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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 15:40 GMT
Will the Dome go digital?
Millennium Dome site
The Dome: Gateway to a new cinema age?
By BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

It is hard to know if the Millennium Dome appealed first to Philip Anschutz's nose for profit, or his noted philanthropy.

Did he first focus on the Dome's for its business potential, or the chance to end a history of losses, crises and red government faces?

Philip Anschutz
Philip Anschutz: Reasons to be cheerful
Whichever, those seeking clues as to why Mr Anschutz feels up to taking on a structure which has swallowed millions of pounds of public money, and embarrassed both of Britain's major parties, need only look at his corporate record.

America's 16th richest man built his fortune on the kinds of cool-headed, high-stakes determination which Rudyard Kipling, in If, could only write about.

Film rights to the fire

He was born to an oil entrepreneur and was set for legal training until, in his early 20s, he took command of the family firm after his father fell ill.

Profile - Philip Anschutz
2000: Starts buying up US cinemas
1999: Named 13th richest American by Forbes (2001: 16th)
1997: Qwest floats
1996: Southern Pacific sold to Union Pacific for $5.4bn
1995: Qwest spun out of Southern Pacific
1988: Takes control of Southern Pacific Railroad
1984: Buys Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad
1982: Sells some oil wells to Mobil for $500m
1961: Finance degree, University of Kansas
1939: Born, Kansas
When one of his major oil fields caught fire, the day after he had taken on huge debts to buy surrounding claims, Mr Anschutz sold film rights to the blaze to ensure he could pay firefighter Red Adair to put it out.

When he sold railway Southern Pacific in 1996, for $5.4bn, he retained the right to lay telecoms lines along the tracks.

Some two years, and thousands of miles of prime fibre-optic cable, later, Mr Anschutz had used this concession to build his Qwest Communications company into a firm with a stock market value of $7bn.

He retains the major shareholding in Qwest, with other interests including an oil exploration firm, a beef-to-grape agribusiness, and the property firm which owns the Staples Center, the Los Angeles stadium voted last year as America's top arena.

Marathon man

Indeed, recent years have seen him diversify from wells and bells to sport, which he practices as the runner of at least 15 marathons, and promotes as operator of five of the 12 teams in America's Major League Soccer.

The Anschutz cinema empire
United Artists Theater: 1,600 cinemas
Edwards Theatre Circuit: 700
Regal Cinemas: 4,300

He also owns US and European ice-hockey teams, including the Los Angeles Kings and London Knights.

Further acquisitions, including the takeover of United Artists Theater and Edwards Theatres Circuits, have moved Mr Anschutz from black gold to silver screen.

A deal approved by courts earlier this month, giving him control over the number-one Regal Cinemas chain, has confirmed his place as America's top ranking cinema operator.

Cutting edge

So why would such a businessman back a Meridian Delta consortium set to pay "several hundred million pounds" for a complex which has yet to earn a farthing?

Still from  Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Filmed on digital

While his consortium partners - UK-based Quintain and shopping centre developer Lend Lease - have eyes on developing shops, offices and homes on land around the Dome, Mr Anschutz sees opportunity in the building itself.

He reportedly plans to turn it into a 20,000-seat concert and sporting arena, hardly a novel concept, echoing ideas voiced would-be Dome buyers long before the building closed to the public on 31 December last year.

But when the purchase is viewed in tandem with his break into the US cinema market, which Mr Anschutz is said to be about to revolutionise, a film-viewing frontier opens up in London SE10.

For media insiders say Mr Anschutz is poised to turn cinemas digital, allowing them to screen not just films but sporting events or concerts - any images digitally saved or transmitted.

What is more, offerings can be screened simultaneously across a chain of venues, allowing cinemagoers nationwide - or worldwide - to watch, say, a Madonna concert live.

"It is the next big idea," a media expert told BBC News Online. "Imagine the potential for selling advertising space to an audience of millions, and getting entry fees from them too."

Film-makers are already preparing for the change, with George Lucas, for instance, shooting the new Star Wars films on digital cameras.

New era?

It may have been a test of Labour's all-inclusive "big tent" philosophy to offer the biggest marquee of them all to a businessman who is a keen supporter of US Republicans.

And critics may question Mr Anschutz's philanthropic credentials when, while the charity backed by his family has given away more than $14m, he has a reputation as one of the hungriest of US corporate vultures.

But if the digital scenario should prove correct, Mr Anschutz could not only make history by dragging the Dome into profit.

He could be the man who turned a discredited symbol of "The Millennium" into an icon of a new era of entertainment.

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Showbiz
Dome 'could stage pop concerts'
15 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Medical charity bids for the Dome
15 Feb 01 | UK
Dome race back on
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