Talent on Tap – Mr. Sunshine Weathers the Covid Storm

This pandemic has almost killed our economy. It’s going to take years to recover and for the scars to fade. Many have lost lives and if you still have your health, then you should be grateful for that. Your lungs are untouched and you kept your bubble small, so your health was maintained… but your business has tanked and now the mental stress is so heavy, you can’t breathe. Unfortunately, they don’t make a respirator for that and some businesses cannot be saved. There are countless horror stories of shattered dreams, bankruptcy, divorce, permanent closures and temporary ones. We need escapism more than ever from our dark reality, but the theatres are closed too. How have they survived being closed this long and when can we expect to sit down with our favourite bag of popcorn again? These are difficult to answer, so I went to the source – the movie guru, the businessman, the Dragon and Canada’s own Mr. Sunshine… Vincent Guzzo of Cinémas Guzzo.


Vince Guzzo is an anomaly, he’s a force and he knows how to fix a problem better than anyone. With restaurant owners renegotiating their lease and theatres sitting in limbo, a good litigator can often resemble a superhero in times like these. With a B.A. in Economics and a law degree, Vince comes packing and you better know the language if you want to go more than one round with this Dragon. As I found out, you can save millions with the right clause in a contract. It won’t give you the golden parachute you were hoping for, but you were able to save the forest from the house fire. 


I had the very distinct opportunity to talk to this incredibly smart, funny, genuine, humble, grounded and dedicated family man at his home in Montreal. I felt like I had a window, if only for a moment, into the inner workings of government, the private sector, business strategies, contract law, finances, banks and popcorn. It was a fascinating conversation about a chain of theatres that have sat vacant for the past 14 months and what that contingency plan looks like.             


Since this interview, there has been an update indicating that Cinémas Guzzo has reopened their doors on May 28th, so congratulations to the Guzzo team!


HNMAG “At what age did you realize you would be filling your dad’s shoes, by taking over the chain of theatres for Cinémas Guzzo?”

VINCE “Because I’m an only child, I thought I would just go into the family business.  When I was 16, I had already been thinking about moving to the US to become a litigator. Before Harvey Specter existed, I wanted to be Harvey Specter. It was after I got my B.A. in Economics and came home to Montreal after Western, to start my law degree. My dad sat me down, to tell me that we had some choices to make. Because I was the only child, he wanted to know if they should remain in the business and make more of an effort to build it up, or if they should spend the rest of their days at ease, without the stresses of living as an entrepreneur. That’s when I said, ‘let me give it a shot’. After getting my law degree, I stayed in Montreal instead of going to New York. Once I was in there, I realized I was doing more litigating with US studios than I would be handling clients. One thing led to another and I’m here now as an entrepreneur in the movie business.”     


HNMAG “It’s been said that you would do your homework in your dad’s office at the movie theatre. Did you ever have ambitions for acting?”

VINCE “Yes and no. My dad owned the theatre when I was 4, so my past friends were those imaginary friends. In fact, it’s where I got my belief that, if it’s a good movie it will make you forget that you’re actually watching the movie. I remember having a discussion with my friends over dinner about the film What Women Want. I couldn’t get over the idea of ‘what if’ but in terms of being an actor, I don’t think I would make a very good one, unless the character I’m playing is me (laughing), because I can play me. I believe I’m a better fit for unscripted television, on The Dragons Den. I don’t think I could be an actor but I can be a reality actor.”


HNMAG “You had a lot of responsibility at a young age. What do you contribute to having prepared you for this role?”

VINCE “The fact that I’m an only child, many people don’t realize that you’re literally on your own, so there’s a certain maturity level that is obtained quicker. By doing my homework in my dad’s office meant that I would hear my father talk to people and work. There were certain realities of work and relationships that were much different at my age in comparison to others. I had to travel to The Dragons Den and needed a permission slip to go over the Ontario border. One of the people from The Dragons Den said I was really high maintenance, but they didn’t understand that I was moving my office. The fact that I’m going to The Dragons Den for 3 weeks to film does not mean that my work stops. I still have to put in those 3-4 hours of work per day even on holidays because life goes on. I don’t make a distinction between work and personal life; it’s all one of the other. 

Most people renovated their home during Covid, I didn’t. My intentions were on my business and figuring out how to repivot and how do I prepare. More than pivoting the business, we’ve set it up, so when we re-open, the bounce back will be shorter. A lot of people are saying that we’ve lost 5 years of profitability. I don’t want to wait 5-years, I want to make it back in 2 years. To do that, you have to look at everything, relook at the accounting and look at everything to see how it’s being optimized. 

I’m at home working or teaching my kids stuff, allowing me to get closer to them during this time. As an only child, those responsibilities came more naturally to me.”                 


HNMAG “Running a chain of theatres in Québec sounds like a bulletproof business that could do no wrong but then the Covid pandemic hit and many businesses that catered to large crowds were forced to go under. What was your plan of action when you heard that theatres had to close?”

VINCE “My first approach was to get closer to the gov. in power and try to guide them through the mistakes they were about to make. It took 3 days after the theatres were shut down for the government to plead with the parents to control their teenagers. I don’t know what they were expecting teenagers to do, when they’re restricted. I went in there to try to help and guide them through what I perceived as a huge mental health impact and in fact, it opened 3 months later. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that the politicians that we have – have zero communication skills. We initially tried to help but we quickly realized that they weren’t interested in helping us, they were just interested in covering their own butts. We told them not to wait for Ottawa, but to order their own vaccines, then send Ottawa the bill. After a while, you get discouraged and realize the best people in our society are not the ones elected to run our government. It’s every man for themselves, so we started working on our reopening plan and what we needed to do to open in a more successful and more economically efficient way. For example, my burn rate in the first 3 months was 1 million per month and now it’s 400 thousand per month; I saved 600 thousand. I went in and eliminated a few things to make sure things would be done differently.”


Factoid: Vince let me in on a little beauty tip; he cuts his own hair and has been doing so since the age of 16. 


HNMAG “How long in advance are you aware of a film release and when do you begin negotiations with distribution?”

VINCE “Normally, we know up to 6 months – year in advance of a movie coming out. We usually start ‘posturing’ 4 weeks ahead of time. The deals usually get closed 2 weeks – sometimes literally the day before. You make the commitment, which is usually on a Monday, then you close the deal normally on a Friday or you call them on a Sunday to tell them it’s a piece of crap or if you really loved it, you’ll tell them that it’s ok, but it might be a hard sell, so you try to posture to get a better price on the whole royalty deal. Then we close the deal.”   


HNMAG “What percentage of ticket sales would go back to distribution?”

VINCE “It’s normally anywhere from 50-55% on average. A lot of people don’t realize that the biggest part of our profits come from the concessions and arcade area, where we keep all the money. Royalty fees are very expensive in the movie industry. It’s not 8 or 10 percent, it’s a lot. It explains why the studios have not bypassed movie theatres because streaming and VOD won’t cut it. They don’t make the same kind of money during the pandemic.” 



HNMAG “What have you learned the most from having to face this level of economic downturn?”

VINCE “One thing I think we’ve all learned, I’ve learned, my kids have learned, is that nothing is guaranteed anymore. You can’t do a forecast for the next 20 years believing it’s a 2% increase per year revenue. We saw it – we went from 50 million to 0 overnight. It was like, ‘Oh my god!’ It did allow us to look at areas where there were inefficiencies and god knows there was, there were huge amounts of inefficiencies, as well as employee benefits that I don’t believe they valued, but going forward I think they will appreciate what they had. As an entrepreneur, resilience and anxiety are something you have to live with on a daily basis. It’s the difference between a successful and non successful entrepreneur – it’s their resilience to forge forward.”     


HNMAG “You studied economics at Western University in Ontario and later Law at Université de Québec á Montréal. I understand the economics but why did law interest you?”

VINCE “I think it’s always important. The first thing I did when I came out of university was to negotiate leases for the theatre. A lot of people don’t realize it but I have a usage clause that says – if I can’t run a movie theatre due to forces out of my control, I don’t have to pay the rent. That 1 clause in all my leases has saved me millions of dollars in the last 14 months. With the government shut downs and gov. restrictions that forbid you from selling popcorn or other things… I can’t use the premises for what I had rented it for. We either sit down and negotiate a lower rent or the theatre isn’t opening. In fact, that’s the reason my theatres didn’t open for the last 3 months. They want to give us an 8 o’clock curfew, so I lose half the showings in a day/weekend. Then, they’re telling us no popcorn – there’s 50% of the revenue, then no arcade… there’s another 10 %. What am I actually operating; under a maximum 20 percent? Popcorn is very symbolic and when you tell people they can go to movie theatres but you must keep your mask on because it’s dangerous if you take it off. Most people hear, ‘it’s dangerous if you go to movie theatres.” 


HNMAG “How did your education in economics help you to prepare for the big shift in our economy?”

VINCE “Economics is the basis of supply and demand. The course that really influenced me the most, was a cost benefit analysis course. It was really first and foremost, for anybody who wanted to go into the public sector. On a project, you have to determine the cost and the benefit but the benefit is non monetary. Now you’ve got to evaluate people’s standard of living and convenience. I actually apply that course to everything I do in life. When I go to spend 3-weeks at The Dragons Den, somebody might say to me, ‘wouldn’t those 3-weeks be better spent running your theatres coming out of this pandemic. They might be right if you’re just looking at it monetarily, but I now have a popcorn line that came from an idea on The Dragons Den. I also have a t-shirt company that came from the show. In 2021/2022 I’m going to be much more massively involved in the food retail department… and that came from DD. I also have a louder voice now, thanks to DD. Now when I talk to my government to tell them to wake up and help us to get back the money that their incompetence has forced us to lose.” 


HNMAG “You thank The Dragons Den for giving you a louder voice. Who are you talking to?”

VINCE “A lot of universities approach me, the media approaches me for feedback on things, the Bank of Canada has been calling me non stop for the last couple of years to ask when the recession is coming, not coming. Somebody from the BBC had asked what we thought banks will have to do for entrepreneurs in the next few years. I said that they’ll have to forget about the 5 – year amortization and extend it to 10 years because they won’t be able to pay it back in 5 years if they’ve just indebted themselves with no assets or gain. Any restaurant that’s gotten into debt in the last 14 months, has nothing to show for it. They have no new location, no new equipment, no new business… but he’s on the hook for an extra 500,000.00. He either gets forgiven by somebody or they have to extend it to 10 years, so now it’s a 50,000.00 hit, rather than a 100,000.00 hit. As an example, movie theatres were not eligible for the first rent subsidy, but we became eligible for the second – which wasn’t a coincidence. The movie industry was represented and I was part of that.”


HNMAG “You have 5 children and in 2007 you and your wife Maria formed the Guzzo Family Foundation, which raises money for the Jewish General Hospital, the Shriners Hospital and Youth Mental Health.  Why is it important to you to support youth mental health?”

VINCE “For many years we never took mental health seriously. We always thought it was an excuse or viewed it as a sign of weakness. People with anxiety issues were just insecure or people with depression were just weak. Many people don’t realize the difference between anxiety and stress, one is covered medically and the other is not. The levels of suicide in the last 14 months are through the roof. The government doesn’t want to mention it because they might appear unempathetic or lack of effort in addressing it. Not only does mental health affect the individual, it also affects their family. For some reason, we believe that physical ailments are more concrete and mental health ailments are just an excuse, they’re making it up and you’re one of the weak ones. I don’t believe that and I can tell you, a child that grows up in a family where one of the parents have gone through bouts of depression, has had to build some resilience.” 


HNMAG “When it was pre-pandemic, there were some great movies hitting the theatres. What’s the last movie you watched in the theatre with your wife Maria?”

VINCE “That’s a good question, I watch so many of them. The last one would’ve been in early February but I can’t remember what it was called. My wife and I would go to the movies once a week; it was almost like work for me. I like to see how things are going in that theatre to make sure everything’s fine. It’s always a surprise visit.”


HNMAG “Once we are safe to open our theatres again, how long will it take to have each theatre operational and ready for business?”

VINCE “2 weeks! To get everything dusted off and call people back, to get the projectors up and running again, ensure the air-conditioners are back up and running at full capacity. It takes about 2 weeks to really get it going – but it could take up to a month because we need the movies. Because the US is up and rolling, those movies are coming out no matter what, so we’re gonna have movies. If they were to announce tomorrow, that the theatres can open, I’ll have them open in less than 2-weeks.” 


HNMAG “What do you love most about being a theatre chain owner and do you still enjoy the popcorn?”

VINCE “I love popcorn, I don’t eat chips. I’m a big milk chocolate and popcorn guy and tried some strange combinations like banana chocolate flavoured popcorn. I love bananas, so I combined the two. I love the movie business because I know for a lot of people, it’s the only time they get to dream and it’s their only means of escape. I once teased a minister of health and said that we should be charging therapy sessions for 1 ½ hours because it is therapy for many people. It’s socializing without having to say hi or bye to anyone.”  


HNMAG “As a theatre owner, who is the biggest celebrity you’ve had lunch with?”

VINCE “I’ve had dinner with a lot of them… Schwarzenegger, Pacino, DeNiro. When they would come to Montreal, I was the guy they’d ask to get them into certain restaurants. Everyone is the king of your domain and Montreal was mine. Movie productions were big in the Montreal market. I’d always take the opportunity and some of them would come to my restaurant or I’d get them into other restaurants, depending on where they wanted to go. Sometimes I like to say to them – they’re a celebrity because I play their films. Before they were in the movies, nobody knew who they were – it tends to ground everybody.”       


HNMAG “Have you ever solidified a deal with a coin toss or handshake?”

VINCE “A handshake yes, a coin toss no. I don’t leave a deal to chance. Some of my food partners were handshake deals that are now going onto their eleventh year. It’s all about credibility and your word is your bond.”


HNMAG “If you were cast to be the lead in a blockbuster film, who would you want your supporting actor to be?”

VINCE “Because I know that my wife might listen to this, I’m going to say Sandra Bullock. In reality however, I’d probably go with Angelina Jolie, someone a little more risqué (laughing).”


HNMAG “Last question – Do you ever see yourself producing/backing a feature film if you had A list stars and the story was absolutely incredible?”

VINCE “I actually do that already. I actually have a film being released once the theatres are opened. The French title translates to Home Delivery Without any Contact. It’s basically a story about 2 stand-up comedians that are out of work because of the pandemic. They resort to being delivery men and everytime they deliver a package, whatever is in the package becomes a sketch comedy about that delivery.” 


Vince Guuzo a.k.a. Mr. Sunshine is an extraordinary entrepreneur with a mission. He wants to put bodies in seats with a fresh bag of popcorn and a soda. He wants you to lose yourself in the images, the story, the characters. Don’t you miss it?


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