Curzon CEO Philip Knatchbull has been key to bringing arthouse distribution up to speed and on-demand. But he hasn’t forgotten the magic of the big screen, delivering gracefully designed cinema spaces that celebrate the shared experience of film.
Just before he takes a seat in his new Curzon Aldgate cinema in London, Philip Knatchbull spots a stain on the burnt-orange upholstery. He doesn’t try to conceal his irritation, muttering an expletive under his breath. But after a beat, he looks up with a barely perceptible smile. “It’s a great business, this – except for all the people.”
Philip has been surrounded by cinema (and its people) for most of his life. His father John Knatchbull – who, as the Seventh Baron Brabourne, went by John Brabourne – was one of the UK’s pre-eminent producers, behind films including A Passage to India and Murder on the Orient Express. Philip remembers childhood encounters with luminaries of the big screen including Franco Zefferelli and Bette Davis. “You get the bug for it; it’s in your body and you can’t get it out,” he says. “It’s a bit of a pain in the arse.”
Philip went to film school and then set up his own production company. When that didn’t earn him enough (“It was stop-start-stop”) he made a concerted effort to leave the film business and launched an investment fund. But he never lost that bug, his passion for cinema, and eventually found himself drawn back to that world. Only this time as an entrepreneur with a wealth of business experience.
That know-how led Philip to see that the film industry was heading towards an upheaval similar to the one that music was experiencing in the early 2000s, when pirated songs first appeared for free online. Even today he rails against how blinkered he finds the industry. “People don’t want to steal,” he says. “But if they can’t get something easily at an affordable price, and it’s available for free online, then that’s what happens. The system creates a pent-up demand that isn’t met.” He recalls a film getting booed in Cannes in 2017 for being funded by Netflix: “It’s stupid. We need to embrace what’s happening, not stamp our feet and dig our heels in.”
It’s more than a decade since Philip set out to drag the film industry into the 21st century. In 2006 he joined forces with Curzon Cinemas (then a small outfit with two central London properties) to acquire Artificial Eye, the UK’s leading distributor of arthouse films. In 2010 he launched Curzon Home Cinema, a platform that allows users to watch critically acclaimed films on the day of release. That created what was (and still is) the only company “releasing films through a vertically integrated business, all the way from digital channels to cinemas”.
Since 2006, Philip has built Curzon into an impressive brand. It has 47 screens across 21 sites in the UK, with more on the way. For the past five years, its distribution arm has sealed the UK screening rights for both the Bafta and Oscar winners for best foreign-language film. Meanwhile, the membership base of the Curzon Home Cinema platform is growing.
With so much going on the CEO is pulled in many different directions. “I’m constantly changing hats, from reading screenplays to choosing colours for seats.” How does he cope? He admits that he’s had to learn to delegate and “the only way you do that is to start trusting people”. He now has a team of eight who he trusts implicitly to run their briefs.
It’s just as well because Philip is still battling people in the industry who detest everything that Curzon Home Cinema stands for. “They think I’m killing the business; they believe the purity of cinema is being compromised,” he says. Big cinema chains in particular would love to see him fail – but then, they have most to lose. “If [streaming at home] becomes more prevalent then fewer people will go to the cinema,” he says, especially as most cinemas are “overpriced, not comfortable, noisy and inconvenient”.
But Philip is not some digital zealot: he is also investing heavily in bricks and mortar. “Would I be spending millions building new cinemas if I didn’t believe in cinema?” The Curzon Aldgate opened in east London in January 2017; Curzon Oxford opened in November; and Colchester will have one too going into 2018. Philip is also eyeing partnerships in other countries, among them Spain and Germany, with a view to taking Curzon global.
Yet he’s not looking for mass scale. “I’m not trying to build 1,000 screens in the UK; I want to get up to 80 or 100 and then stop. But those 100 will be buildings like this,” he says, gesturing at the space we’re in. “They’ll have a bar, live events and Q&As. They’ll be all about the night out.”
This is another way in which Philip has shaken up the industry. His cinemas have become design-led third spaces where urbanites hang out day and night. Integrated into their neighbourhoods, they’re the antithesis of what he calls “big square boxes”. And this is where he gets philosophical about his business. “I don’t think people will stop gathering – it’s human instinct. Going to the cinema is a shared emotional experience that you can’t get by watching something on your laptop at home.”
So, even as he makes more and more films available online, Philip will continue choosing seat colours too. “It’s about connecting people in a soulful way. The great thing about public spaces like this is that they connect people.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
I wake up at around 06.30 and before I leave for work meditate for 20 minutes. This slows my brain down and allows better focus throughout the day.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person or by a group?
Leadership is about allowing others to speak honestly and, most importantly, listening to what is said. However, the really tough decisions usually need to be taken by one person.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
I want to be liked but I recognise that you can’t please all the people all the time. Hopefully some people who don’t like me might also respect me.
What does your support team look like?
I have eight key colleagues who report to me and on whom I rely. One of them has worked with me for over 20 years.
Do you have a run in the morning? Have wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I try to play tennis or do pilates twice a week, don’t drink at lunch and go home to be with my family after work.
What would your key management advice be?
Never give up on something you believe in and listen as much as possible.
What do you find the most difficult part of your job?
The frustration that comes with the failure to bring people along with you on the journey towards success.
Is it OK for employees to disagree with you or should they toe the line?
It’s essential for colleagues to feel able to not only disagree but also impart bad news as well as good. Picking the right people and creating a safe atmosphere to do this is also vital.
Have you ever made a mistake you wish you could take back?
Many mistakes, usually not acquiring certain films. But if 80 per cent of the decisions we make are the right ones, companies tend to be successful.
If you could fix one thing about your company today, what would it be?
I’d have more time to spend on creative thinking and less time on legal documents and profit-and-loss accounts.