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Theater patriarch still has a love for movies

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

How can an independent movie theater owner - in a day dominated by mega-movie chains and a generation enamored with video games, DVDs and cable TV - stay alive and make money?

Well, it helps if you have an 80-year love affair with the business and nearly three-quarters of a century worth of expertise in running movie operations. Add a bullheaded stubbornness to succeed that was born from poverty, and you have a screenplay of Bob Fridley's life story.

"It's good to grow up poor, because then you have your dreams, and you work toward them," said Fridley, the personable 86-year-old who heads R.L. Fridley Theaters Inc., a company that includes the venerable Vista III theater in Storm Lake.

The patriarch of the multimillion-dollar family business still spends parts of seven days a week at his modest office in downtown Des Moines.

For Fridley, it was love at first sight when he watched his first movie at age 4. His resume now includes 38 theaters and 88 screens, mostly in small communities scattered across Iowa. Some of Fridley's theaters have had a cult following for their bargain prices.

"I believe if you love what you're doing," Fridley said, "the money will come."

Fridley is proud to be "the largest Iowa-owned circuit" at a time when at least one national chain - Carmike Cinemas, which dominates the greater Des Moines market - is just recovering from bankruptcy. Carmike lost $257 million from 1999 through last year.

While revenue hasn't gone up every year for Fridley, he said the last couple of years have been "very, very good." The company is in the midst of expanding. It's adding four screens to its Indianola theater, four to Marshalltown and is building a seven-plex in Spencer.

Asked about how independents can survive today, Fridley's former business partner, B.C. Mahon, said the market has room for the giants and small players. "There's enough Hollywood product out there," said Mahon, 81. He has owned the Varsity Theater near Drake University for decades.

Because of the industry's affinity for multiple screens, Mahon and Fridley said the large chains no longer show interest in buying out Fridley.

Fridley's reputation in the business for being a nice guy is misleading. He is a fighter, and therefore, a survivor.

Profit margins in the industry hinge on tough negotiations with film distributors. With many of them, "you are at their mercy," Fridley said. But Fridley does not leave negotiations to a buying consortium, or concede new-release business to the chains, which some assume - wrongly, Fridley will tell you - are able to get the big hits earlier and cheaper.

"This," he said, "is a crazy business."

One example of his fierce competitiveness: For the blockbuster "Titanic" a few years ago, "I fought for almost a year because they not only wanted to not go by the terms of the contract, which were decent, but they wanted an increase because the picture did (much better) then they expected it.

"It's a constant battle."

He leaves those fights now to his son, Brian, who does all the booking negotiations.

Fridley educated himself on what he called the "jackrabbit circuit." He rented professional projection equipment and traveled from town to town, lugging the cumbersome equipment and showing movies in opera houses, vacant stores - anywhere he could find space.

His uncle, Bob Bernau, who operated movie houses in Ida Grove and Lake City for years, also tutored him. He calls Bernau "the best theater operator in Iowa."

He also spent time at the University of Southern California studying filmmaking to add to his knowledge. Even when he served in the Army during World War II, he was showing movies at military camps in the East.

"I took it very, very personal when I had 12 (movie houses) in 1970. I'd get around to the Spencers and the Carrolls and the Muscatines and so on . . . and I always tried to play the best product available and tried to have very nice and very clean theaters."

Fridley said his deep love for the business often made up for missteps. "I did stuff that seemed stupid at the time," he said, "but I persevered."

He also loves a challenge.

"When I was out at USC, everybody was saying in classes the small town theaters were done for." Undaunted, Fridley returned to Des Moines to buy the Varsity Theater. Then "everybody said, 'You're crazy.' But I still had my heart" to make it a success.

Fridley has stuck with the business plan that has worked: Buying small community theaters and fixing them up, one at a time. It's a philosophy he maintained even when the rest of the industry became acquisition-crazy and overbuilt the market.

Fridley is quick to point out that having good employees has added to his success.

One is Terry Dotson, Fridley's son-in-law, who now handles physical operations and construction and remodeling.

Dotson once was a top employee for Sumner Redstone, a Boston-based businessman with connections with the Kennedy family. Redstone had a drive-in theater empire that stretched from New York to Davenport. Dotson worked for Fridley for seven years, starting with the Capri at 41st Street and University Avenue, before Redstone hired him away.

But in 1986, Dotson came back home, weary of the pressures of his job. Dotson returned to Fridley Theaters for "a little more than 50 percent of what Sumner Redstone was paying him." At that time, according to Fridley, Redstone holdings included Bill Cosby's popular TV show; Viacom, which now owns Paramount Pictures; Blockbuster and MTV.

Fridley also learns quickly from his mistakes. When his two stabs at movie producing fizzled in the 1970s, he knew immediately to back away and get back to running theaters.

"When I've gotten into side businesses, it taught me to get back to what got me here," he recalled.



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