that one day I would come back to New York—city of cultural consequence.” And he has: he now owns 19 movie houses in Manhattan, including the small but prestigious Carnegie Cinema.

Bankruptcy: Launching his silverscreen empire in 1979, Drabinsky cofounded Cineplex with veteran exhibitor Nathan Taylor. Together they pioneered the concept of multiscreen cinemas in Canada, starting with an 18-screen complex in Toronto’s Eaton Centre. Within two years the company had 111 screens across Canada. But exclusive deals between the major studios and the two dominant exhibitors—Famous Players Ltd. and Odeon Theatres—froze Cineplex out of the picture. That, combined with economic recession, drove the company to the brink of bankruptcy.

Putting his political instincts to work, Drabinsky mobilized a crusade against his competition. In 1983 he instigated a crackdown on the studios by the federal Combines Investigation Branch, forcing them to allow competitive bidding for movie exhibition rights

for the first time in three decades. “Drabinsky was willing to risk all,” said Lawson Hunter, then director of investigation for the branch. “By coming forward with documents and testimony, he did something that no one else in the industry was able or willing to do.”

Despite that breakthrough, Cineplex was still financially troubled. Drabinsky and his partner Myron Gottlieb (now the firm’s chief administrative officer) obtained $2.5 million from Cemp Investments Ltd., which is controlled by Seagram’s Bronfman family. At one point during preliminary discussions,

Drabinsky asked Senator Leo Kolber, then vice-chairman of Cemp, what he expected him to do. “I expect you to build the biggest entertainment corporation in the world,” Kolber said. Replied Drabinsky: “No small mandate.”

Edge: The injection of Bronfman gold financed Cineplex’s expansion, a remarkable corporate success story. Meanwhile, Drabinsky pursued his competitors with a vengeance. In a 1986 real estate deal,

Cineplex paid $4.5 million to capture half of Famous Players’ Imperial Theatre in Toronto.

Because Drabinsky controlled the access to their theatres, Famous Players was forced to shut down its half.

Last month Cineplex moved again, buying a $40-million property on Toronto’s fashionable Bloor St. that includes Famous Players’ old University Theatre. Although a contract clause forbids him to operate a cinema on that site, Drabinsky plans to open a

large six-theatre com-

plex that would serve as a new home for Toronto’s film festival—next door. Famous Players president Walter Senior questions the wisdom of such acquisitions. “It’s not healthy competition,” Senior said. “We all learn in school that when you set out to destroy someone, it becomes a weakness.” But Drabinsky says such manoeuvring “keeps us alert; it gives us our edge—and

there’s nothing wrong with that.” Drabinsky continues to acquire new properties, often in marathon negotiations behind locked doors. “I try whenever possible to live honor-bound to my commitments,” he says. “But the level of integrity at the table is very low. I go into a real estate negotiation and feel like I have to take a shower at the end of the meeting.”

He has become the new godfather of movie exhibition, a bold spoiler in an old boys’ game. He conducts the expansion of the Cineplex empire like a military campaign, commanding a staff of 13,500 that includes close to 100 theatre architects. And some of his veteran cohorts express an almost messianic level of loyalty.

Cineplex’s first employee was Lynda

Friendly, who has known Drabinsky since they attended synagogue together as teenagers. Now 37, Friendly is senior vice-president of marketing and communications, a lone female executive in a male-run industry. Style-conscious, expensively dressed, she serves as Drabinsky’s ambassador and organizer— the first lady of Cineplex-Odeon. She sits in on all of Drabinsky’s interviews.

And she organizes Cineplex’s splashy theatre openings, often flying to them with Drabinsky on the company jet.

Cult-like: Friendly says her boss sets a gruelling pace. If they arrive in a city after midnight to open a theatre the next day, he insists on visiting the theatre before checking into the hotel. “Garth is so bloody energetic,” she adds, “I don’t know how he does it. It’s mind over matter. He stretches people to their absolute limit. He is a teacher, a S mentor—a leader.” z Friendly’s corporate 3 loyalty is an easy target I for cynicism. When Sen| ator Kolber introduced Drabinsky at the Montreal tribute, he said that she made notes about her boss that “sounded like a description of the great man of Nazareth.” But Friendly displays equal enthusiasm in showing off carpet swatches for theatre lobbies. The devotion reflects an almost cult-like philosophy at Cineplex. In Drabinsky’s words: “This corporation has its own culture. When I interview a new employee,” he adds, “I make it clear: ‘This is a different company than you’ve ever been exposed to.’ ”

Drabinsky’s office in Cineplex-Odeon’s Toronto headquarters is a sprawling suite dominated by the fruits of his patronage. A sculpture by Saskatchewan artist Joe Fafard of the painter Vincent van Gogh—his ear lopped off and a palette in his hand— leers madly toward Drabinsky’s black granite desk. On the walls are large, vivid canvases, most of them abstract and all of them Canadian: Drabinsky owns one of the country’s largest pri-

vate collections of Canadian contemporary art, his paintings lining the corridors of Cineplex’s entire executive wing.

Imperial: Drabinsky has also commissioned almost $1 million worth of paintings for Cineplex theatre lobbies throughout North America, and a pair of massive canvases by Toronto’s Harold Town adorn the new Universal City complex in Los Angeles. “In all the old movie palaces,” said Drabinsky, “there were always important works of art, murals and frescoes.”

Decor is the icing on the cake of his renaissance in theatrical real estate. Drabinsky takes a keen interest in the design of his cinemas. In choosing colors for the Cineplex logo, he decided on a combination of imperial purple and fuschia. “I felt this would be more of a bravado kind of statement,” he said. “I don’t think anyone was ready for that.” And the corporate logo itself hearkens back to the curved bowl of the Greek amphitheatre, “a logo,” he added, “that will last for years.”

How long Drabinsky can sustain his relentless pace is another question. Commuting by jet to business meetings, theatre openings and speeches, he

spends more time on the road than at home. “I never totally unwind,” he says. “I’ve come close a couple of times in the past 10 years. But I’ve never spoken to a successful businessman who has made it from a zero-base position without sacrifices along the way.”

Drabinsky’s wife, Pearl, a 40-year-old former French teacher, sips coffee in the living room of their Toronto home. The brick house—which her husband rarely has time to enjoy—is a renovated paradise with a gallery of art on the

walls, cathedral ceilings, curved balustrades and a rear window that overlooks a swimming pool and a ravine. Gracious and charming, Pearl seems to have none of her husband’s aggressive edge. “When one person is so immersed,” she says, “the other can’t be like that. Somebody has to take over home and hearth.”

Legend: Pearl says that her husband is a devoted father—and protective of the privacy of their two children, aged 12 and 9. But his absences mean she often serves as both mother and father. Their marriage, she acknowledges, “is not a picnic, but after 16 years our relationship hasn’t changed.” However, her

husband’s image as a callous entrepreneur bothers her. “He has taken a lot of flak for being successful,” she says.

Meanwhile, Drabinsky shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he is sometimes touted as a candidate for Sheinberg’s job as MCA president, if and when Sheinberg replaces the conglomerate’s ailing chairman, Lew Wasserman. Drabinsky disclaims any such ambition, but Columbia’s Puttnam said, “I would assume at the end of the day that he would find it irresistible.”

Unapologetic ambition finds more fa-

vor in the United States than Canada. And Drabinsky acknowledges that his style “is un-Canadian in many ways— the philosophy that we’re going to make it happen today, not tomorrow.” Carpe diem remains the key to his legend—a legend that few appreciate more fully than Drabinsky himself. “It’s a fascinating story,” he says, reflecting on his life with a sense of genuine wonder—as if it too were a theatrical property that he might eventually project on the big screen.