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Red Lobster offered customers all-you-can-eat shrimp. That was a mistake

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Red Lobster offered customers all-you-can-eat shrimp.  That was a mistake

Red Lobster promised customers an endless supply of shrimp for $20 — a gamble the struggling restaurant chain hoped would help pull it out of its pandemic doldrums.

But Americans, and their appetites, had other plans.

The beloved yet beleaguered pillar of casual dining abruptly shuttered dozens of locations this week, heightening speculation that the chain is careening toward bankruptcy.

Although its dire financial situation isn’t the result of a single misstep, executives at the company that owns a large stake in the chain, as well as industry experts, said that miscalculations over the popularity of the all-you-can-eat shrimp special accelerated the company’s downward spiral.

The closures, including at least five locations in California, were announced in a LinkedIn post Monday by Neal Sherman, the chief executive of a liquidation firm called TAGeX Brands, which is auctioning off surplus restaurant equipment from the shuttered locations.

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Representatives for Red Lobster did not respond to a request for comment about the closures, which were listed on its website as temporary, or whether it planned to file for bankruptcy.

But company executives have been vocal about the misguided gamble with shrimp and how they misjudged just how hungry Americans would be for a deal on the crustaceans.

In an effort to boost foot traffic and ease the sales slump that swept through the restaurant industry during the pandemic, Red Lobster executives last year decided to relaunch a popular marketing ploy from years past to lure customers: For $20 they could eat as much shrimp as they wanted.

Eager for a deal during an era of stubbornly high inflation, many consumers eagerly embraced the offer as a challenge. People took to TikTok to brag about how many of the pink morsels they could put down in a single sitting — one woman boasted she’d consumed 108 shrimp over the course of a 4-hour meal.

“In the current environment, consumers are looking to find value and stretch budgets where they can,” said Jim Salera, a research analyst at Stephens, who tracks the restaurant industry. “At $20, it’s very possible for a consumer to eat well past the very thin profit margin.”

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During a presentation about sales from the third quarter of last year, Ludovic Garnier, the chief financial officer of Thai Union Group, a seafood conglomerate that has been Red Lobster’s largest shareholder since 2020, cited the endless shrimp deal as a key reason the chain had an operating loss of about $11 million during that time frame.

“The price point was $20,” Garnier said.

He paused.

“Twenty dollars,” he repeated with a tinge of regret in his voice. “And you can eat as much as you want.”

Although the promotion boosted traffic by a few percentage points, Garnier said, the number of people taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat offer far exceeded the company’s projections. In response, they adjusted the price to $22 and then $25.

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All-you-can-eat offers can be effective marketing strategies to get people in the door in the competitive world of casual dining — Applebee’s offers $1 margaritas dubbed the Dollarita, buffet chains such as Golden Corral and Sizzler promise abundance at a flat rate, and Olive Garden, one of Red Lobster’s main competitors, has long lured customers with unlimited salad and bread sticks.

But Red Lobster made a few crucial missteps with the shrimp deal, said Eric Chiang, an economics professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a self-proclaimed buffet aficionado.

The company not only started with a low price point, but offered a prized and pricey menu item that can serve as an entire meal — not many customers at Olive Garden, he noted, are going to stock up on bread sticks and salad alone.

“Most people will also order the Taste of Italy,” he said, “or something that gives you meat and pasta.”

Chiang said the most effective loss leaders, a term for products that aren’t profitable but bring in enough new customers or lead to the sale of enough other items to make the offer worthwhile, use cheap ingredients. A good example is 7-Eleven’s Free Slurpee Day, he said, as the company gives away about 15 cents of ice and syrup to customers who then pay to fill up their gas tanks.

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Consumers are especially drawn to all-you-can-eat deals and buffets during tighter economic times, Chiang said.

“This is a story of inflation,” he said. “All you can eat for $15? That gives customers a sense of control. Like we’re not being gouged, not being nickel and dimed for every dessert.”

Red Lobster, it turns out, has been in trouble for a while.

In 2003, the chain, which at the time was owned by Darden Restaurants, the company that owns Olive Garden, offered a similarly disastrous all-you-eat crab special for around $23.

So many people came back for seconds, thirds and even fourths, executives said at the time, that it cut into profit margins. Before long, the company’s then-president stepped down.

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In 2014, after a period of disappointing sales and less foot traffic, Darden sold Red Lobster to San Francisco private equity firm Golden Gate Capital for more than $2 billion, a stake that was eventually taken over by Thai Union.

Despite the turmoil, the company, which until this week touted about 700 locations, remained a brand so beloved that it earned a reference in Beyonce’s song “Formation,” in which she describes post-coital trips to Red Lobster.

After the song’s release, the company said it saw a 33% jump in sales, but that glow was short lived and had faded long before the ill-fated shrimp deal was brought back last year.

“You have to be pretty close to the edge for one promotion to tip you over the edge,” said Sara Senatore, a senior analyst at Bank of America, who follows the restaurant industry.

In January, Thai Union Group — citing a combination of financial struggles it pinned to the pandemic, high labor and material costs and the oft-cited buzzword of industry “headwinds” — announced plans to dump its stake in the company, which was founded in 1968 in Lakeland, Fla. The closures this week hit at least five California locations — Redding, Rohnert Park, Sacramento, San Diego and Torrance — according to the website of the liquidation company, which posted images of available items, including a lobster tank, seating booths, refrigerators and a coffee maker.

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During a presentation to investors in February, Thiraphong Chansiri, the chief executive of Thai Union, expressed frustration with the situation surrounding Red Lobster, saying it had left a “big scar” on him.

“Other people stop eating beef,” he said. “I’m going to stop eating lobster.”

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The 2024 box office is terrible. But Imax's big-screen appeal is a bright spot

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The 2024 box office is terrible. But Imax's big-screen appeal is a bright spot

When Warner Bros. film executive Jeff Goldstein saw the huge sand dunes and expansive desert vistas of Denis Villeneuve’s first “Dune” movie, he thought to himself, “This was made for Imax.”

Same went for the sandworm sequences of the sequel, “Dune: Part Two,” a box office hit for the studio earlier this year that pulled in nearly 24% of its domestic box office revenue from Imax. The dystopian wasteland of this weekend’s big action tent pole, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” brings yet more fodder for the big screen format.

Imax’s giant screens are expected to account for a greater-than-typical share of the George Miller-directed prequel’s box office sales. (The film is tracking to gross more than $40 million domestically for the four-day weekend opening, according to analysts.)

“It immerses you, so you’re there,” said Goldstein, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures. “Audiences look at Imax as something special.”

As studios and exhibitors bemoan audiences’ slow return to movie theaters since the pandemic, Imax has been one of the few bright spots. This year’s box office is down 20% compared to last year, when pictures like “Fast X,” “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” propelled ticket sales, and yet studios are clamoring to get onto Imax screens.

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Audience behavior has now changed, and getting people out of their houses and back into theaters requires something special they can’t get at home. That put Imax in a fortuitous spot.

The 57-year-old Canadian company, which operates out of Playa Vista, is coming off one of its best years, with Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” helping to fuel overall global box office revenue — marking Imax’s second-highest grossing year in its history. Films shown on Imax are reaping bigger box office numbers, helped in part by higher ticket prices, and that’s a powerful allure for studios and filmmakers.

Next year, 13 Hollywood movies slated for release will be shot on Imax digital cameras or film, beating a previous record logged in 2021 when seven so-called filmed for Imax movies came out.

The company hopes its brand awareness eventually looms so large that viewers come to its screens first.

“Instead of saying, ‘What’s happening at the movies?,’ I want them to say, ‘What’s happening at Imax?’” said Imax Corp. Chief Executive Rich Gelfond.

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For Imax’s part, its financial performance in the first fiscal quarter of 2024 beat expectations. The company’s net income totaled $3.3 million for the three-month period that ended March 31, up 33% from the previous year, though revenue decreased by about 9%, to $79.1 million. Shares of Imax are up about 10.9% so far this year.

“While there are exceptions like ‘Barbie,’ it is very, very difficult to be a blockbuster without being in Imax,” said Greg Foster, a former Imax Entertainment chief executive who now runs an entertainment consulting business.

Imax’s current mainstream success is what Gelfond and his business partners envisioned when they acquired the company in 1994. At the time, Imax was essentially a museum staple, albeit one that allowed viewers to immerse themselves in the latest nature film or science documentary.

The company adjusted its screens and sound systems to fit in commercial multiplex theaters, allowing its business to grow rapidly while limiting costs (Imax does not own theaters itself, but instead supplies its screening technology to cinema chains). Imax also developed technology to convert movies to Imax’s format to make it more economically attractive for filmmakers and benefited from the advent of digital film, which made it more cost effective.

By 2019, the company had seen year-over-year global box office growth for several years and expanded its global market share to spread its box office almost evenly among North America, China and the rest of the world.

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Like its movie theater owner customers, Imax was hit hard by COVID-19 business shutdowns. But because the company has few assets and little debt, it was insulated in part from the financial fallout that the rest of the industry faced. The company used the time to update its technology, including a new laser projection system and sound system, worked on its marketing and leaned more into local language films, Gelfond said.

Now in a post-pandemic world, moviegoers want something premium and special for their time, and they’re willing to pay for it. That’s a bonus for Imax and so-called premium large-format screens operated by the theater chains.

“In an industry that is constantly re-evaluating its present and its future in terms of competing with new media and bringing back audiences, it’s Imax that has been at the heart of the conversation when we talk about sectors of the industry that have recovered,” said Shawn Robbins, founder of analysis site Box Office Theory. “It’s been a way for studios to have reliability in an often volatile theatrical market.”

Walt Disney Co. has leaned hard into Imax and other premium large formats.

Its marketing campaign for “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” released earlier this month, prominently featured the Imax logo on billboards, bus stop signs and other advertisements. During opening weekend, 41% of the movie’s domestic box office came from premium large-format screenings, 13% of which was Imax, Disney said. Typically, a blockbuster that hasn’t been filmed on Imax cameras, like “Apes,” would do about 10% at the box office, Gelfond said.

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As an industry, “we need to give audiences a terrific experience every time they go to see a movie,” said Tony Chambers, executive vice president and head of theatrical distribution for Walt Disney Studios. “Going to see a movie in premium large formats helps drive engagement and helps drive frequency.”

From 2022 to 2023, premium large formats made up 19% of Disney’s total domestic business; just before the pandemic, that total was 15%. Some of that came from 3-D screens, which have tapered off in popularity.

The company saw box office success with James Cameron’s 2022 sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which brought in $1.6 billion in revenue from premium large formats out of a total of $2.32 billion (About 11% of which came from Imax). Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” last year brought in 31% of its box office revenue from premium large formats.

Especially since the pandemic, there’s now more competition for people’s time and attention from streaming and social media, making it crucial for studios to give audiences a good reason to leave their couches.

“We need a way to cut through some of the clutter and make it clear to people that you cannot wait, you need to see this on the big screen,” Chambers said. “One of the ways to do that, from a marketing perspective, is to lean heavily into the premium large format.”

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For a lot of people, he said, that means Imax. In fact, Imax executives bristle when people lump them with the other so-called PLFs, which include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX.

Imax box office makes up 13% of Warner Bros. overall domestic business, compared to an industry wide 5% to 7%, according to the studio. Industry wide, opening weekends are typically 10% to 12% Imax. But some are a bigger draw. The Imax share of “Dune: Part Two’s” domestic box office was 22%.

“It’s this whole notion of how do you hit critical mass,” Goldstein said. “Imax will help you get to critical mass faster.”

Imax’s future hinges on continued growth, especially internationally. As of 2023, the company had 1,772 screens across the globe, including its institutional theaters and museum screens, up slightly from the previous year.

The company also plans to expand, particularly into markets that it thinks are under-served, such as Australia and Japan.

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“It has massive growth potential globally, and it’s certainly not at saturation in most of its global markets at this point,” said Alicia Reese, media and entertainment analyst at Wedbush Securities. “They should trade at a higher multiple given their growth potential.”

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Ari Emanuel denounces Israeli Prime Minister at Jewish group’s gala

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Ari Emanuel denounces Israeli Prime Minister at Jewish group’s gala

Endeavor Chief Executive Ari Emanuel this week called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster and denounced his leadership following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

The Hollywood power player made the remarks during the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s gala in Beverly Hills, where he accepted the Jewish organization’s Humanitarian Award, its highest honor.

“This is a painful and crucial moment for all of us who are Jews and who love Israel. It is not a moment to stay silent,” Emanuel said Wednesday evening.

“Israel is being led not by a problem solver, but by a problem creator. He is an agent of chaos and hatred and division and destruction. And enough is enough. Bibi Netanyahu is a failure.”

His remarks were met with both cheers and jeers, with some attendees walking out of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The audience was filled with members of Emanuel’s family and entertainment industry stalwarts including Larry David, Robert Kraft, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.”

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Emanuel, who spoke of his family’s long ties to Israel and who supports a two-state solution, said Netanyahu “doesn’t want a peaceful solution” in the conflict “And it’s become clear that getting to a political solution and Netanyahu remaining in power are irreconcilable paths,” he said.

“As for his responsibilities to keep the people of the state of Israel and Jews across the globe safe, he has obviously failed spectacularly,” Emanuel said. “But he has succeeded wildly in using division to stay in power.”

One of the most powerful executives in Hollywood, Emanuel is also one of the most outspoken. Two years ago he urged businesses to cut ties with the artist formerly known as Kanye West after he made antisemitic remarks. Companies such as Adidas and the Gap stopped working with the rapper and producer.

In 2006, Emanuel wrote an open letter calling on Hollywood to boycott Mel Gibson after his antisemitic rant made during a drunk-driving arrest, saying the actor’s alcoholism “does not excuse racism and anti-Semitism.” Year later, Emanuel accepted an apology from Gibson and supported his return to the film industry.

The Oct. 7 terror attack by Hamas left about 1,200 Israelis dead and more than than 250 kidnapped. Israel’s military retaliation has killed more than 35,000 people and displaced thousands more, according to Gaza health officials. The war has polarized every sector of the U.S., including Hollywood.

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Emanuel lamented the civilian casualties and suffering among Palestinians in Gaza. “The loss of even a single innocent child is a tragedy,” he said. But he called Israel’s war “justified” saying “Israel did not start the war in Gaza. Hamas did.”

He also criticized pro-Palestinian protesters using the slogan “from the river to the sea,” which he said means the elimination of Israel. “That’s the definition of genocide,” he said.

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Hotel strike nears end as union reaches more tentative deals with holdouts

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Hotel strike nears end as union reaches more tentative deals with holdouts

The almost 10-month-old strike that initially involved roughly 60 hotels and more than 15,000 workers in Los Angeles and Orange counties is nearing its end.

In late April, the powerful hospitality union Unite Here Local 11 announced it had reached tentative contract agreements with 12 Southern California hotels. And on Friday, Unite Here Local 11 officials said the union had negotiated agreements with six more local hotels in recent days.

So far, nearly three dozen other hotels have struck deals with workers over the course of on-and-off strikes that began in July. The new contracts awarded higher pay and other benefits to thousands of housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers, servers and front desk workers.

“Hotels are falling in line,” Unite Here Local 11 co-president Kurt Petersen said. “We’re winning more the longer this goes on.”

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Stephanie Peterson, a spokesperson for Aimbridge Hospitality, which operates six area hotels that recently settled, said in a statement: “We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the Union that puts our people first, and we are taking the immediate steps to begin issuing the backpay our associates have been waiting for.”

The new contracts include an almost immediate raise of $5 per hour for workers who don’t typically earn tips, including front desk clerks, dishwashers and housekeepers. Those workers will see a total hourly wage boost of $10 over the course of the contract that expires in January 2028.

Hotel Figueroa, LA Grand and Glendale Hilton are among nine hotels whose owners remain in contract negotiations with the union.

A point of contention had been the practice of some hotels recruiting recent migrants living in a Skid Row shelter to replace striking employees.

In a compromise, four hotels agreed to give the migrant workers priority in hiring for permanent positions. The hotels include the Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica, the Four Points by Sheraton, the Holiday Inn LAX and the Pasadena Hilton.

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“This is a testament to the idea of no workers left behind,” Petersen said. “Our members saw workers exploited and had a sense of solidarity. The bosses’ plan to divide people didn’t work.”

As part of the union’s agreement with Sheraton Park Anaheim, workers who had raised allegations of sexual harassment and were banned from the property will be brought back to work.

Fairfield Inn & Suites and Aloft hotels in El Segundo, which are owned by a real estate affiliate of the Blackstone Group, also approved deals with the union.

Blackstone Group spokesman Jeffrey Kauth said, “The agreement substantially increases wages and benefits over the term of the contract and provides a framework to recognize a broader number of employees who will benefit from these increases. We are proud to continue our positive working relationship with the union.”

During months of strikes, tensions have spiked on picket lines at various hotels and have continued at some locations even after deals are struck.

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Outside the Hilton Pasadena, a worker and two union members who were picketing were issued noise citations by local police and are facing criminal charges for using handheld bullhorns.

The union as well as advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sharply criticized the city for pursuing the charges at a Monday city council meeting.

Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, sent a letter May 15 to Pasadena’s City Council members, chief of police and city attorney urging the city to drop the charges, saying they “very likely violate the First Amendment and Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution.”

Video footage captured by the union’s general counsel Jeremy Blasi, and reviewed by The Times, shows two police officers recording decibel measurements of several picketers on a public sidewalk a few feet away.

“The City supports the free speech rights of protesters and does not take sides in disputes, but must balance the rights of those protesting with those nearby residents and businesses impacted by protest activities,” said Lisa Derderian, a spokesperson for the city of Pasadena, in an emailed statement.

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Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo said the city planned to review issues raised by the ordinance, but said he couldn’t comment on the claims.

Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson called the deal a “historic contract agreement that ensures hospitality workers will have the dignity of living wages and industry-leading benefits to support their families,” according to a Unite Here Local 11 news release in April.

“Over the next four years, as we prepare for the 2028 Olympics and welcome visitors from around the world to our vibrant Long Beach community, we can be proud that our local tourism economy continues to thrive, while placing value on the workforce that keeps our hospitality industry running,” Richardson said.

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