Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian entertainment mogul whose acquisition of American movie theaters in the 1980s sparked the consolidation of exhibition that continues to this day, has been granted day-parole after serving 17 months of a five-year prison sentence in Ontario. The 63-year old Drabinsky, a larger-than-life impresario who also produced movies and Broadway shows as well as restoring theaters, had been convicted along with partner Myron Gottlieb of fraud in relation to the loss of hundreds of millions of investors’ money at their public company Livent. That included fleecing former uber-agent Michael Ovitz by cooking the Livent books before selling him the comnpany, which he eventually had to take into bankruptcy. (There are multiple reasons why the Canadian mogul was often called “Darth” Drabinsky.)
Drabinsky has been transferred to a Toronto halfway house for what is expected to be several months, but is now able to return to his office during the daytime while still confined overnight. In typical Drabinsky fashion, according to a report yesterday in the Toronto Star, he already is at work on two projects — a remake of his 1980 horror film success “The Changeling” and a stage musical adaptation of his 1988 Shirley Maclaine-starring movie “Madame Souzatzka.”
Drabinsky’s flamboyant career was captured in the documentary “Show Stopper,” shown at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (an event to which he had close ties). It traced his rise from a young lawyer involved with taking advantage of Canadian tax and film finance laws to producer of such films as “The Silent Parter” and “The Tribute,” and exhibitor at Cineplex Odeon theaters. He built (on a smaller-scale) the prototype for cinemas with far more than the one-to-four screen standard in the early 1980s. First in Toronto, then expanding in Canada, Cineplex had its first foray into the United States with the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, at its time a revolutionary change in local theater design and programming.
Drabinsky then shocked the industry by rapidly building an American empire. He bought Plitt Theaters (which dominated Chicago, but also had theaters throughout the South as well as Los Angeles) and then quickly acquiring other chains in New York and elsewhere, which shook up the dormant exhibition industry and led to several chains, most of whom had been only slowly expanding (AMC, General Cinema, Redstone, Loews and others) to buy out local ownership and eventually each other to the point where today most of the country’s top-grossing top screens are owned by only a handful of companies (AMC, Regal and Cinemark).
He then established a film production and distribution entity at Cineplex Odeon, handling films such as “The Glass Menagerie” directed by Paul Newman, “Jackknife” with Robert DeNiro and Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” among others. Back in Canada, the company controlled about half the theaters and had a more substantial distribution role.
Drabinsky’s tenure at Cineplex Odeon, which included a partnership with Universal, led to his ouster in 1989. But he rebounded with new ventures in live theater through his company Livent, including the Toronto presentation of “Phantom of the Opera.” Livent later bought several classic theaters in other cities, including New York and Chicago (the Apollo among them) and backed several productions (including “Ragtime,” which combined won 19 Tonys).
But by 1998 the massive overspending and lack of success equal to the outlays led to seeking out bankruptcy protection. While examining the books, both American and Canadian agencies found serious issues, leading eventually to a 2009 conviction on fraud charges for Drabinsky and partner Gottlieb. He began his reduced sentence in 2011 (the original term was for seven years), and served 17 months mostly at a minimum security Ontario prison before his release to a Toronto half-way house this weekend. Gottlieb received a lesser sentence and began day-parole last year.
Drabinsky was in many ways a throwback to the personalities who created the Hollywood movie studios, and in turn paved the way for the Weinstein brothers and others in the specialized world. His ambition, taste, drive, energy and vision as well as interest in independent film and related fields have been surpassed, but he livened up what had been a corporate, hidebound and static industry. His entry into exhibition played a major role in changing the mold.
His future will be limited by the terms of his conviction and other settlements. He is prohibited from running a public company and otherwise controlling a financial company involving others’ investments, which will certainly limit his abilities to return to his earlier status. But even in the middle of his legal troubles, he was able to back one final film — “Barrymore,” starring Christopher Plummer, based on his one-man stage show -which premiered at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival days before Drabinsky started his prison term. He also will be limited by unresolved legal issues in the United States (he can’t be extradited because of Canadian double jeopardy laws).
If anyone can return after such calamities, it’s Garth Drabinsky.