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Man of Ideas: Maurice Kanbar
by David Hakim
Maurice Kanbar, in his Pacific Heights home, featuring a commanding view of the Bay. photo: CineSource
San Francisco inventor and producer Maurice Kanbar is full of wide-ranging ideas - and he's also a life-long movie buff who's keeping a hopeful eye on the local film industry. A well-dressed man with the air of a lively, playful uncle, Kanbar brings a youthful, wide-eyed enthusiasm to all his endeavors.
And why shouldn't he be enthusiastic? Three-dozen patents on his inventions have made him wealthy and given him the freedom to keep coming up with fresh projects.
Kanbar fondly recalls going to the movies every Saturday as a child to see the Lone Ranger and Tonto's latest adventures, and he's often credited as developing the first multiplex theater in New York City. But the story of that creation has been mythologized: Contrary to published reports, Kanbar did not own a theater that was losing money; he did not cut up a theater into four rooms just to save it. Though that makes a good story, the truth is far more interesting.
"The whole situation was a series of accidents," says Kanbar. "I bought a building on 13th Street in New York where I had a laboratory on the second floor and rented the third and fourth floor to Lee Strasberg for his actors' training school. A friend induced me to buy the building next door, because it was a fifty-foot-wide building - very deep, high ceilings - and he was going to put in an off-Broadway theatre."
"But he was unable to raise money, and suddenly I found myself owning the building and no theatre. About that time, I had dinner with friends and someone was complaining that the movie business was terrible and people were watching television at home and not going to the movies."
So the next time Kanbar went to the movies, he counted the house - and was surprised to see only 120 people in a 1,200-seat theater. "I could suddenly understand that the owner of this cinema was going broke. And I realized that if a film shows in New York, a certain number of people would show up to see the film, and it doesn't matter how big the house is."
"So if I had four 150-seat houses, and a hundred people showed up to see a different film in each one, I'd be sitting pretty. So I got all the details, made a cardboard model, and built the first multiplex. I called it The Quad, and I still own it. Unfortunately in the last five years, there've been about fifty screens built within a mile radius by guys who have much more clout than I do, and so we haven't been making quite as much money as we used to."
At this point, the story might sound like your average financial-investment rollercoaster tale. But it's not the business ups-and-downs that most light up Kanbar's eyes; it's the way the enterprise has assisted filmmakers.
Forget that he saw a way to make money when others were losing their shirts. Forget that he was in a position to 'accidentally' own a building in which he put a theater that could (and did) make a profit from day one. Forget that he knew nothing about exhibition when he got the idea (but learned what he needed to in order to make his plan succeed). Forget that he wasn't going to risk the grocery money on his plan.
Forget all that, and check out what seems to excite Kanbar most: "It's a labor of love more than a moneymaking operation - we spent millions bringing in great films and over the years made a total profit of about $20,000. But now we have a theater right in the Village that we make available to young filmmakers, where they can four-wall their pictures and at least get them reviewed. If they succeed, that's fine. And if they don't, then at least they had it shown in New York and they can show people the reviews."
Hoodwinked, produced by Kanbar, is a humorous, crime-ridden revist of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. photo: Kanbar Productions
And what Kanbar doesn't say (but most film pros know): a showing in New York can be all it takes for Oscar consideration - which could give that young neophyte young filmmaker, that struggling artiste, an immense leg up. And all because Maurice Kanbar was 'lucky' enough to be able to buy a building and 'unlucky' enough to not have a legit theatre to put into it.
Along with his real-estate projects and various inventions, Kanbar's creative enterprises have included writing "Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook", which he penned to help train young inventors - and to support film students. An enjoyable, fact-filled read, the book clears up a lot of misconceptions about the process of acquiring patents - and all of Kanbar's royalties go to a scholarship fund at the NYU Film School.
"I'm happy about [the book]," he says. "A lot of people have ideas, but they don't know how to make them into inventions. I describe how to protect your invention, how to make a model to show, and how to maybe get money to develop it. Inventing is a wonderful way to make a living."
Kanbar's enthusiasm and creativity extend in many directions. He's the kind of man who characterizes inventing a process to relieve hangovers - or buying up a full third of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma - not as work but as "doing exciting things."
"Work is something you do for money," says Kanbar. "I don't 'work' because I don't do it for money. I do it because I really enjoy the challenge, the excitement of getting it going and making a success out of it and doing something that's a little bit different."
Kanbar's foray into red-state real estate exemplifies his doing-good-and-doing-well business acumen. He's frank about the situation's profit prospects: "I had a lot of cash, and, rather than put it into a bank, I put it into real estate. I can afford to hold onto it as an investment now that the real estate market is subdued - in ten years, it'll be worth twice what I paid. In five years, things will turn around. In seven years, things will be terrific again."
But his development company in Tulsa has also employed 55 people, and the benefits to the city are clear - he's refurbishing 2.2 million square feet of a decaying downtown, and the likelihood of an upswing in the local economy is good. Partnering with Henry Kaufman, the financier who sponsored many of his early inventions, Kanbar seems poised to make money when the economy returns to a semblance of normality.
In the film industry, Kanbar's has been a shrewd judge of content as well as a savvy investor. "The most important part of a film is the writing," he says, "because your actors are reading lines that have been written by someone. The good reviews and the awards go to the actors. But the writers need attention."
"So the San Francisco Film Festival and the Film Society gives the Kanbar Writing Prize. [This year, it goes to James Toback; see SFIFF article page one.] We gave that award to Paul Haggis and to Pete Morgan [who wrote 'The Queen' and 'The Last King of Scotland']. Writing is key - you need a good script. You need content, you need a narrative. You need to tell a good story. You want people to be interested in watching your film. People walk out of films, and that's bad if it's your film."
Kanbar has produced the very successful "Hoodwinked" (2005), which did $110 million at the box office. "I finished Hoodwinked, and Harvey Weinstein saw it and he came over and said he loved it and would do a fabulous job of distributing the film. So he distributed Hoodwinked, and now we're doing Hoodwinked 2, and Harvey insisted on being my partner."
"So I am now a 50/50 partner with Harvey Weinstein and we're planning on showing it in February of 2010. Right now we're cutting music and all that - the main office is in Los Angeles. The quality of the animation is much superior to Hoodwinked."
And where was the work done? The wise financial expert is candid: "The animation studios are in Toronto and Vancouver. I'm writing the checks myself, and so is Weinstein - this is my own money. Look, the Canadian dollar has now been battered, and nobody is in business to lose money."
Still, Kanbar has watched the local film industry going down and down in the last ten years, and as an inventor, he's pondered the answers. He acknowledges that it isn't as simple as saying, "A kid can take a camera and go out in the street and make a film for twenty grand."
But what is the answer? The Bay Area has lost over 200 businesses since 1999 - bedrock companies, pillars of our local infrastructure. The remaining companies are entrenched, but they must maintain a level of income or they will be lost.
"I'm meeting with David Chiu, President of the Board of Supervisors, to discuss how can we make San Francisco hospitable for filmmakers. One of the problems is that the state isn't willing to give incentives or tax breaks. My friend Phil Kaufman wants to make films here, and he can raise the money to do it, but the little guy can't. We need to turn the climate around."
The community depends on the Phil Kaufmans, on the Chris Columbuses - people who can deliver at least one or two big films a year to keep the local infrastructure intact. If we give new young filmmakers incentives, would it be enough go do that? After a recent conversation about the local situation, there's a chance that Kanbar will turn his inventor-mind toward considering the Australian model, which built that country's film industry in the '80s. A group of wealthy sheep farmers with big tracts of land each put money into several film projects, so that no one film could harm any single investor.
The same idea has been floated locally for a decade: put together a coalition funded by wine money and other successful local industries. Perhaps Maurice Kanbar will be the random attractor that finally brings the key principal players together. As usual, Kanbar sounds enthusiastic: "There's a lot of money in Silicon Valley. Many people here have money, and they could afford to do it - but you have to provide them a situation that they like."
Posted on Sep 21, 2010 - 05:15 PM