The Bigger Picture

UCI’s passion for turing unused sites into entertainment meccas sets it apart from the rest and with a growing number of European operations, the company’s legal department is always on the lookout for support. Naomi Rovnick reports

Manchester-based United Cinemas International (UCI) builds multiplex cinemas. It does not gobble up high-street cinemas in the same way as its rivals, but finds disused sites with potential and turns them into multiplexes.

UCI has redeveloped the derelict Printworks in Manchester, the old Daily Mirror building, into a 20-screen cinema. Justin Ribbons, senior vice president of business affairs and head of legal for UCI’s European operations, says: “We’ve totally regenerated a very special site in the heart of Manchester.”

The Printworks development is UCI’s finest to date, boasting the largest cinema screens in the world. And as everything that UCI does in Europe is decided in Manchester, it is important that the city leads the way in new developments.

Paramount and Universal, UCI’s Hollywood parents, chose Manchester for the European headquarters as at that time the biggest market for multiplexes in Europe was in the North of England.

What luck for Justin Ribbons, a committed Northerner. “Manchester has everything to rival London and perhaps more, as all its attractions are easily accessible,” he says. Ribbons has a role handling the European legal affairs of a dynamic, expanding Hollywood company in a city he loves – you can see why he feels his life is picture perfect.

Ribbons combines living in Manchester with a lot of foreign travel – UCI is expanding into Eastern Europe, providing many countries in the region with their first multiplex cinemas. This has placed Ribbons in the centre of many complex property deals, negotiating sites in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. So far, UCI has completed two multiplexes in Poland in a joint venture with Polish media group ITI Holdings. There are also four or five more Polish cinema deals on the cards. Deals have been signed in Prague and Bratislava.

Hungary was set to be the largest project, but UCI is still establishing what is going to happen there. Hungary is different to the rest of the region. It already has its fair share of multi-screen cinemas and according to one Hungarian journalist, its multiplex market “has already reached the point of terminal oversaturation” (Budapest Business Journal, 8 December 2000). Ribbons may have a difficult time negotiating cinema deals there.

Things could not be more different in Poland. When UCI built the first Eastern European multiplex in Poznan three years ago, most of the population had never seen anything like it. “When it opened, people would drive for an hour to come and see it,” says Ribbons. “They were, and still are, very hungry for Western culture.”

This appetite for big-screen multiplexes and Hollywood movies is what has encouraged UCI to plough further into the region, even when Eastern European property laws make life difficult.

Ribbons is the first to admit that he could not tackle the complexities of acquiring cinema sites in Eastern Europe alone. He uses CMS Cameron McKenna and Clifford Chance Pünder to help him strike deals in the region. Ribbons says that he did not choose firms indigenous to Eastern Europe because he likes the UK’s, and in particular the City’s, method of drafting leases. “Continental property specialists rely on civil codes too much,” he says. “The City way is much more precise.”

UCI has enjoyed a good, longstanding association with both Clifford Chance and CMS Cameron McKenna, but its main outsourcing relationship is with DLA.

UCI has used DLA in Manchester for more than five years. Ribbons says that DLA provides “the backbone of our external legal work”. When UCI built the Printworks multiplex, DLA partner Anita Weightman gave all the property advice. DLA also advised UCI on the construction of a 12-screen multiplex in Cardiff Bay in 1996.

But this is not an exclusive relationship. Ribbons says that he will choose the best firm for a particular project, although he never picks a firm on the basis of a beauty parade. He says: “When a firm competes in a beauty parade, it often uses a senior partner to front its presentations. After you select a firm, you will probably never see said senior partner again.”

Ribbons prefers to use “a boutique method of selection”, picking whichever firms he feels can give the best advice at the time. For example, he has used Dechert for property litigation in Eastern Europe and Denton Wilde Sapte for competition work.

But selecting firms in this way is often a difficult and complex process. When seeking property advice in foreign territories Ribbons relies on word-of-mouth recommendations from joint venture partners. He is also very enthusiastic about relationship building with external firms, and does a lot of networking to find out about the expertise of individual lawyers. Generally, he looks for the right person, rather than the right firm, for the job.

But there is one way firms can persuade Ribbons to choose them – they can fix their fees. Ribbons gets very angry about firms who refuse to do this.

“When I use other support services, such as accountants or IT service providers, they tell me what the work is going to cost,” he says. “Many law firms seem to think that they can’t do this, on the basis that a piece of work may need to take longer. I am then to pay them for the hours spent on the work. Law firms need to understand that this is not a business-friendly attitude. When I am starting a project, I need to cost it to work out whether the deal will be profitable. Given the choice of someone who offers a fixed fee service over a variable fee, I will always give the work to the firm that offers a fixed fee.” So, lawyers, you have been told.

UCI recently acquired Imax and Digital Light Processing Technology. These developments could create a very exciting future for cinema. Ribbons, a self-confessed technophile, was proud to handle the legal side of these deals alone. Imax, which is a type of film projector owned by Imax Corporation in the US, means films shot specially for that genre can be shown on giant, round screens and in 3D. Most Imax films are educational, and school children are now being bused in from all over the North West to watch them. Ribbons sees this as a new concept, a crossover between learning and leisure. “We call it edu-tainment,” he says.

Digital Light Processing Technology, patented by Texas Instruments, is a digital alternative to film and UCI has big plans for it. “As this is a digital technology, we will be able to network cinema screens through the internet,” says Ribbons. “A college lecturer in Liverpool could give a lecture over the net to a group of students watching it in one of our Manchester cinemas. We could use it to have conferences in cinemas, and we are even looking into interactive gaming, where people can come into the cinema and play computer games on a huge screen.”

Perhaps UCI will be responsible for the first PlayStation Olympics, with countries competing in the world’s biggest game of Tomb Raider. But one thing is certain: now that UCI is driving cinema’s digital revolution, intellectual property lawyers will be hearing a lot more from it.
Justin Ribbons
Head of legal
United Cinemas International

Organisation United Cinemas International
Sector Leisure
Employees 300 in Manchester. 800 worldwide
Legal Capability One senior vice president of business affairs (head of legal) and one property lawyer in the UK
Head of Legal Justin Ribbons
Reporting to Chief executive officer Joe Peixoto
Main location for lawyers Manchester
Main law firms Clifford Chance Pünder, CMS Cameron McKenna, DLA