Business Monday

Steven Krams, Miami’s movie man: For the love of film — and projectors, too

Steven Krams, president and owner of Magna-Tech Electronic Co., stands with a hand-cranked Bell & Howell 2709 35mm motion picture camera (the same make and model Charlie Chaplin used in his films around 1918), left, and a Mitchell Camera Corp. camera used for outdoor movie filming by big studios, on Sept. 10, 2015.
Steven Krams, president and owner of Magna-Tech Electronic Co., stands with a hand-cranked Bell & Howell 2709 35mm motion picture camera (the same make and model Charlie Chaplin used in his films around 1918), left, and a Mitchell Camera Corp. camera used for outdoor movie filming by big studios, on Sept. 10, 2015.

Steven Krams was 5 years old when his father took him to see the family comedy Who Killed Doc Robbin at the Elm Theater in Brooklyn, New York. But instead of looking at the screen, the young Krams kept staring up at the projection booth, intrigued by the beam of light emanating from within.

“My dad said, ‘I know the projectionist here. Want to go see what the equipment looks like?’” Krams says. “So we stepped through this door at the back of the balcony, and I saw two projectors with reels spinning around and smoke belching out of the carbon arc lamps. I was hooked then and there.”

Today, Krams has a vast collection of 70mm, 35mm and 16mm film projectors and cameras dating back to the silent era. Hundreds of them are cataloged and stockpiled inside the 12,000-square-foot North Miami headquarters of Magna-Tech Electronic Co., with 17 full-time employees, where he is CEO and president. The rest of the machines are housed at the company’s larger, 55,000-square-foot Atlanta facility, where a smaller staff of seven works on the company’s larger projects — including planetariums.

Krams, 70, talks with such enthusiasm and affection about his collection that he could pass for an enthusiast with a super-expensive hobby. (“This one belonged to Clark Gable,” he says about a beautifully restored camera displayed outside his office.) But Magna-Tech is all business — one with a sterling reputation within the global yet niche cinema equipment supply industry.

“Steven is a pioneer — one of the first players in this business,” says Vilma Benitez, CEO of Bardan Cinema, a competing movie theater supplier based in Miami that concentrates on Latin America and the Caribbean. “We started in 1977, and he was already established. We would buy equipment from him. He’s always had very high technical standards, and he’s also a dear friend. He’s one of the most knowledgeable people in this industry in terms of what’s going on and where it’s going.”

Much like chain-owned multiplexes pushed out privately-owned neighborhood movie theaters, the once-bustling cinema equipment supply industry in the U.S. has dwindled to a handful of firms.

“If it seems like there are just a few national players in this sort of business, it’s only because exhibition itself mimics that trend in this country,” says Daniel Loria, managing editor of BoxOffice Media, which publishes BoxOffice, the official trade publication of the National Association of Theater Owners. “With the exception of the top two national chains, Regal and AMC, you can still see somewhat of a regional focus in U.S. exhibition, which I would argue isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There remain many other regional and medium-sized circuits that allow companies like Magna-Tech and others to thrive in a competitive economic landscape.” Though the theater supply business involves only a handful of companies now, it serves as the backbone for movie box-office receipts, which totaled more than $10 billion in the U.S. in 2014.

When it comes to projection, Magna-Tech Electronic does everything from refurbishing old film projectors with new, tailor-made parts for a private home theater (cost: $10,000) to upgrading the aged IMAX system at the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak theater inside New York City’s Museum of Natural History with 4K digital and 3D capabilities (cost: $400,000).

The firm also upgrades pre-existing facilities such as the Douglass Theater in Macon, Georgia, a former vaudeville house that opened in 1921 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After being shuttered for 20 years, the 319-seat venue reopened in 1997 as a performance space and movie theater and has since been retrofitted with 35mm, digital, and 3D projection and surround sound (cost: $250,000).

But adaptive reuse is only one facet. Krams’ main business focuses on cinema and theater solutions — what he likes to call “one-stop shopping.” Magna-Tech Electronic sells and installs film and state-of-the-art digital projectors, sound systems, screens and seating worldwide, from Dubai to Korea to Peru.

Unlike many of his former competitors, Krams has been able to change with the times. The release of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 had a momentous impact on the film exhibition business, forcing theater chains to convert from 35mm to 3D digital projector systems. According to IHS Screen Digest, a trade publication, 35mm accounted for 100 percent of projection technology in cinemas around the world in 2004. Today, less than 20 percent of movie houses rely solely on the now-outdated technology, mirroring Hollywood’s increasing trend of digital film production.

“The necessity for this industry is not as great today as it used to be when we had an electro-mechanical projection system,” Krams says. “[Film] projectors required daily maintenance and parts, and there were many mom-and-pop theater operations. Today, after the change from analog to digital, maintenance on projectors is done over the Internet.”

But, he says, one door leads to another. “Since Avatar, we have installed more than 500 digital projection [theaters] in North and South America. That’s also the reason we’re now doing business with museums and planetariums and special venues. The industry is taking left and right turns. In order to keep up, you have to stay adaptable. You’d be crazy not to be constantly looking for ways to adapt your business model into other industries.”

Projector hardware installation and upgrades are only two of the services Krams provides. Folded inside Magna-Tech Electronic are three other companies:

▪ Magna-Tech Entertainment, which offers theater management, fit-out and installation (they can design a multiplex from scratch as they did in Nassau, where the company oversaw the five-screen RND Cinemas in 1996, the first multiplex in the Bahamas).

▪ Continental Film and Digital Labs, which performs film processing, video transfers and coloring/correction of raw digital files (from Hollywood studio productions such as Rock of Ages and 2 Fast 2 Furious to commercial spots for Boston Market and Nissan).

▪ Konica Minolta Planetarium, which builds and installs many types of planetariums from concept to completion, old-fashioned projection to state-of-the-art digital 3D (current project: a $1 million renovation of the Pink Palace Museum’s Sharpe Planetarium in Memphis, Tennessee).

Magna-Tech was approached by the Tokyo-based Konica Minolta Planetarium Co. to partner with it in 2012 as its agents throughout North America and to provide sales, service, installation and support of 40-50 planetarium systems.

“When Konica Minolta needed a new representative in the U.S., we looked at many companies,” says Philip Groce, the Georgia-based planetarium design consultant contracted by Konica Minolta who chose Magna-Tech. “One of the things that intrigued me the most was Steven’s motto of ‘Give me four walls and a roof, and we’ll give you a theater.’ Magna-Tech already specialized in adapting and building for giant screens, so this was a natural leap for them. I admire how Steven actively wants to understand the technology and how it works. He’s very experienced but still has a young mind, and he’s very interested in doing things that entertain and also teach.”

Groce says Krams’ understanding of movie theaters has “effectively changed Konica Minolta and inspired them to create a more cost-effective product, because [Krams] would like to see a planetarium everywhere. That’s the part that was missing in Konica Minolta’s understanding of the North American market: What it takes to make a theater and get people through the door. It’s not just delivering great optics. Moving forward, they’re going to be far better positioned.”

Konica Minolta Planetarium president Hiroaki Ueda agrees.

“This fall marks Magna-Tech’s third year as our North American distributor, and we’re elated to have them as our representatives,” he says. “For nearly 50 years, Steven Krams has been creating motion picture theaters around the world featuring the stars of Hollywood, Asia and Europe. Now with our planetarium technologies, his company enters into the universe of education where students and families learn about the real stars of the night sky. These immersive theaters provide audiences with an awe-inspiring look at the cosmos. [We] could not ask for a more stellar partner.”

Planetarium biz

Although the jump from movie theater projection might seem radical, Krams points out the technology is surprisingly similar.

Says Krams, “Everything is digital, just like movie theaters now … At a movie, you’re sitting in front of a horizontal image. In a planetarium, you’re just using a dome, with special optics. It’s more complicated — in a movie theater, you want a bright picture, but in a planetarium, you want to project jet-black, to simulate the night sky. But the basic concept is the same.”

Magna-Tech is currently maintaining 15 planetariums and has installed five of them, with another three in progress (including one for the city of Jackson, Mississippi at a cost of $500,000). That work is done out of the Atlanta facility because of the size requirements of the equipment.

The company also travels the world to participate in industry trade shows and book new business. (This week, Krams will be attending the Kino Expo International in St. Petersburg, Russia, the world’s third-largest cinema industry convention.)

But if you live in South Florida, chances are you have already witnessed Magna-Tech’s work. Krams participated in the refurbishing of venues such as the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road, the Byron Carlyle in Miami Beach and the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami. He oversaw the reconstruction of Little Havana’s iconic Tower Theater for the city of Miami in 2002 and supervised its operation before the theater was taken over by Miami Dade College.

Arturo Quintero, 59, was an architect at the firm hired by the city of Miami to renovate the then-shuttered Tower in 1993.

“We needed a consultant with knowledge of cinemas, but we didn’t have anyone in the office who could do that,” Quintero says. “That was before the Internet, so I just looked in the Yellow Pages and found Steven. He came to the office and told me what equipment we needed. I made a set of drawings and gave them to him for comments. A week later, he came back and said he really liked what he saw. A couple of months after that, he asked me to come aboard and head the design department.”

Quintero has been Magna-Tech’s cinema design consultant since 1996, figuring out wall widths between auditoriums, calculating the necessary heights of projection booths, establishing sight lines and dealing with other technical matters. The company helps customers wanting to get into the movie theater business with details ranging from suggesting potential properties and locations for a venue to demographic studies.

More recently, Krams supervised the design and outfitting of the Coral Gables Art Cinema, a nonprofit venture between the city of Coral Gables and Magna-Tech built on a patch of land intended to house an underground electrical vault for an adjacent parking garage at 260 Aragon Ave. Since opening its doors in 2010, the Gables Art Cinema has become one of the nation’s busiest single-screen arthouse theaters. Since its opening, Krams has served as executive director of the Gables Cinema’s board and was instrumental in luring Nat Chediak, the co-founder of the Miami International Film Festival, back to the exhibition game as director of programming for the single-screen theater.

“Steven was the one who installed the 35mm equipment at my first theater (the Coral Gables Cinematheque) over 40 years ago,” Chediak says. “Only an old friend could have lured me back to exhibition after a 13-year absence. He’s not easy to turn down.”

Since the Gables Art Cinema is a nonprofit entity (all the equipment inside the theater, from the projector to the seats, was donated by Krams’ clients), Chediak credits Krams with bringing art films back to Coral Gables “out of the goodness of his heart. In a community where philanthropy is often vanity in disguise, Steve does not need to have his largesse to the cinema advertised.”

Coral Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark was the development director instrumental in facilitating the construction of the cinema in 2010. “Steven Krams does it for the love of film and what it means to people, not for the love of himself,” she says. “Through that love, he has accomplished amazing things.”

There is an unmistakable twinkle of passion mixed in with Krams’ business sense. Walking around a tall storage room in the North Miami office filled with vintage projectors — some of them in working condition, others awaiting restoration — Krams can tell you the history of every contraption. (“This little guy over here,” he says, pointing out one machine, “is the 16th Todd-AO camera [a high-resolution widescreen format created in the 1950s]. Only about 20 of these were made.”)

In Magna-Tech’s machine shop and technical department, Cuban brothers Francisco and Pablo Blanco continue to work in the industry their parents did back home in Cuba. (Their father was a projectionist at the Fenix Theater in Havana.) Currently, the brothers are retrofitting old projectors — practically relics in today’s era of digital multiplex projection — with the capability to unspool 70mm negative stock, a rarely-used, extra-wide film negative that offers higher resolution than traditional 35mm. Quentin Tarantino has resurrected the format and will premiere his new film, the minimalist western The Hateful Eight, on Dec. 25 only in theaters equipped with 70mm projectors.

Boston Light & Sound, the consulting company overseeing the 70mm project for Tarantino and distributor Weinstein Co., purchased 41 projectors from Magna-Tech. The extra-wide film gates needed to handle the huge format prints are being built by hand, from brass, and then installed into refurbished projectors.

“This is a relatively small industry,” says Chapin Cutler, president and co-founder of Boston Light & Sound, which launched in 1977. “We meet one another at film festivals or industry conferences. Steven and Magna-Tech have been around for a very long time and are well known within the industry. He is very good about taking excess inventory, improving and restoring it for clients who cannot afford new equipment or those of us who believe the older equipment is better. And unlike others who have fallen by the wayside, Steven was able to make the transition to digital over the last 10-15 years. I am very surprised when I see the things he has available sometimes.”

In his element

The 70mm retrofitting gig is, in a way, a dream for Krams, touching on all the aspects of the industry he loves the most: technical know-how, history and showmanship. Those are the elements that recur throughout his career, which began soon after he moved to Miami with his parents in 1955. For his bar mitzvah, his father bought him an Ampro 16mm sound projector and a Bell & Howell camera. As a teenager, he would rent his services out to children’s birthday parties, where he would show cartoons, and later to hotels in Miami Beach, where he was paid $7.50 per gig to project movies for paying guests.

As a student at Miami Beach Senior High School, he would often roam the halls as a member of the audio-visual club, pushing a projector around on a cart to show films in various classes. “They would page me over the P.A.,” he says, smiling. “ ‘Steve Krams, please come to the office, we need help with the projector.’ ” His first real mentor was Herbert Bloom, the educational director at Temple Beth Sholom, whose father-in-law was a producer of Yiddish-language films made in New York City in the 1930s.

Krams studied film and television at Miami Dade College and the University of Miami. After graduation, he concentrated on social work, directing a summer camp for the Atlanta Jewish Community Center called Camp Barney Medintz. He also worked as the assistant director of the Union for Reform Judaism Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Georgia.

But when he turned 30, Krams decided to get serious about his lifelong passion. He founded the International Cinema Equipment Co. in 1975, a consulting/sales firm that provided movie theater essentials ranging from projectors to popcorn machines. His business expanded beyond the U.S. to places including the Philippines, Africa, the Far East and India.

In 1994, the New York-based Magna-Tech Electronic Co., an Oscar-winning manufacturer of sound recording equipment for movies, went into bankruptcy after the death of its founder. Krams, who already worked as a consultant for them, bought the company and merged it with his business.

“In those days, there was still a big analog-recording business,” Krams says. “We built a lot of analog gear for a time, and we’ll still make it today on demand. But all of that is finished, really. Magna-Tech was very well known within the industry, though. I knew I could go anywhere with that name because it was a highly respected product.”

In 1992, Krams, who was “playing real estate in those days,” bought the Continental Film Lab building in North Miami that currently houses his business and became its landlord. Later, he bought equity in the company, then a post-production analog facility. Eventually, he took over the company and relocated from his previous base in Miami’s Design District.

Pushing forward

As his business has thrived, Krams has continued to dabble in outside projects.

“There’s one consistent strategy I’ve always followed: trying to see value where others did not,” he says. “When I acquired Magna-Tech, it was bankrupt, but its name and reputation still had great value. The investment was simple and I transformed it into something else. You have to be transformative.”

Not all of his endeavors have paid off. Krams has occasionally dabbled in film distribution via the label MTE Entertainment. When Ron Fricke’s visually stunning documentary Samsara played at the Gables Cinema in 2011, Krams hosted a post-screening Q&A with its producer, Mark Magidson. A friendship was struck, and Krams wound up buying the distribution rights in Russia and CIS countries. Previously, he had overseen a small U.S theatrical release and TV sale of the Venezuelan comedy Little Thieves, Big Thieves (100 años de perdón), which he had played at the Tower.

But distribution is one of the few enterprises that didn’t fare well for Krams.

“I would like it to be more than a minor thing, but almost every time I tried it, I lost my ass,” he says, laughing. “Not being able to be successful at everything keeps you humble.”

And Krams is still keen to try new things. The company’s latest venture is a foray into the realm of 3D animation via a partnership with the London-based Blue Ocean Studios to create computer-animated ads and teasers for movie theater chains, in the hopes that they will lead to more substantial projects. Blue Ocean’s Andy Robertson, who works out of Magna-Tech’s North Miami office, is teaming up with the company’s Continental digital lab to explore those options.

“We have produced all types of content for all platforms since 2012,” Robertson says. “We were keen to partner with a U.S. company, as the majority of post-production work originates from the United States (and now increasingly China). Naturally, we’re thrilled to be joining forces with Continental, who have long been leaders in the field for digital post-production.”

This kind of constant experimentation in new areas, together with the continuous growth of his cinema and planetarium businesses, are what keep Krams fully engaged in his work, even at an age when most people would be considering calling it a day.

“It’s been a wonderful career, for certain,” Krams says. “I could not have done it without my team. There are so many people who have played an integral part. But retirement in the traditional sense is probably not in the cards for me. I enjoy this work and the people I work with too much to stop. There is so much yet to do.”

Magna-Tech Electronic

Founded: 1956; merged with International Cinema Equipment Co. in 1998

Affiliated companies: Magna-Tech Entertainment-Miami, Magna-Tech Electronic-UK, Continental Film and Digital Labs Inc. North Miami, Konica Minolta Planetarium Systems

Location: 1998 NE 150th St., North Miami (with an additional office/workspace in Atlanta)

Employees: 17 in Miami; seven in Atlanta; affiliates in London, Russia, Colombia, Dubai, Lebanon and Peru

Size: 12,000 square feet on two floors (Miami), 50,000 square feet on two floors (Atlanta)

Clients include:

▪ Movie theaters / chains: United Artists (USA); Cinemark (USA); AMC (USA); Vue Cinemas (London, UK); Palace Amusements (Jamaica); Cines Alhambra (Nicaragua); Top Rank Theaters (Peru); De Veer Theaters (Aruba and Curacao); RND Cinemas (Bahamas); Gulf Cinemas (Lebanon-Dubai); ARAMCO Theaters (Saudi Arabia); Myungbo Theaters (South Korea); Shochiku Theaters (Tokyo, Japan); Gizr Studios (Gizr, Egypt); GFD Theaters (Ireland)

▪  Planetariums: Russell C. David Planetarium, Jackson, Mississippi; Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium, Fort Myers; Tellus Center Planetarium, Cartersville, Georgia; Pink Palace Planetarium, Memphis, Tennessee.

▪ Film processing / color correction: “There’s Something About Mary,” “Rock of Ages,” “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Miami Rhapsody”