Can a Brash Executive in Kansas Save Movie Theaters?

Most of the time, the 116-year-old movie theater business is rather humdrum.

Tickets get sold. Images get projected onto screens, sometimes in 3-D. Every now and then, change-phobic cinema operators get excited about an innovation. The armrest cup holder, for instance, was patented in 1981.

But these are not normal times at movie houses. Just ask Adam Aron.

A year ago, Mr. Aron, who runs AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest multiplex chain, was feeling unusually invigorated about his antiquated industry. Even with streaming services proliferating — and attendance in North America declining — cinemas worldwide collected $42.5 billion in 2019, a record high. “We see dramatic growth in the size of the domestic box office not so far away,” he said with flourish in late February.

By mid-March, the coronavirus had forced Mr. Aron to furlough 35,000 workers, including himself, and close every AMC theater: 10,700 screens in 15 countries. As the coronavirus surged and retreated and resurged, AMC reopened most of its theaters, re-closed many of them and, lately, started to reopen some of them again. To keep the debt-saddled chain alive, Mr. Aron and his chief financial officer, Sean Goodman, who joined AMC just a couple of months before the crisis, have done financial back flips, narrowly averting bankruptcy four times in nine months. AMC has raised more than $1 billion in fits and starts and has secured another $1 billion or so in rent deferrals from landlords.

It has been one of the wildest corporate rides of the pandemic, which has severely tested chief executives everywhere. And it is not over yet.

With some film studios now predicting that moviegoing will not begin to recover until midsummer — and postponing releases yet again as a result — Mr. Aron has said AMC needs to raise another $750 million to squeak through. So far, AMC has raised $204 million toward that goal. AMC said in a recent securities filing that, without added cash, liquidation or bankruptcy restructuring was “likely.” One potential new lifeline involves a financing package tied to Odeon, a European theater chain owned by AMC.

“Many have repeatedly underestimated the sheer will of our management to power through this crisis,” Mr. Aron said in an interview, adding a bit of the droll brashness that is his trademark: “We have not yet begun to fight!”

The pandemic has also thrust Mr. Aron, 66, to the front lines of the streaming wars, where, over the past six months, his industry has blasted him as a traitor one minute and followed him as a trailblazer the next.

Mr. Aron, a relative newcomer to the multiplex business, broke ranks with other chains in July and agreed to drastically shorten the exclusive window that AMC receives to play Universal films. The studio, home to the “Despicable Me” and “Fast and Furious” franchises, now has the right to make movies available in homes through premium video on demand after just 17 days in AMC theaters — down from roughly 90 days, long the industry norm. In return, Universal agreed, for the first time, to share a portion of the premium on-demand revenue with AMC.

Mooky Greidinger, who owns Regal Cinemas, the No. 2 chain in North America, dismissed Mr. Aron’s deal as “the wrong move at the wrong time” in an August interview. He cited the usual reason: People will be reluctant to buy tickets if they can see the same film on their living room television set or iPhone screen just a few weeks later.

“This is not a business that you are shaking up that easily,” said Mr. Greidinger, whose family has operated cinemas since the 1930s.

Consider it shaken: Regal is now in talks with Universal for a similar arrangement, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations. Two other chains, Cinemark Holdings and Cineplex, have already followed AMC.

Given the initial blowback, Mr. Aron should be taking a victory lap. Instead, he has found himself back on the defensive.

Mr. Aron has been sparring with Warner Bros., which is owned by AT&T, over streaming. Warner recently vowed to release 17 coming films without giving theaters any exclusive play time — or any financial sweeteners. To play a Warner film with no exclusivity, AMC initially demanded up to 80 percent of revenue from ticket sales, according to two people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks. Warner rejected that request.

Ticket sales are typically split 50-50 between studios and theaters.

The two sides struck a deal for at least one film on Thursday, with AMC beginning to sell tickets for “The Little Things,” a Denzel Washington crime thriller that Warner will release on Jan. 29 in theaters and on HBO Max. AMC declined to comment. Warner did not respond to a query.

Even if he does manage to steer AMC through the pandemic, Mr. Aron faces bone-chilling challenges on the other side. At best, the company will emerge deep in debt. Moviegoing could surge with pent-up demand. Or the masses, now trained to expect instant access to major films on streaming services or online rental platforms, could be reluctant to return. Nobody really knows.

How much fight does Mr. Aron really have left in him?

Darryl Hartley-Leonard, who ran the Hyatt Hotel Corporation in the 1980s when Mr. Aron served as chief marketing officer, laughed when asked that question.

“Let me explain Adam to you this way,” Mr. Hartley-Leonard said. “Had he been the band leader on the Titanic, not only would he have gone down with the ship, he would have looked over the side as the dark, icy water got closer and asked, ‘Do you think we have time to write another song?’”

Adam Maximilian Aron is not well known in Hollywood. He lives in a distant land called Kansas, where AMC is based, and arrived at AMC in January 2016 by way of the hotel business.

After breezing through Harvard University in three years and earning his M.B.A. (also from Harvard, with distinction), he went to work for Pan American World Airways in the marketing department. In his early 30s, he became Hyatt’s marketing chief and subsequently held the same job at United Airlines. Then he began making a name for himself as a turnaround artist, serving as the chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Line, Vail Resorts and the Philadelphia 76ers. For a time, he was a senior operating partner at Apollo Global Management, the private-equity powerhouse. Before AMC, Mr. Aron ran Starwood Hotels.

He can be marvelously blunt. “The quarter was simply a bust,” Mr. Aron told AMC analysts in 2017. More often than not, however, he drifts into monologues and voluminous lists. “Before turning to your questions, I’d like to comment on eight important specific topics,” he said on AMC’s most-recent earnings call. Bad puns delight him, as do folksy interjections. (“Whoa, Nelly!”) He has a tendency to grandstand, quoting, for instance, a wartime Winston Churchill to sum up AMC’s pandemic mind-set. “We shall fight on the beaches,” Mr. Aron told analysts with flourish in November. “We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight on the fields and in the streets.”

Mr. Aron is usually one of the more colorful attendees at the annual National Association of Theater Owners convention in Las Vegas. One year, citing a bad knee, he zipped around Caesars Palace on a Rascal mobility scooter. Another time, he made his staid competitors reach for their smelling salts by brainstorming — in front of reporters — ways to reverse a worrisome decline in young ticket buyers.

What about allowing smartphone use in the back of certain auditoriums?

What about exploring dynamic pricing for tickets (the way airlines do it)? Or selling subscriptions (a certain number of screenings for a flat monthly price) like MoviePass was doing?

“Adam has never been interested in just running a company,” Mr. Hartley-Leonard said. “He has always wanted to change an industry — to challenge that lazy, this-is-how-we-have-always-done-it mentality that can settle in.”

Excoriated for the smartphone idea, Mr. Aron quickly dropped it. But he pressed forward with the contentious notion of subscriptions: For $23.95 a month, AMC Stubs A-List members can see up to three movies a week at any location.

Tapping his experience with hotel and airline loyalty programs (he created Pan Am’s frequent-flier program in 1982), Mr. Aron improved AMC’s version, Stubs, which has 25 million members, up from two million in 2016. He also moved AMC into the video-on-demand business by starting an iTunes-style online store.

“In terms of innovation, Adam has done a great job,” said Eric Wold, a senior analyst at B. Riley Securities.

Even so, Mr. Wold noted, AMC shares have struggled. The company’s market capitalization in March, just as the pandemic started, was $780 million. It was $2.2 billion when Mr. Aron arrived.

AMC shares hit a 52-week low of $1.91 on Jan. 5, down 45 percent from a month earlier, when Warner announced its streaming plans. Shares were trading at about $2.90 on Friday.

“You are painted by the stock price as chief executive, and by that measure his tenure has not been strong,” Mr. Wold said. “If he can steer them out of this current nightmare, of course, that changes everything.”

In some ways, Mr. Aron is trying to push a boulder up a hill. Moviegoing is growing overseas — AMC has been making inroads in Saudi Arabia — but attendance in North America, the world’s No. 1 movie market, has been weakening for nearly two decades. Admissions in North America peaked at 1.6 billion in 2002.

The thrill of big screens and super-salty popcorn has been undercut by fancy home theater systems. Shopping malls, which house many theaters, have fallen out of favor. Some people complain about sticky theater floors and disruptive patrons. Others say moviegoing has become too expensive — concessions, tickets, babysitters — especially given the growing array of low-cost, at-home entertainment options that are already part of a household’s budget. Disney+ subscriptions are $7 a month. A single trip to a theater to see a Disney film for a family of four would run $50-plus (not including snacks) in bigger cities.

AMC entered the pandemic with pre-existing conditions, including considerable debt, the result of a modernization campaign that started in 2012 when Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate, bought AMC from a group of private equity companies. It began to replace worn seats with La-Z-Boy-style recliners; install enhanced projection and sound systems; and experiment with alcohol sales.

Mr. Aron supercharged the initiative. The strategy: Find ways to raise prices for existing customers and, hopefully, win some new ones.

He also went on a shopping spree, paying $3.3 billion to buy several competing chains and transforming AMC into the world’s largest cinema company.

But the spending added up.

AMC had $4.8 billion in debt when the pandemic started, up from $1.9 billion when Mr. Aron arrived in 2016. Debt now totals $5.5 billion — not including rent payments that have been deferred during the pandemic — a colossal sum for a company that generated $5.5 billion a year in revenue when running as normal.

“Go back to the Jack Welch school of management,” Mr. Aron said when asked if his acquisitions made sense in retrospect, referring to the fabled General Electric leader. “You pick up economies of scale, and being No. 1 gives you other enormous advantages, including, in our case, negotiating with studios from a place of greater strength.”

Mr. Aron will need all the negotiating leverage that he can get. Most of the conglomerates that own movie studios are downsizing their theatrical slates and routing more movies toward their own streaming services, which need exclusive content to grow. This paradigm shift is one reason that Mr. Aron engaged with Universal about shorter exclusivity periods.

“Some of my competitors, the ones caught up in the past, are saying that I’m the worst human being alive on the planet,” Mr. Aron said shortly after announcing the Universal deal. “But sometimes you have to stare change in the face, recognize that it has or soon will arrive, and reshape it to one’s own benefit.”

Has the conservativeness of the multiplex business surprised him?

“It’s shocking actually,” he said. “Shocking.”

Challenging the status quo — and upsetting competitors in the process — is the thread that extends through Mr. Aron’s career. “What separates successful leaders from unsuccessful leaders is boldness, and I have always tried to be the opposite of timid, to fundamentally change a company or an industry for the better,” he said.

When he was running Norwegian in the early 1990s, Mr. Aron made waves in the conservative cruise industry with a marketing campaign about sex. (One tagline: “There’s no law that says you can’t make love at four in the afternoon on a Tuesday.”) When he arrived at Vail Resorts in 1996, he outraged traditionalists in what was then a stubbornly static business by dramatically expanding the company beyond skiing. He bought other winter resorts and a chain of luxury hotels; opened dozens of restaurants and retail stores; and plunged into condo development. By the time he left Vail in 2006, competitors were copying his strategy.

“Instead of sitting around whining, Adam says: ‘These are our cards. How the hell are we going to play ’em?’” said Harry Frampton, a major Colorado real estate developer. “Anytime that happens, you make a couple of people mad along the way.”

“Vail was tired around the edges, and Adam’s approach — it’s not just about skiing — was transformative,” Mr. Frampton added. “He called it the Vail Renaissance, which I thought was silly branding at the time. But I was wrong.”

Time will tell whether the movie theater industry comes to view Mr. Aron the same way. If nothing else, his tenacity in avoiding bankruptcy has certainly been noticed.

“During this crisis, Adam has been like Houdini,” said Richard L. Gelfond, the chief executive of Imax. “Every time I start to doubt that he can do something, he somehow pulls off another magic trick.”

For his part, Mr. Aron is optimistic that AMC, founded in 1920 and standing for America Multi-Cinema, will find the needed rescue funding and enjoy a “renaissance” as people emerge from the pandemic.

“If you want to know my mood, I’m very encouraged that multiple vaccines are rolling out globally,” he said. “To use a bad pun, it’s a real shot in the arm.”

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