Movieland's Mystery Man: Denver's Philip Anschutz Who Made Billions in Oil and Railroads, Is Now Betting on the Big Screen, Investing in What Could Be the Foundation for Hollywood's Long-Promised Digital Makeover. but Will This Sequel Ever Make It to Theaters?

By Horn, John | Newsweek, March 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

Movieland's Mystery Man: Denver's Philip Anschutz Who Made Billions in Oil and Railroads, Is Now Betting on the Big Screen, Investing in What Could Be the Foundation for Hollywood's Long-Promised Digital Makeover. but Will This Sequel Ever Make It to Theaters?


Horn, John, Newsweek


The cost of movie tickets just soared to a wallet-busting $10 in Manhattan, a large popcorn and soda will set you back as much as two Happy Meals, and for all that you get Kevin Costner's psychotic Elvis impersonator in "3,000 Miles to Graceland." Does anyone think going to the movies is a good deal?

Philip Anschutz certainly does, and in about as much time as it takes to sit through the coming attractions, the secretive billionaire investor has grabbed control of three of the nation's biggest theater chains, representing one out of five movie screens in the country. His cinematic shopping spree comes at a pivotal moment for movie theaters, which have been bleeding red ink and are hunting for new ways to boost flat ticket sales. Anschutz, 61, the nation's sixth richest person, already has extensive holdings in sports teams, arenas and a rock-concert company. If he combines them with his newly acquired theaters, as people familiar with his company and his investments say he may do, he could single-handedly usher Hollywood's much-ballyhooed digital revolution into the neighborhood multiplex. And when that happens, theatergoing will never be the same.

Imagine settling into those stadium seats to watch not only the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but also the World Series, a Broadway musical or Eminem's next concert--all live. With digital technology, movie houses could be linked together in an electronic network, receiving "content" from almost anywhere, be it Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall or the Rose Bowl.

For the past few years, moviemakers have been toying with the technology to make that happen. George Lucas is making his new "Star Wars" movie with digital cameras. In Las Vegas this week the National Association of Theatre Owners will put an array of high-tech digital projectors through rigorous tests. And on Saturday, Texas Instruments, maker of one of the top digital projectors, will test the appetite for Broadway in the 'burbs by showing a digital recording of "Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical" in seven cities. None of this is cheap. Converting to digital projectors can run up to $150,000 a theater, and so far only a handful have done so, showing digitized versions of such movies as "Toy Story 2" and "Bounce."

Distributors and exhibitors are betting that Anschutz will be the one to finally bring digital entertainment to a mass audience. Just as he purchased undervalued Southern Pacific Railroad and later used its rights of way to lay fiber-optic lines for his Qwest Communications, Anschutz is buying up what could well become the electronic train tracks for a digital-entertainment circuit. On Friday, Anschutz, who declined to be interviewed, ushered United Artists Theater Co. and its 1,604 screens out of bankruptcy reorganization. He intends to bail out the similarly troubled 708-screen Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc. and has also accumulated a majority chunk of cents-on-the-dollar debt in struggling Regal Cinemas, the nation's largest chain, with 4,361 screens. …

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