The Last Great Showman

At one time the motion picture business was filled with exuberant and dynamic individuals. In small towns, the two most important men in the community were the mayor and the owner/manager of the local movie theater. The mayor could get the snow cleared from your street in a timely fashion and the theater owner always had a couple of movie passes in his back pocket he could whip out in a moments notice. There was an air about the theater owner, a tie to the magic kingdom known as Hollywood. These men knew that they held the keys to a world of magic. They dressed differently, they acted differently and when the projector lights flickered they could transport the people who sat in their auditoriums to an assortment of different worlds. They were loud and they were proud.

These were showmen.

It is the Fall of 2017. I am waiting on the phone for a conference call to begin. Occasionally I am asked to provide my opinion on the state of the exhibition business. There are all kinds of analysts on the call, and frankly, they all seem to want to say that everything is great. Well, I disagree with this but I cannot saying anything because they have muted my phone, suddenly a strong and lilting voice is heard. The voice begins to speak, contradicting much of what the analysts have said.

I was overjoyed. Much of the time I often feel like Diogenes in this business, lantern in hand searching for an honest man. The voice made a lot of sense and just laid out the way it was in this business of ours. I am sure amongst the group of analysts on the call a few jaws dropped. The voice finished and was gone. I was elated, here was someone who told it like it is and didn’t care who disagreed with him. I immediately wrote the voice a brief email and thanked him for his candor and passion.

That was my first experience with Vincenzo Guzzo, President of Cinema Guzzo, the largest chain in Quebec and the operator of the 3rd largest chain in Canada. I got an email back from Vincenzo, letting me know anytime I wanted the straight goods, just drop him a line. Honest. Matter of fact and open. This was a real breath of fresh air.

Between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s due to the slow healing of the post-war Italian economy, approximately 20,000 to 30,000 Italians immigrated to Canada every year. By the 1960s, more than 15,000 Italian men worked in Toronto’s construction industry, representing one-third of all construction workers in the city at that time. In the late 1960s, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth and recovery, removing one of the primary incentives for emigration. Immigration to Canada slowed to a trickle. The origins of the Guzzo Empire lay in this immigration.

Angelo Guzzo arrived in Canada from Italy in 1967. After working for several years at an aircraft manufacturer as a machinist. Angelo Guzzo decided to buy a theater. In 1974 he bought Cinema Capri on Hochelaga Street in Montreal. He renamed it Le Paradis and rolled up his sleeves and began to make changes. Angelo made further changes in 1976 making him the first independent owner in Montreal to open a movie complex with three screens.

Vincenzo learned the movie exhibition at his father’s side. After earning a business degree at Western in London Ontario and later a law degree at the University Of Quebec in Montreal, he joined the family business.

In 1998 Angelo’s only son Vincenzo led the family’s fight against both distributors and major circuits. Distributors like Dreamworks and Paramount refused to book their titles into independent theaters. Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players promoted these practices. An injunction was filed in Quebec Provincial Court against Dreamworks for their refusal to distribute their films. The Guzzos won.

And so 42 years after landing in Canada, the Guzzo family has become the leading independent cinema theatre owner in Quebec. They now own 141 screens spread across 10 theatre complexes.

Angelo slowly ceded control of the chain to his son. Vincenzo, he leaped into the business with both feet, after watching his father build the chain from the ground up.

I have had the pleasure of visiting Vincenzo in his office in Terrebonne, Quebec. I have often thought I had the most eclectic office on the planet, I was wrong. Every inch of Guzzo’s office is filled with memorabilia and souvenirs from his many adventures. It is a very clean office but like the man himself filled with an avalanche of ideas. His staff exudes both warmth and deep engagement. I was lucky that day because Angelo Guzzo made an appearance, his face was lit up with a strong sense of joy and sense of pride in his son.

Written on the back of the business card which Vincenzo presents you when meeting him, is an advance apology for anything he might say in the future. This is a man who embraces his candor and wields like a sword. He dresses in yellow sweater vests, loosely attached ties, white shirts and of all things dark slippers with daisies on them. He looks at all times both stylish and very comfortable. All of his adornment is a reflection of his nickname “Mr. Sunshine”. Every ounce of his being evokes showmanship and many times he is the show.

Dragons’ Den is a reality TV show in Canada on which aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists in the hope of securing investment finance from them. Conceived originally in Japan, national iterations of the concept now plays in 30 countries. You have already guessed that in the USA this show is called Shark Tank. The producers of Dragon’s Den wisely asked Vincenzo to be one of the business tycoons on the show. He agreed. As a result during the screening of the 20 shows they produce yearly, Canada is subjected to the charms and candor of Mr. Guzzo and his reputation grows.

Guzzo is a more than strong advocate for the theatrical experience. During a speech given at the Montreal Chamber of commerce, he stated “Theaters are a perfect platform for movies. The problem is the content.” He rails against the studios and their repeated lack of innovation, while he strongly advocates for locally grown productions and proudly shows them on his screens. What he really is asking for in the exhibition industry is for a re-introduction of creative innovation and fairness. He is not happy with the content being presented by the studios.

The Canadian government in 2015 slid away from taxing Netflix, while at the same time taxing theaters. Vincenzo rallied against this and argued that Netflix should face a similar tax impact as the theaters. Guzzo argued, “I could also sell tickets online from Ireland and argue that my service is overseas so that I don’t have to collect GST and QST.”. The GST and the QST are forms of Federal and Provincial sales tax. He is right.

In 2019 the Liberal government is seeking re-election and now advocating for taxing Netflix in a manner that would benefit local movie Canadian productions. Guzzo strongly has always seen exhibition and production working tandem and has been a diligent advocate for the cinema of Quebec.

Never one to sit still, Guzzo has become a restaurateur-opening a chain of Italian pork sandwich locations called Porchetta, pizza outlets know as Guiletta as well as two white linen locations. Guzzo also sells his sandwiches and movie passes through COSTCO.

Guzzo and his wife Maria founded the Guzzo Family Foundation, which is aggressively invested in Cancer Nano research at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and McGill University. Guzzo’s contributions have been internationally recognized as he is the recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, was knighted by the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and is a distinguished member of the Order of Malta.

Here is a man who is passionate about the movie business, who operates with both honesty and candor, puts his money where his mouth his and provides for his community. Vincenzo Guzzo in my mind is the ultimate showman working in our business today.

One of the definitions of the word showman is a person skilled in dramatic or entertaining presentation, performance, or publicity.

That’s Vince to a tee. This is someone who is inspiring and whom I admire greatly.

Thank you, Vince, for your honesty and leadership.