New CEO Clark Kirby plots growth for Village Roadshow

Pictured at Movie World, Village Roadshow theme parks CEO Clark Kirby for think tank .Picture Mike Batterham

Clark Kirby and friend at Warner Bros. Movie World.

Settling into the role of CEO at Village Roadshow Ltd, Clark Kirby is energised about the potential for growth in multiple sectors including theme parks, exhibition and TV production.

“It’s an exciting year ahead,” says Kirby after succeeding Graham Burke, who stepped down at the end of December after 63 years with the company founded by Clark’s grandfather Roc Kirby but remains on the board.

“We have wonderful people working for our businesses who have an incredible amount of new ideas. A big part of my job is to create an environment for those ideas to flourish.”

It has been a smooth transition for Kirby, who continues to run the theme parks division, the biggest generator of revenues and profits. Kirby had worked closely with all the divisional CEOs for the past eight years and he spoke with Burke several times every day.

That frequent contact with Burke continues. “Graham is a wonderful source of knowledge and inspiration right across the group,” he says. “He’s been an incredible mentor for me; he’s like another father figure.”

At the AGM last November VRL chairman Robert Kirby (Clark’s father) announced a major refurbishment and redesign of Village Cinemas’ premier sites, incorporating new food and beverage concepts where possible.

Among the locations earmarked for multi-million dollar upgrades are Macquarie and Parramatta in Sydney, Tuggerah on the NSW Central Coast, Southland and Knox in Melbourne, Marion in Adelaide, Innaloo in Perth and Albury in country NSW.

A six-plex with restaurant and bar is due to open later this year in Clayton in Melbourne’s outer suburbs and Village is looking at the potential for greenfield sites in Melbourne’s growth corridors.

“We see enormous upside in revitalising the cinemas,” he says. “People are still going to cinemas, as much as they are consuming content on services like Netflix. We see the growth coming from enhancing the moviegoing experience.”

Another major focus is ramping up content creation via Roadshow Rough Diamond, the production banner run by John and Dan Edwards (Romper Stomper, Les Norton, Australian Gangster) and Blink TV (Eurovision Australia Decides).

The CEO fully expects the Federal Government will accede to the screen industry’s call to introduce local content obligations on Netflix, Stan and other streaming services, reasoning: “Quotas are important for the Australian creative industry.”

Kirby is confident about Roadshow’s upcoming theatrical line-up including Tony Tilse’s Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (which opens February 27), Robert Connolly’s The Dry (August 27) and Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom (January 1 2021).

He’s committed to Village Roadshow Studios but restates the screen industry’s case to the Federal Government to raise the Location Offset from 16.5 per cent to 30 per cent.

“The studios are not sustainable without government support,” he says. “Raising the Offset would benefit the entire creative community and local economies. Hopefully common sense prevails because the underlying rationale is so compelling.”

The company is investigating the development of two hotels/convention centres, one at Warner Bros. Movie World, the other at Sea World, to capitalise on the 5 million people who visit the Queensland theme parks each year. That would complement its 402-room Sea World Resort.

VRL manages Lionsgate Entertainment World indoor theme park in China’s Guangdong province, where there are Hunger Games, Twilight and God’s of Egypt-themed attractions.

The company is looking to do management deals for more theme parks in China with local and international partners and possibly in Japan and South Korea.

In December private equity firm Pacific Equity Partners (PEP) made a takeover bid for VRL, offering almost $1 billion in cash or a combination of cash and shares. As an initial step, PEP has an option to acquire 19 per cent of the shares in the event an alternative bid emerges.

The board told shareholders it is having exploratory discussions with PEP and is obtaining advice from its financial and legal advisers but said there is “no certainty” the transaction will happen. Some 40 per cent of the stock is held by Robert Kirby, his brother and fellow director John, and Burke.

If the deal happens, VRL would be free of the constraints on public companies of raising money and it would no doubt get a significant injection of funds from PEP for the expansion on the Gold Coast and other initiatives.

Meanwhile the board has been looking to appoint an independent, non-executive chairman to replace Robert Kirby, as demanded by John Kirby.

For Clark Kirby, his management and staff, for now it’s business as usual.