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Digicel outbids Palace for Bolt film - Telecoms made offer too good to refuse

Published:Wednesday | December 21, 2016 | 12:00 AMSteven Jackson
Usain Bolt signs movie poster while in his room at the Corinthia Hotel in London last month.

Telecommunications provider Digicel has outbid listed cinema operator Palace Amusement Company for the documentary I Am Bolt, featuring Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

The move has resulted in the telecoms snatching a possible revenue driver for Palace, the island's largest cinema operator.

Universal Studios holds the distribution rights for I Am Bolt, while Island Records, a division of Universal Music, holds the rights to the soundtrack. Films from big Hollywood studios, including Universal, usually "flow" to Palace, said Douglas Graham, executive chairman of Palace Amusement.

"Digicel went to them and made them an offer they couldn't refuse," Graham told shareholders at the company's annual general meeting at its head office in Kingston last week.

"For Digicel, it's public relations, and for Universal, it's money," he said. "We were not in that."

The extent of the offer was not disclosed.

Digicel held a screening of the documentary at the National Indoor Sports Arena, where thousands of people attended. Digicel explained that they acquired the film to support Bolt, whom they sponsor.

"As a total communications and entertainment provider, we are always looking to bring the best locally relevant content to our valued customers in the region for them to access across our multiple channels and platforms," stated Antonia Graham, head of group public relations at Digicel. "In addition, since Usain is our chief speed officer, we wanted to support him in his latest endeavour."

Digicel also asserted that the producers never intended the documentary to be distributed in theatres and that the move ensured that many of the telecoms customers could see the story of Bolt.

The sprinter holds nine Olympic gold medals from three games.

The documentary, released in November, was directed by Benjamin Turner and Gabe Turner.

The Bolt documentary would have been an alternative to the regular Hollywood-scripted films shown by Palace Amusement. The core of Palace's alternative content remains 'high art' features rather than popular features like top 40 concerts, partially due to concerns about piracy and competition.

The cinema company also shows ballet in a country more in tune with dancehall music. To that end, Palace Amusement signed a new contract earlier this month to air three features from the Australian Ballet, in addition to performances from the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, the Metropolitan Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the National Theatre in London.

"It's not a major financial addition, but it will grow," Graham said about alternative content, which the company's annual report described as a new "thrust".

During the year, Palace's net profit dipped in half to $16 million on revenues of $909.2 million. The revenues were affected by eight per cent decline in cinema attendance.

"This was due mainly to the quality of the product that was available and the challenging economic times," stated the management discussion and analysis in the annual report.

Graham doesn't really expect profit to remain at that level next year.

"We are not budgeting on profit less than last year, but, you know, we are picture driven," he indicated, adding that the films did not only have to be good, but appropriate to the local audience. "We are in the hands of the producers to a large extent," Graham said.

"We realised there is an affordability problem in Jamaica and maybe not so much elsewhere," he said, referring to tickets that go as high as $1,700 for a box seat. The group operates three cinema locations including Carib 5, Palace Cineplex in Kingston and Palace Multiplex in Montego Bay. Palace also distributes films to Cove Cinema in Ocho Rios, St. Ann and Regal Cinema in Grand Cayman.