Joe "Mr Movie" Moodabe, who died this week aged 82, saw at least seven films a week and had a prophetic knack for estimating their box office fortunes in every pocket of New Zealand.

"That film would do well in Manukau," Moodabe's partner of 27 years, Aline Sandilands, recalls he would say.

"Then he'd trot out how many millions he thought it would take. He would know what would play well in one cinema and not play well in another."

It was a useful skill for a man who over his five decades immersed in the Kiwi film industry had been chief executive of both rival major cinema chains: Hoyts and Village [now Event Cinemas].


Moodabe was born into the movie cinema business in Auckland in 1937.

His father Michael and his uncle Joe started New Zealand's first cinema chain, Amalgamated Theatres, in 1928 - which was the legacy chain of what became Hoyts cinemas today.

Joe Moodabe went straight into the family business after graduation from St Peter's College, Auckland, where he was Head Boy, along with his two brothers, Royce and Michael.

In his programming heyday from the 1970s to the 1990s, Moodabe was responsible for choosing about 70 per cent of the films playing on screens across New Zealand.

"All the distributors would wait to see what Joe thought of the movie. So they'd bring in a movie, obviously have high hopes, and wait until Joe saw it," Sandilands says.

"Because for many many years, for decades, he was the arbiter, weather vane, of how a movie would do."

Joe Moodabe with his partner of the last 27 years Aline Sandilands.
Joe Moodabe with his partner of the last 27 years Aline Sandilands.

Moodabe built many of New Zealand's multiplexes, pioneered gold-class seating and helped grow the Rialto art house circuit of cinemas.

In 1997, Moodabe was coaxed from Amalgamated/Hoyts to Village cinemas - which then began a long-running joint venture with SkyCity cinemas in 2000.


His relaxed corporate style during these years reportedly raised some eyebrows.

At the merger meeting between SkyCity and Village, Moodabe arrived 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," Moodabe told the Herald in 2006.

Moodabe was once a fierce critic of New Zealand films as being too often grim and unpalatable, but in 2004 he became a private investor in the New Zealand film production industry for the only time in his life.

He put his own cash into the feel-good 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 Moodabe emerged financially unscathed, although he afterwards said producing was too risky for him.

Former Wellington Mayor Fran Wilde dubbed him "Mr Movie" during the 90s, and the title stuck as Moodabe regularly commented on radio and TV on what's hot, and what's not, across Kiwi cinema screens.

"He had a little theatre attached to his offices and every day at 3 o'clock he would go in and see a movie, and quite often at night we'd see another movie," Sandilands says.

"He was very passionate about movies, he would always argue. The thing I find extraordinary is that every single day he saw a movie he would go to it with a positive sense of anticipation.

"Disney was always inviting us to New York to see their latest stuff. Or we'd go to LA premieres. It was great, it was a wonderful life."

Joe Moodabe held key management positions in Amalgamated Cinemas, NZ's first cinema chain, from the 60s to the 80s with brothers Royce and Michael. Photo / Supplied
Joe Moodabe held key management positions in Amalgamated Cinemas, NZ's first cinema chain, from the 60s to the 80s with brothers Royce and Michael. Photo / Supplied

His film industry friend and colleague John Barnett said Moodabe "has been the man behind New Zealand's cinema business for almost all of his life".

"He could remember the plots and players of most of the 14,000 movies he's seen so far – and probably has a T-shirt or cap for most of them."

In 2005, his services to the cinema industry and to the community at large were recognised when he became an Officer of the Order of New Zealand.

But despite his immersive passion for cinema, Moodabe's lust for living extended across many fields - along with a particular penchant for whisky and cigars

"Life was all about living to Joe," Sandilands says.

"This is no joke. He would often say he would never buy a lottery ticket because he didn't know how he could be happier than he was. And he never did."

Moodabe also spent an "inordinate" amount playing and consuming sport - with most workday lunches spent on the tennis court, and weekends on the golf course.

His weekly men's bridge group lasted 45 years.

A passion for travelling also regularly saw Moodabe and Sandilands in Cuba, New Orleans, Hawaii and France.

His social conscience and generosity was also renowned.

Moodabe raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities Variety - of which he was chair for several years - Starship Hospital and the Breast Cancer Foundation.

Playwright and friend Roger Hall described Moodabe as "one of the most generous of bidders at any charity auction I've attended".

Joe Moodabe died from complications of a neurological condition on December 8. He leaves a partner, Sandilands, three children, nine grandchildren and one great grandson.