b. October 27, 1949, Toronto, Ontario
Garth Drabinsky’s remarkable – and remarkably turbulent – career has been exemplified by that quality characteristic of almost all Greek tragedies: hubris. An inimitable impresario and a breathtakingly ambitious creative genius who has claimed that "selling vision" is his modus operandi, Drabinsky’s career cycle has consisted of charming and hectoring his way to the top, crashing down, then climbing the ladder to success once more. He built two entertainment empires, first in the film exhibition business and then in live theatre, and lost them both due to accusations of such questionable business practices as the accruement of massive debt, rapid overexpansion and bad bookkeeping.
By his own admission a complex, difficult, single-minded and self-centred man, Drabinsky modelled his aggressive business tactics after his idol, Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor. The son of an air-conditioner salesman, Drabinsky had an early brush with death when he contracted polio at the age of three. The near-fatal disease left him with not only a limp in his left leg, but also a zest for life, a hunger for success and a general sense of fearlessness.
As a law student in his twenties, Drabinsky edited The Canadian Film Digest, where he met and became something of an apprentice to the legendary pioneering movie exhibitor Nat Taylor. After developing a condominium complex, Drabinsky produced his first feature film, The Disapperance, in 1977 (it was released in 1981). He continued to capitalize on the business advantages afforded during the tax-shelter years and produced several high-profile, commercially-inclined Canadian films, including The Silent Partner (1978) with Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer, The Changeling (1979) with George C. Scott and Tribute (1980) with Jack Lemmon.
In 1979, Drabinsky joined forces with his mentor Taylor and formed Pan Canadian Distribution, which soon became Cineplex, a chain of movie houses that capitalized on Taylor’s revolutionary concept of multi-screen theatres. That same year, Taylor and Drabinsky built their first Cineplex cinema, an eighteen-screen complex in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, which at the time was the largest multi-screen theatre in the world.
In the early eighties, Cineplex grew at a phenomenal rate and, in 1984, Drabinsky and his new business partner, Myron Gottlieb, bought out Canadian Odeon and created Cineplex Odeon; at its peak, Cineplex Odeon was the largest theatre chain in North America, with over eighteen hundred screens in five hundred locations throughout Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Included within the corporation were Canada’s largest independent film distribution company (Cineplex Odeon Films), the country’s largest film studio complex (Toronto International Studios) and its largest motion picture laboratory and post-production sound and editing facility (Film House, later absorbed by Deluxe Laboratories).
However, Drabinsky and Gottlieb were forced out of Cineplex Odeon in 1989 by MCA Inc. (Drabinsky had brought the Hollywood entertainment conglomerate on board a few years earlier to help pursue the construction and operation of a studio tour attraction and production facility in Orlando, Florida). MCA claimed that Drabinsky and Gottlieb had accrued a whopping $587 million in debt against only $300 million in equity. When Drabinsky tried to wrest control of the company away from MCA by buying out the other shareholders – primarily the Bronfman family of Montreal – MCA convinced the Cineplex Odeon board of directors to oust him and Gottlieb.
Drabinsky, however, bounced back. For $88 million, he and Gottlieb purchased the live theatre division they had developed a year earlier and, in 1989, created Live Entertainment Corp. (Livent). The new company consisted of one theatre (The Pantages in Toronto) and one production – The Phantom of the Opera, which made $45 million in its first year and went on to become one of the most successful live theatre productions of all time. Following the industrial example of his hero Zukor, Drabinsky kept Livent vertically integrated to ensure maximum profits. The company not only produced shows, but owned theatres and everything else in the chain of production and supply, from costume and makeup companies to set-building shops. Livent went on to enjoy a string of great artistic and financial successes as a producer of mega-musicals; the company’s productions garnered nineteen Tony Awards and a total of sixty-one nominations, including wins for Kiss of the Spider Woman (Best Musical), Fosse (Best Musical) and Show Boat (Best Musical Revival). Drabinsky’s efforts also helped make Toronto the third-largest live theatre market in the English-speaking world after New York and London.
But in 1998, Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz and a group of American investors bought controlling interest in Drabinsky’s company and discovered what they claimed were fraudulent transactions designed to make musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime appear more profitable. The board of Livent (which went public in 1993) sued Drabinsky and Gottlieb for $225 million. The two men countersued, but they were charged with nineteen counts of fraud in Canada and sixteen in the United States, all involving close to a half-billion dollars of Livent money. In Canada, a four-year investigation by the RCMP ensued.
Through it all, Drabinsky maintained an ultra-confident veneer and continued to survive by combining his genius as a marketer and his network of supportive contacts. He became something of a hired gun, working as a marketing consultant to the Toronto Argonauts football team, Frank Stronach’s amusement park near Los Angeles, Conrad Black’s National Post newspaper, as well as golf courses, racetracks and luxury hotels in the Muskokas owned by the Reisman family.
He also made a foray back into live theatre, which he insists has always been closest to his heart; his first post-Livent production of Athol Fugard’s The Island won several Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2001. He also returned to film production in 2003 with The Gospel of John, the first in a planned trilogy of religious films based on the gospels of the apostles.
Drabinsky has served on the boards of directors of numerous high profile arts organizations, including the Toronto Theatre Festival, National Theatre School of Canada, Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival®), Vancouver International Film Festival, American Cinematheque and Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies. He won the Canadian Film Award for Best Feature Film (The Silent Partner) in 1978, the Genie Award for Best Motion Picture and the Golden Reel Award for highest box-office gross (The Changeling) in 1980 and the Air Canada Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Film Industry in 1987. He is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and has received two honourary doctorate degrees from Canadian universities.