'M' is for movies - and Joe Moodabe

By John Drinnan

Joe Moodabe is stepping down from day-to-day control of New Zealand's biggest cinema chain but says he will still get to do "the fun stuff".

SkyCity's decision last July to buy Australian entertainment company Village's half of the business has been a milestone for the general manager.

With the chain now wholly owned by SkyCity and renamed SkyCity Cinemas, PricewaterhouseCoopers Sydney media partner Matthew Liebmann has been appointed general manager.

SkyCity chief executive Evan Davies announced last month that Moodabe is to be executive chairman of a new in-house board that will oversee developments in the cinema business.

Moodabe says the move is part of the succession plan he started discussing with the SkyCity-Village joint venture 12 months ago.

In his new role he will continue to programme the 120 screens in the chain and the 26 new screens being developed between now and the end of next year, and will also examine technological developments.

"What it also means is that I will be able to concentrate on all the fun parts like programming - the things that have make this job so great."

Moodabe has a reputation as a passionate negotiator who is not shy about making his views known, whether in union pay talks or in discussions with his own board.

He says he has watched five movies a week for most of his life. While running the SkyCity chain he has always kept one foot firmly in the camp of the film enthusiasts, albeit with a sharp eye for the bottom line.

Certainly his dress sense has not always fitted his corporate role.

Eyebrows were raised, for instance, when SkyCity joined Village in the cinema joint venture three years ago and Moodabe arrived at business meetings wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

"I think the SkyCity people thought I was an eccentric, but they got used to me. This is who I am," he says, dressed in a T-shirt promoting a coming movie.

Moodabe was once a fierce critic of New Zealand films as too often grim and unpalatable. But two years ago he joined Eric Watson to became that rare thing - a private investor in the New Zealand film production industry.

He put his own cash - he won't say how much - into the feelgood buddy movie Sione's Wedding, made by his friend John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures.

It took $4 million at the local box office and he is understood to have emerged without losing any money.

"I just loved the script and told John that if he needed extra cash to come back. He did and I put my money where my mouth was."

But it was his first and probably last excursion into film finance - he says it is too risky for him.

Announcing Joe Moodabe's new role, Evan Davies said SkyCity did not want to lose the experience of someone whose name was synonymous with the business.

But the legacy of the Moodabe name goes beyond Joe and his two brothers, Royce and Michael, who played key roles in the Amalgamated chain for decades and separately went on to run 20th Century Fox interests in New Zealand.

It goes back 81 years to their father, Mike Moodabe, who got his first job in cinemas in 1925 and formed Amalgamated, which dominated the New Zealand cinema industry with Kerridge-Odeon for several decades.

Royce snr started as a cleaner at the Hippodrome Theatre in Queen St and was invited into the business and married Joe's mother, Alma, who took tickets. The family folklore would tell Alma to "slow down and create a queue" so passers-by would see a big line and think it was a popular movie.

Moodabe said that when 20th Century Fox bought the chain in the early 1950s, it insisted that the Moodabes remain as managers.

The family travelled each year to head office in the United States, where Moodabe had a close relationship with the long-time head of the Fox studios.

Fox sold out and the chain went to the publicly listed Chase Corporation and then to Hoyts.

Moodabe said he was coaxed from the legacy of Amalgamated in 1997 when Force Corporation's Peter Francis hired him as managing director for its joint venture Village Force Cinemas. SkyCity bought out Village Force in 2001 to form Village SkyCity Cinemas and in July this year Sky took 100 per cent of the chain.

Moodabe says one of the most important decisions for the chain was the merger of Village Force with Rialto Cinemas, with Rialto later selling its stake to Reading Cinemas.

Until then the chain focused on big Hollywood movies while smaller arthouse movies were more common at Rialto.

"It meant that we had two different arms to the company. Rialto was spreading to the same places we were and by the time it came to looking at Dunedin it was clear that the market there could not support us both. I said to Force that the best option was for the two companies to merge."

The Rialto merger also gave the chain the status of being nationwide where it had traditionally been focused north of Taupo and that helped in negotiating deals to show movies.

Moodabe sees big challenges ahead for cinema, not the least from pirating of movies. Outside work, he is known for his active social life and is an inveterate traveller with his partner, public relations consultant Aline Sandilands.

The social whirl is not something he seeks out, "but yes, I do enjoy that side of life".

Film facts

* Age 69.

* Longtime partner Aline Sandilands.

* Three children aged in their 30s and 40s.

* Father Mike Moodabe was a showman entrepreneur who formed New Zealand's first cinema chain.

* Held key management positions in Amalgamated Cinemas from the 60s to the 80s with brothers Royce and Michael.

* Headhunted in 1997 from Hoyts to Village Force Cinemas, which he built it into the country's biggest cinema chain.

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