CT interviews Andrew Cripps, a studio exec with a passion for the industry, a positive approach to the future, and a truly international outlook.
Words: Melissa Cogavin
Few studio executives have enjoyed the breadth of experience and responsibility as has Andrew Cripps. His new role as president of international distribution at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles has been the fourth multinational in three continents over a career in entertainment that spans three decades. Ground-breaking technological changes have occurred during that time and I wanted to know what he had learned. Is the digitisation of cinema the most seismic change in our industry? Andrew explained, “It’s broader than digitisation. Yes that’s easy to say but looking back over 30 years, the biggest changes have come as a result of the Internet and the availability of real-time information. In fact, I can’t believe now that we ever found a way to work without it.
“When I first moved to UIP in London we had a call every Monday at 2.45pm with Lew Wasserman in the US. I’d take that call when my boss was not available and it was a 10-15 minute catch-up every week, discussing box office activity of the previous weekend. We managed to discuss an entire weekend’s business in one call. That would be it.
“Now we have information on trailers immediately, box office results on the hour, every hour. Reporting, analysing and distribution have all changed because of immediate, real-time communication made possible by the internet.”
The slow march to progress
When you consider it like that, digitisation seems small fry now but many of us remember how seismic and glacial it appeared at the time. “Digitisation took a significant period of time to get going,” notes Andrew, “but you have to remember that the movie business hadn’t really changed in 100 years. I was in London working for Paramount, and committees in the US setting standards drove digitisation. I was implementing agreements then with exhibitors over multiple continents. Because the VPF concept rolled out over many years, the process of digitisation dragged on.”
I asked whether Andrew and his colleagues came up against resistance amongst exhibitors during this time? “The bulk of customers embraced it, though some went kicking and screaming, but eventually gave in. If they didn’t they had to pay for the equipment themselves — there was a certain timeframe and after that they were on their own.” Andrew added, “I think exhibitors now see that there are a lot of corollary benefits to digitisation, not least access to event cinema. Where there was resistance, it has caught up now on the marketing side; how we approach consumers has changed with the times as well.”
The challenge of change
Over the course of Andrew’s career at four multinationals, what were the biggest obstacles for him, charged with steering these companies into the 21st century? “Embracing change has been a big issue, especially in an industry where there are a lot of long-timers; people stay in this industry and don’t tend to leave it.” Arguably a testament to a great sector surely? “Well yes,” he admitted, “but during the digitisation period especially there were a lot of people that had a long history of doing something in a particular way and it was difficult to change their practices.
“Some are very progressive, others stuck in their ways. I would say that getting people to understand there are economical, better ways of doing things has been an obstacle at times”, he added, somewhat diplomatically.
“But change is good, it’s necessary, especially in an industry with a history as long as ours. Market forces dictate change of course,” Andrew explained. “The ‘premiumisation’ of cinemas has had to happen to differentiate it from the experience of staying home to watch Netflix. We offer a premium night out, and people are embracing this concept in large numbers; it’s not cheap but it’s special.”
Andrew’s grasp of the complexities of the international market will have set him apart from other studio execs who perhaps haven’t spent as long overseas; I was interested in how that had affected his outlook. “I grew up in Japan; I went there when I was a year old and speak fluent Japanese. I got my first job at Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment in Tokyo, and that opened a lot of doors for me. I went onto UIP as a management trainee, which I got because I was used to working in Japan. This is important as living there is a difficult transition to make for westerners, but for me it was home. I was already used to Japan’s consensus-building management style, among other things. This job led to my role as assistant to the GM of UIP Japan before I moved to UIP in Hong Kong running SE ASIA for UIP.
A positive future
Given that he has had such life experience, what, I wondered, has surprised Andrew about this industry that he wouldn’t have seen coming? “I am constantly surprised by how long people work in this industry. Including myself. People love it. It’s a small community especially on the international side, and people move around but they don’t leave, which speaks volumes about the nature of the sector.“
This led to a broader discussion about the future of the industry and we considered where the consumption of media was heading, and how the world might look in 10 years’ time. Andrew was optimistic, which was a tonic given the onslaught of bad news we are faced with daily. “We’ve had a great summer. Box office was up by 10% in the US so far this year”. Considering Europe was frying in temperatures of 40 degrees in a year that rivalled the summer of ‘76, that was a surprise; Andrew explained, “I know, but I put it down to exhibitors, who understand their customers better. The cinema is offering people something they don’t get at home. “ [Including air conditioning! — Ed]. He continued, “Yes we have premiumisation, but we are finding recliner seating is appealing, and mobile ticketing technology is aiding the customer journey more than ever. Catering is improving. I think in the future we’ll see fewer theatres, which is sad, but they will be better theatres. Cream rises to the top. Competition is a good thing.
Revolutionising the customer journey
The nature of the world is changing throughout the entire customer journey, as Andrew recognises: “There are opportunities for growth with mobile technology as well; in China 90% of tickets are now bought online via mobile technology, compared to 20-25% in the UK and USA.” This represents a massive opportunity for improvement where the number of clicks from enquiry-to-purchase online is still frustratingly high and the customer loss rate unacceptable. It seems inevitable that improvements will be made in this area, so the industry is now operating firmly with the future in its sights. Prior to the internet, that didn’t happen.
Bring back movie palaces!
Andrew’s long career has seen tumultuous shifts across the industry technically, politically, culturally and economically. People who survive and thrive as he has tend to be positive, agile and unafraid of embracing change. But is he nostalgic for the past? Is there anything in particular that he would like to bring back again?
“We’re in a very good place and the future is bright and optimistic — as long as people invest in cinema. I miss those big fantastic movie palaces, and the 1980s selection process was very specific. We tailored the film’s release according to the actual theatre, the number of seats, the atmosphere of the building itself. For some films we would have to book a theatre months in advance. Multiplexes are commercially successful of course but… times have changed a lot.”
Andrew Cripps, President International Distribution at 20th Century
For Andrew Cripps, a new role at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles sees him at his fourth multi-national across three continents during a career in entertainment that spans three decades.
Andrew on…. his career
“I’ve been very fortunate, very lucky, working for progressive multinationals. I don’t think I would change anything really. Working internationally has been incredibly exhilarating and exciting, and watching the shifting studio mind-sets as we have begun to concentrate on the international market more and more has been fascinating. Only 15 years ago the focus was entirely on the Domestic (US) market. These days the box office split is around 70/30 in favour of the international market and it reflects significantly on what movies we make. “
Andrew on…. digitisation
“Avatar” was the catalyst for digitisation, and the 3D movement pioneered by Jeffrey Katzenberg was rooted in an effort to curtail piracy. 3D never took off as Katzenberg and the industry had hoped. I can recall attempts at hurriedly and retroactively converting 2D to 3D in post-production with predictably shocking results, so I wondered from Andrew’s perspective what technical challenges are around the corner and what future-proofing could be put into place? “You’re right about the 3D movement back then. The industry did itself a disservice by putting out films that should have never been 3D. Light levels weren’t great and overall it wasn’t a good consumer experience.”
How has that affected things? Andrew felt that lessons have been learned though they were hard lessons and have affected confidence and attendance at the box office. “We are reaping the lack of that now, so as far as the future is concerned, now we have better sound, recliner chairs… it comes down to comfort and convenience, really good sight and sound. We have laser projection, proper light levels, vivid colours, amazing contrast levels.
“Over 2 hours, with proper light levels, and comfortable seating, it’s a far better experience. You’re more likely to come back if you’ve had a good time and the whole package works.”
Playing devil’s advocate I wondered if the average cinema-goer would really care about these technical improvements; are we in something of an echo chamber and don’t realise the man on the street is none the wiser? Andrew reminded me we were future-proofing the industry.