The American movie buff who brought multiple screen cinemas to Hong Kong

Bob Vallone, 72, still has his hand in the movie business as advisor to UA Cinemas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 8:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 4:32pm

 Bob Vallone has been a fixture in the film industry for over half a century but the man who helped bring UA Cinemas to Hong Kong three decades ago is still passionate about the business.

 Vallone, 72, is an advisor to UA Cinemas and Lark International Mutimedia, and has worked in the movie business since 1964.

 In 1985 he set up UA in Hong Kong, establishing Asia’s first multiple screen cinema in Shatin. He entered the mainland China market in 1997.

 The grey haired executive is not worried new technology will stop people from going to the cinema. Rather, a good movie and new technology would bring audiences into cinemas today. “Every Thursday there are a bunch of new movies released and I have to think of ways to promote them. It is full of excitement and full of surprise,” Vallone said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.  

 “If I were in another industry, I might  be bored and would start up my own business. But movies and cinemas are so interesting I never feel bored. I like going to the cinema to watch movies. Action movies are the best sellers and I like Clint Eastwood’s films.”

 There are many interesting aspects of the job, he said, including negotiating with film owners and distributors to prevent blockbuster titles  in the same genre from being screened at the same time. While film owners decide on the release date, cinema operators would advise them on how to get better box office results.

 “Counter-programming is important,” Vallone said. “It would be better to have different genres of films to show at the same time. An action film would go well with a romance film showing the same week so you can capture different audiences. You don’t open two blockbusters such as Mission Impossible films with Jurassic World at the same time.”

 Vallone, from Washington state in the US, joined the movie industry as a teenager working at the cinema owned by his older brother. He later joined United Artist and represented the company in talks with Hong Kong based Lark International to form a 50-50 joint venture company to introduce the multiple screen UA cinema to Hong Kong in 1985.

 “Hong Kong [was then] a city with six million people and had a very convenient public transportation system. This would be the best place to develop a cinema business,” he said.

 Back in the 1980s, most local cinemas only had a single screen and their visual and sounds system were not very modern. UA introduced multiple screens and the most advance cinema technology to Hong Kong, a move that was a huge success.

 The rest is history. UA Shatin was the world’s highest grossing cinema per screen in 1985. Initially, most of the films showing were locally made with only a few Western films screened. But with local film production in decline over the past decade, the majority of box office films now are from Hollywood or other western countries.

 UA has rapidly become the largest cinema chain in Hong Kong, with 10 cinemas in the city and another 10 in mainland China.  

 When United Artist sold its international cinema business in 1997, Lark International bought the shares and turned UA Cinemas into its wholly owned company. Lark International founder Ira Kaye invited Vallone to stay on to run UA Cinemas. Vallone moved to Hong Kong with his wife while their three grown up children remained in the US.

 Vallone said the key to operating a successful cinema is location and transportation.

 “It needs to be easily accessible by public transportation. It would also be ideal in a shopping mall or have shops and restaurants nearby,” he said.

The stock market slump in Hong Kong and mainland China  has not hurt the cinema business.

 “This may be the major difference between the US and Hong Kong audiences. The US audience will buy the meal and eat their lunch or dinner while they are watching the movie. Hong Kong people like to dine in a restaurant near the cinema before or after they watch the movie. The restaurants close to our cinemas usually have a lot of movie goers.”

 The stock market slump in Hong Kong and mainland China  has not hurt the cinema business.

 “When people feel bad after losing money in their investments, going to a movie may be the cheapest form of entertainment,” Vallone said.

 However, he said the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003 was the worst experience. “It was a terrible period. No one dared to go out,” he said.

 Competition from other media such as DVD, Bluray, or internet downloads has driven cinema numbers down, but Vallone said new technology and innovation can lure audiences back to cinemas. “Since I joined the cinema industry in 1964, they were saying people would no longer go to the cinema because they watched television. Then there were VHS, DVDs and the internet as alternative ways to watch movies,” he said.

 “But people still go to cinemas. What we need to do is to keep upgrading our technology at the cinema to make sure the movie watching experience is not duplicated at home. This is why we need 3D, Imax and other surround sound systems.”

 Avatar, released in 2009, is still the highest grossing film all time with a worldwide box office of US$2.6 billion. The box office in Hong Kong bounced back to HK$984 million in the first half of this year, up 15 per cent from the same period last year. Mainland China’s box office rose 40 per cent to almost 30 billion yuan (HK$36.6 billion) last year.