Cinema boss celebrates blockbuster career
He once toted a Super 8 cine camera around filming ‘anything that moved’. Now Michael McAdam is marking 20 years as boss of a multiplex chain
One of his favourite films is The Smallest Show On Earth with Peter Sellers, the story of how the idealistic operators of a flea pit cinema take on the big guns.
That could be a metaphor for Michael McAdam’s film career, from the child who fell in love with the potential of film after observing an elderly lady filming parades in Rathcoole — to the adult managing over 200 people and a turnover of over £10m in a chain of five multi-plexes from Belfast to Coleraine.
Along the way there’s been plenty of cinematic moments — not least of all after he bought the then UGC cinema in Dublin Road in Belfast.
It was Christmas, 2003.
“I remember picking up my daughter Nicola and her friend and as I approached Bruce Street I could see someone lifting up the Movie House sign and fixing it in front |of UGC.
“That was a great feeling. I had gone to that cinema on opening night and sat and watched Jurassic Park, and here was I having bought it.
He first opened a multiplex in Glengormley, close to where he grew up in Rathcoole, north Belfast. “That was 20 years ago. Everybody at that stage was building four screens but we actually fitted five because it was more than four.
“That right away gave us something nobody else had. There was only the old ABC Cinema on Fisherwick Place [now Jury’s Inn], which had four screens.
“The advantage of having one extra screen it give us one up. It’s not always about how many new films you can show, because an old film could still be taking money while a new one takes less.”
He cut his teeth operating what he calls “a little bit of a cinema” in the seaside town of Portrush, Co Antrim. That was another |cinematic moment.
“Portush in 1987 — that’s when I first got into the cinema.
“It was a day trip to Portrush. I was peeking through the doors of a closed-down cinema called the Playhouse. I was approached by a man with a big bunch of keys from the amusement arcade below the cinema.
“He introduced me to the owner, who showed me around. I got George Rowan, who had recently been made redundant to run it, borrowed £100 from my mother-in-law to be and opened up. I took £1,000 on my first day showing Police Academy 3, then Top Gun came next.”
When he looks back on the movie of his two decades in business, there’s been “a lot of hard work but also a lot of good luck”.
“There was a sequence of coincidences that really just worked for me. I used to go to an accountant in a small practice but it broke up. My accountant went to KPMG, |which had a fair background in |entertainment, which helped.”
Another stroke of luck came when the bank that liked to say ‘yes’ actually did say yes to Michael. “There were a number of TSB (now First Trust) managers who lived in Glengormley and they had teenage children who would use it. They gave me backing.”
Glengormley started out with a preview evening of Ghost, then on opening night there was Total |Recall while another screen showed Pretty Woman.
Then the inner city of Belfast beckoned.
And while the Troubles were an anxious time for any business, the fear of the big British operators like Warner Bros and UCI did work to the advantage of a native |like Michael.
A cinema at the new Yorkgate complex [now Cityside] was to be run by a British operator but they got cold feet. So Mr McAdam stepped in.
“I was approached by centre management of the new Yorkgate complex to come down and have a look. At first I thought it would never work because it was so close to New Lodge Road and Tigers Bay.
“You walk about the place and you get a feeling in your gut. I knew the minute I walked on the first floor of Yorkgate, I knew it was right.”
But negotiating a deal with The Cooperative Wholesale Society, then the biggest property owners in the UK, would be anything but easy. “From being a small businessman, all of a sudden I was dealing with not just a shopping centre but the biggest property owner in the UK. During those negotiations everybody was throwing their toys out of the pram and we couldn’t get a |deal done.
“I thought to myself, how can I go back to the table without showing a weakness?
“So I went in one day and I walked round the mall making sure I was visible and in the hope that the development manager would invite me back. I remember saying to them we either make a decision or we can forget it. I flew over to their headquarters with my accountant and we had a deal within 40 minutes.”
His cinema in Maghera was “another difficult sell that just |happened”.
“Then the opportunity to buy Dublin Road came up. It was a great success but the building was in a very bad state of repair. I bought it on December 22, 2003. That was my Christmas present. I paid a significant amount of money for it.”
There he managed to boost admissions from 400,000 a year to 600,000 — though the Yorkgate Movie House, now Cityside, has surpassed Dublin Road takings.
Another twist came on another day trip to Coleraine.
“I noticed the old Jet Centre being totally boarded up. I bought that, now it’s a ten pin bowling alley, a four-screen cinema, ice-rink and kids’ play area. We’re about to start construction on two more screens.
“That was agreed verbally within two hours.” As for expansion, he said: “Never say never.”
And while he’s a movie man through and through, he isn’t blind to other business opportunities.
“I’m keen on developing other leisure aspects so all my eggs aren’t in the one basket. We want Jet Centre to cater to family entertainment with a licensed restaurant, bowling and the play centre Alley Cats.”
There is plenty of competition in Belfast at least — UK chain Odeon opened in Chichester Street as part of Victoria Square Shopping Centre in 2008. “Odeon came into a market that was already saturated but they are working very, very hard.”
The Odyssey's cinema has drawn a popular following on weekend mornings with mums and dads bringing their little ones to kids’ club. He rejects such initiatives apart from Movie House’s crazy Tuesdays, where all admissions are £3 instead of the usual £5.50.
“We have always been consistent in our pricing, with a Wednesday matinee the same price as a Saturday late film. I note the size of drinks elsewhere and we try to be cheaper.
“I always remember that the owner of the Hippodrome Theatre was once heard to say as he looked out at a queue, “those people standing out there have my money in their pockets”.
It’s a fair cry from how his love affair with movies began.
“I remember one day in Rathcoole, when I was a child, there were all sorts of different parades taking part, and I was just fascinated to see an old lady recording it all on a Super 8 cine camera. I pestered my mother continually, and that eventually led her to buying me a Super 8 Cine Camera from Boots for £14.60...From then on anything that moved I took a movie of it.”
But he’s obviously left his first cine films far behind him.
His biggest grossing films have been Avatar and Titanic, both of which grossed over £100,000. But the worst has been 22 Bullets, a French film with Jean Reno.
“It didn’t even take £200 in a week when it was on earlier this month.”
He says there are good weeks and bad weeks in movies. But his drive and energy have never let up.
“I remember Yorkgate was a very slow starter and the TSB boys came out. I remember saying, thank you for backing the company and they said, we didn’t back the company, we backed you. You can imagine the pressure — but it really helped keep me focused.”