Caribbean Strong: Robert Carrady brings his cinemas back from a historic hurricane season

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A report by Kevin Lally for Film Journal.

CinemaCon will honor Caribbean Cinemas president Robert Carrady with its 2018 “Career Achievement in Exhibition Award,” and though it’s a career honor, the last seven months have been a special test of his abilities as a leader. As we all know, the devastating Hurricane Maria struck Carrady’s home base in Puerto Rico in mid-September, and 16% of the island was still without power as of early March.

“It was very bad,” Carrady recalls. “It was shocking, in that the first weekend after the hurricane we had 33 theatres closed—all 31 in Puerto Rico, plus our theatres in Saint Thomas and Saint Martin, which had closed two weeks before Maria because of Hurricane Irma. I remember the first weekend after the storm—and what do we do after the weekend? We check grosses. But I couldn’t even relate—it was such an out-of-body experience that I could not even think about looking at the domestic grosses that weekend. It didn’t mean anything—what’s the purpose of looking?

“Finally, when I was getting ready to leave for ShowEast toward the end of October, I felt we were turning a corner. For the first two weeks after the storm, it was total chaos—we could not get anything done. We were fortunate in that some of our theatres have emergency generators, which is not typical of the United States at all or of Puerto Rico—it’s completely business as usual in the Dominican Republic and our other Caribbean locations. Every time you build a theatre or you’re in a mall in any of those locations, you know you’ll have an emergency backup generator. Puerto Rico’s not that way. We were fortunate that we had four theatres with backup generators, so by the second weekend we were able to get up and operating again. And since people had no electricity and therefore no television at home, they were running to the few theatres we had open. We were also fortunate because the generators were in the San Juan area, and San Juan being so large, it was actually very behind in getting power back. Yet the perimeter of the island started to get power back by the second weekend, so we could operate in our sub-markets. That was good, because then we had a balance.”

It took until the end of December for the last of the shuttered Puerto Rico theatres to reopen. “In Saint Thomas we did not open until February 8th,” Carrady reports. “And in Saint Martin we will not reopen until end of April or early May—that’s because there was so much structural damage. In both theatres we’ve had to replace the chairs completely.”

Carrady is proud of the employees who helped get his cinemas up and running again. “Our entire team, even though they didn’t have power and water in their homes, they were there at work. It was important to them to see where their livelihood comes from get rebuilt. Theatre managers, assistant managers, floor people—they were there to get the theatres reopened. Everybody rose to the occasion. When you have a crisis, you just respond—you do what you gotta do. You can’t imagine going through something like this, but then when you do, you just deal with it. We’re fortunate that we’re a local company, and therefore our boots were on the ground immediately.” Carrady also gives thanks to the Will Rogers Foundation for its aid to Caribbean employees following the catastrophe.

Remarkably, the crisis only caused slight delays in the circuit’s expansion schedule. “Right now we have one theatre that we began construction on prior to the storm, and by the end of the third quarter of this year we will open this brand-new 11-plex in the San Juan area with an IMAX, a 4DX and a CXC, our PLF [premium large format] brand. And we’re getting ready to do a conversion of a 20-year-old theatre in San Juan and make it a luxury nine-plex. We have continued to stay active. We committed to opening up a 4DX in Trinidad before Christmas, and even though the storm hit our main headquarters in Puerto Rico, we opened this 4DX screen on time for Star Wars.”

Carrady is also focused on preparation for future storms. “For the next hurricane season we have an initiative to have at least 15 theatres with emergency generators, geographically spread throughout the island,” he notes.

Caribbean Cinemas is the largest theatre circuit in the Caribbean, with 492 screens at 59 locations in 13 territories. The company was founded in 1969 by Robert Carrady’s father. Victor. “I literally grew up in this business, since I was a kid,” Robert recalls. “My dad was born in Baghdad and moved to Kobe, Japan when he was ten years old and he grew up there. Then he lived in Shanghai, and when he went to the movies there, they would wear tuxedos. There are incredible stories about him—he was a very worldly person.

“He had a lot of experience in international business, having grown up in the Middle East and Far East and not coming to America until his late twenties. As a result, there was a lot to learn from Dad. I remember him always saying that the straightest distance between points A and B is a straight line: In negotiations always keep it simple and don’t stray from the line, because that’s when it gets complicated. He was definitely a hard worker, he was very tenacious when he had to be. At the same time, he very much enjoyed life and cultivated relationships with good people. I worked with him shoulder to shoulder for thirty years, and it was a very rewarding time together.”

When Robert joined the company in 1977 after graduating from Tufts University, Caribbean Cinemas had six screens in Puerto Rico and had just opened a six-plex in the Dominican Republican. “We only had a handful of theatres,” Carrady notes, “which was probably a good way to start in our industry, because you know every little detail that goes into building and operating theatres. I spent many years dedicated to film buying, and I still find it a fascinating and very important part of the business.”

Over the years, Caribbean Cinemas has grown both in size and scope. “There’s always a lot of unknowns,” Carrady says of entering fresh territories, “but after you go into a few of the new ones, then you sort of know: Expect the unexpected. You have the confidence that if you’ve navigated through some of the unexpected before, then be calm and patient and you’ll get through the next one as well.”

There are some territorial differences. “Puerto Rico is very similar to the U.S.—the movie theatres are more or less for everybody, all the different classes of society. Whereas if you go to places like the Dominican Republic and Trinidad, there you see more of a class disparity. Especially in the Dominican Republic, where the upper and middle classes go to their theatre and the lower classes go to ‘their’ theatre—they do not cross over.”

Indian films play an important role in Trinidad, he observes, while curiously, “in Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the first language, the only place where films from Spain or Argentina or Mexico will make money is in the art cinema. If you play a commercial film from any of those countries in the commercial cinemas, nobody goes.”

The Caribbean circuit includes three Fine Arts art houses totaling 17 screens, two in Puerto Rico (where the first one debuted in 1986) and one in Santo Domingo. The specialty programming there has an avid following, Carrady attests. “We can keep a film from Argentina or Spain for 20 weeks at the Fine Arts.” In one remarkable instance, the Argentinean/Spanish feature Elsa & Fred played for 78 weeks. “It didn’t come off until it showed up on DVD,” Carrady recalls.

Also of note, “There is a very strong local film industry in the Dominican Republic, and 20 to 25 percent of our annual box office is driven by local Dominican films there. And Dominican films cross over well to Puerto Rico. Recently, we had a Dominican film that we were involved in on the production side that actually did very well in New York.”

Carrady oversees 14 successful Caribbean Cinemas Extreme (CXC) premium-large-format theatres in six of the circuit’s markets. He believes “our stadium-seating theatres, where our admission prices are extremely reasonable, really drive our markets.”

He continues, “One of our philosophies across the board is that we keep our ticket pricing very accessible, very affordable. In our commercial cinemas in Puerto Rico, our most expensive theatre is $8.50, and we have a lot of theatres charging $6—and that includes the eleven-percent sales tax. Our CXC theatres are $10 to 12, and IMAX and 4DX are close to $15. But even that is low compared to a place like New York. And even at the concession stand, our pricing is not what it is in the domestic market.”

Caribbean Cinemas currently has one dine-in theatre with service at customers’ seats in the Dominican Republic, and will open another in December at its remodel in San Juan. In many markets, the circuit has also broadened its food offerings to include items such as sushi, deli sandwiches and salads.

Carrady reveals that the company is also preparing to install its first laser-projection prototype in the Dominican Republic. “I’m actually looking forward to it, I think it’s going to be a great improvement,” he says. The new 11-plex opening in San Juan late this year will be all laser, he adds.

Carrady confirms that audience expectations have changed dramatically during his 40 years in exhibition. “When I got into the business, before we had cupholders on our armrests, you didn’t think twice about not cleaning your theatres in between shows. It was taken for granted that if you went to the nine o’clock movie, you might be walking on the candy wrappers or the popcorn bags from the matinee performances. That’s just the way it was. I remember 32-inch back-to-back spacing in theatres in order to cram as many chairs as you could in a room. But technology has transformed our lives incredibly. It’s changed everything, and therefore it’s created a high expectation level.”

Contemplating the future of the circuit, Carrady says, “We are a family business, but at the same time we have quite a few key executives that have been with us ten, fifteen and up to forty years. People who literally started as kids in the business and are still with us. There is a new generation who would like to see us grow into other markets, so our eyes are a little more open to that.” Clearly, Caribbean Cinemas isn’t letting Maria or anyone else stop its momentum.

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