Thursday 15 November 2018

A REEL-LIFE IRISH FEUD now showing in the courtS

The e100m movie house empire founded half a century ago by half-brothers Leo Ward and Kevin Anderson is in danger of fading away in interminable legal battles, writes Philip Ryan

Along-running feud between two of Ireland's most successful families threatens to call "cut" on a 50-year business relationship that produced the multi-million-euro Ward Anderson cinema empire.

The thriving cinema business established in the late 1940s by half-brothers, Leo Ward and Kevin Anderson, controls half the country's screens and revolutionised a trip to the pictures for the Irish public.

The pair, now both retired, muscled their way into the Irish movie scene as relative outsiders who could not get distribution deals on new releases to compete with Hollywood studios.

With an estimated net worth edging towards the €100m mark, the Ward Anderson clans own Dublin landmarks The Savoy and the Screen, along with the Omniplex and Irish Multiplex Cinemas (IMC) chains.

However, more than a half a century since the company's formation, the heirs to the family business have found themselves locked in what Justice Peter Kelly called an "extraordinarily bitter" dispute.

The sons of the group's founders, Paul Ward and Paul Anderson, have recently been forced into airing their dirty laundry in the courts in a bid to settle a row over the opening of a new cinema in the St Stephen's Green Shopping Centre in Dublin.

Many years ago, in a 1992 interview with American movie magazine, Box Office, Paul Ward, who lives in Mount Merrion in Blackrock, Dublin, put the company's success down to the family-run ethos of the business.

"Unlike a company where shareholders have a vote and can be turned down by the majority, this being a family-run business, any member has his chance for a say. While you might not agree, you respect his wishes," the 63-year-old businessman said.

Fast forward 20 years to June 15 this year and the same Paul Ward is storming out of board meeting in Galway telling his half-brother: "I will not take part in any meetings you are chairing," according to affidavits Mr Anderson filed with the High Court.

It seems a long way since Leo Ward packed in a promising career as a footballer with Manchester City during their heyday in the late 1930s to return to Ireland at the onset of World War II.

Back in Dublin, Leo signed a £8-a-week deal with Drumcondra Football Club, who at the time were a force in Irish football and drew crowds of more than 30,000 to Tolka Park.

Ward even turned down another chance to return to Manchester City following the end of the war and played on with the Drums until his testimonial in 1949, when £500 was raised on the turnstiles.

Soon after retirement from football and with the lights of Hollywood in his eyes, Leo teamed up with his half- brother, Kevin, who had become an accountant, and began buying the rights to films and selling them to cinemas at a profit.

Leo was one of 10 children born to Martha Anderson and John Ward in Fairview in 1919. Both his parents had been married twice and he was the first-born of their second marriage. Kevin was born four years earlier in 1915.

By 1955, their hard work came to fruition when they bought The Premier cinema in Lucan for £18,000.

Paul Anderson told the Irish Times in 2006 how in the early days his father worked as the projectionist and his mother Carmel would look after the cinema's shop with his sister, Lorna, while his brothers, Tom and David, would take the tickets and as a nine-year-old he would even work as a cashier.

The Ward children also got dragged into the family business, with Paul spearheading the clan's side of the operation in later years, while his sisters, Jean Kennedy and Carol O'Riordan, are still on the boards of various cinema companies.

Paul Ward and his wife Mary are on the board of the Dublin Cinema Group, along with Paul Anderson and his 40-year-old son Mark.

Paul's wife Margaret is on the board of the Anderson-owned Omniplex cinema company which owns screens in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Paul and Mary Ward's children Lorcan, 26, and Audrey, 35, are also listed as directors in the maze of family businesses.

As minnows of the Irish cinema scene in the 1960s and 1970s, the Ward and Anderson patriarchs were not able to acquire the rights for new releases and were instead showing films that had already been shown weeks earlier in bigger theatres.

But, in a moment of genius, Leo travelled to London and secured the Irish rights to the first seven James Bond films, which he showed back-to-back at The Green cinema in St Stephen's Green.

The back-to-back screenings were a huge success and he repeated the format throughout the 1970s, captivating audiences with Bruce Lee and Carry On movie marathons.

The influx of revenue gave the Ward Anderson dynasty more buying power and they were eventually able to show the coveted new releases in their picture houses.

The company's crowning achievement came in 1984 when the brothers purchased Dublin landmark, the Savoy, along with the Metropole and Odeon cinemas, for £3m from their rivals, the British-owned Rank Organisation.

The following year, to celebrate their new acquisition, Ward and Anderson – now operating as the Dublin Cinema Group – slashed their admission prices to £1 and watched as throngs of people lined the streets outside their theatres.

Speaking to the Irish Times in July 1985, Leo's son Paul said: "We think we got 6,000 at the Savoy and it only has a total of 2,100 seats.

"But lots of people came back and tried again. Splash and Breakdance were the most popular."

In the same article, Kevin's son Paul is quoted as saying, "We'll show the public whatever they want."

With the Celtic Tiger approaching, the princelings of the Ward Anderson empire took a more central role in the company and relationships began to sour.

Recent court filings suggest the first row broke out in 1997 over a contract to develop a cinema complex at the Bloomfield Shopping Centre in Dun Laoghaire.

Paul Anderson claimed he had initially planned to develop the site before Paul Ward told him his father was interested in a joint venture on the project, which Mr Anderson accepted.

But the Wards never offered any interest in the project to their business partner once the development commenced, according to the affidavits Mr Anderson filed in the High Court.

Over the next five years, the relationship became even more toxic, according to Mr Anderson.

He alleges that without warning on December 1, 2003, the Wards moved out of the company's office on Abbey Street in Dublin.

When leaving, the Wards took with them computer hardware and software and a number of important company records which were owned jointly by the two families, Mr Anderson claimed.

Mr Anderson alleges that he then set his lawyers on his business partners and the Wards returned the company records but kept the computer equipment. In 2007, Paul Anderson also complained when Paul Ward appointed his wife Mary to several boards that his father had retired from without consulting the other directors.

Mr Ward said he would not be commenting on the case until the matters "have either been mediated successfully or resolved by the courts".

The current court room battle centres on Anderson's plans to develop a cinema on the top floor of St Stephen's Green Shopping Centre in Dublin.

The Green cinema, which closed 25 years ago, holds a special place in Anderson's heart as it was the first cinema he managed in 1966 as a 19-year-old.

However, Ward has alleged that his involvement in the project is a breach of a company agreement and will threaten the viability of their other Dublin City Centre interests, namely the Savoy and the Screen.

Two weeks ago, Justice Peter Kelly suggested the family should seek the services of a mediator rather than engage in an expensive and drawn out court battle.

Last Saturday, the families took Judge Kelly's advice and agreed a settlement on one company in their vast cinema portfolio, but the battle to control Ireland's biggest movie empire is far from over.

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