As Cineplex Entertainment’s chief legal officer for the past 13 years, Anne Fitzgerald played a key role in the movie exhibitor’s growth, first into the dominant cinema chain in Canada, then into a fully nation-wide exhibitor. Now she’s helping Cineplex diversify away from reliance on theatre box-office and concession-stand revenues into a variety of new but related businesses.
Fitzgerald runs an in-house legal team of four lawyers and three law clerks. “We allocate to each person specific areas of responsibility, but every few years we switch that up to keep people engaged,” she says. “I have one person who is a commercial real estate expert, another who is a litigator and a third who is a marketing law expert.”
Back in 2005, when she joined the company, Fitzgerald was the legal team — Cineplex’s first in-house counsel since its bankruptcy in the Garth Drabinsky era.
A seasoned litigator from North Carolina, Fitzgerald emigrated to Canada in 2002 following her marriage to a Canadian. She had to wait 18 months for a Canadian work permit. Even after receiving the permit, she says, “I couldn’t find a job in Toronto. I was too senior to be brought in [to a law firm] as a junior associate and I didn’t have a book of work. So firms wouldn’t have been interested.”
In-house positions were scarce. For want of alternatives, she set up a solo practice and approached some of the major law firms for referral work.
Through networking, she was introduced to Dan McGrath, chief operating officer of Cineplex. The company engaged her as an external counsel to handle some small acquisitions and human-resource matters. In 2005, Cineplex made a $500-million acquisition of rival Famous Players from Viacom Inc., becoming the largest theatre chain in the country. Cineplex management wanted Fitzgerald to come in-house to do the transaction.
Having been a sole practitioner for a year, she didn’t have to be asked twice. “I wanted to be in a corporation working on a team,” she says. “I”m a social person. Working alone wasn’t fulfilling for me.” When she first joined the company, Fitzgerald felt like an outsider: Not only was she an American and a woman but, more to the point, the other executives had worked together for years and had strong ties to each other.
The Famous Players acquisition gave Fitzgerald a crash course in Canada’s geography, since the chain had locations across the country. She was also exposed to the workings of the Canadian government. The acquisition increased Cineplex’s share of the Canadian cinema market to 74 per cent from 32 per cent, triggering a review by the Competition Bureau. “As a litigator, I was comfortable managing that process — with external-counsel experts in competition law.
“There were no hearings but lots of meetings. I had comfort on my feet and could understand positioning and arguments.” The merger was approved, conditional on the divestiture of 27 locations in Ontario and western Canada to Empire Theatres.
Early in her career at Cineplex, Fitzgerald played a significant role in gaining protection for movie content in the Canadian market. She was one of several key advocates for the Motion Picture Theatre Associations of Canada in driving adoption of Canada’s anti-camcording legislation in 2008 — at a time when the country had a reputation as a stronghold of cinematic piracy.
In 2013, Cineplex acquired 24 Empire Theatres locations in the Atlantic provinces, becoming a nationwide theatre operator. “We did not have any theatres down East before that,” she says. Once again, Fitzgerald had to satisfy the competition watchdog.
Since then, the company’s acquisitions have gone in new directions. “We are constantly growing and diversifying,” says Fitzgerald. “To be part of that growth has been an extraordinary opportunity for me. Our strategic planning is directed by our executive team, and I’m one of the people on that executive team. My legal team handles the nuts and bolts of getting it done once we move ahead with an acquisition.”
A major area of diversification has been the arcade gaming distribution business. Cineplex bought New Way Sales Games Ltd., the company that ran the arcades in its theatre lobbies, then bought its primary competitor and three American gaming companies. “We now have a U.S. arcade gaming business, which is as large as our Canadian gaming business,” she says.
Another important area of M&A activity for diversification has been the digital media signage business. “That, too, started as something we did internally,” she says. “We already managed Cineplex concessions’ digital signage for ourselves, and saw this as something we could do for others. It’s all part of the same eco-system.”
On the litigation front, Fitzgerald says Cineplex has been “fortunate not to have substantial material litigation. There are much more complaints to manage than there is actual litigation.”
Earlier this year, a Kitchener, Ont. man who choked on popcorn at a Cineplex theatre and suffered brain damage brought a civil suit alleging that the theatre and its employees failed to help him as he was suffocating. The dispute was settled out of court.
In her youth, Fitzgerald wasn’t set on becoming a lawyer. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “A law degree is a lot more flexible than many other degrees, so that’s why I took law.” She did her JD at Duke University, then worked for five years in her hometown of Raleigh, N.C. as a commercial litigator in a large firm. The work consisted of reviewing documents and performing legal research. Fitzgerald says she never got to see the inside of a courtroom. So, in 1993, she took a six-month break from the law firm to head a youth leadership expedition in Alaska.
When she returned to North Carolina, she was hired as an assistant district attorney and did prosecutions for three years. She then spent three years as chief public defender for Montgomery County, Ill. “I loved prosecuting,” she recalls. “I found it to be intellectually challenging, and I got up every morning feeling that what I was doing really mattered. I felt the same way about defence, but I felt much more pressure to devote your entire life to being the defence lawyer. I didn’t ever want to see a false guilty verdict. That would be the worst thing that could ever happen.”
In 1999, a chance encounter with a past university professor led to the opportunity for Fitzgerald to teach leadership theory to Duke University seniors in New York in the Duke Leadership and the Arts program. While in New York, she went on a blind date with a Canadian man that led to her second marriage and her move to Canada.
Outside the office, Fitzgerald pursues an adventurous lifestyle that includes scuba diving and mountain climbing. She is a board member of Outward Bound Canada, a non-profit that encourages individuals to test their physical and emotional limits in challenging outdoor adventure programs.
“I had my first experience with Outward Bound when I was 15, and it changed my life,” she says. “I became a die-hard outdoors soul.” After finishing her undergraduate studies at Duke, Fitzgerald took a year off, working with the Victorian Archaeological Society. She scuba dived off the coast of Southern Australia, mapping shipwrecks.
Two years ago, she and her husband climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as part of a fundraiser for Outward Bound’s charitable programs. “Mountain climbing is always something I enjoy doing,” she says. As Cineplex continues to diversify its lines of business, Fitzgerald can expect to scale new heights both inside the office and beyond.
• Chief legal officer & corporate secretary, 2004-present
• Sole practitioner, Toronto, 2003-2004
• Associate professor, leadership & the arts, Duke University (New York), 1999-2002
• Chief public defender, Montgomery County, Ill., 1996-1999
• Assistant district attorney, Hoke and Scotland Counties, N.C., 1993-1996
• Articling student, associate, Smith Anderson, Blount-Raleigh, N.C.,
• JD degree, Duke University Law School, 1990