Interview by Daniel Loria
Chief Executive Officer, The Marcus Corporation, 1988-2009
Chairman of the Board, The Marcus Corporation
You basically grew up at a movie theater; do you have any early memories of your childhood at the cinema?
I always had a lot of friends! I remember being about five years old and having the ability of getting into the movies free-and my friends could come with me. We could have all the popcorn and candy that we wanted; it was like being the first kid on the block with a driver's license and access to a car. At that age I didn't care about girls, but all the boys could go see Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies with me. I always brought a big crowd on Saturday mornings.
Which areas of the business are the most important to keep an eye on when managing a circuit?
Perhaps the most important thing I learned is the interrelationship and collaboration between distribution and exhibition. You have to be thinking about win-win every time; it's a relationship that needs to maintain balance.
As home entertainment technology improves, what must theaters do to keep up?
One of the things that we have always tried to do, as perhaps every business tries to do, is to create an experience that people can't get at home. It has to be something special. Digital cinema makes the picture much better; you always have something that looks like a pristine print on the screen instead of something that has been through the sprockets a hundred times. At Marcus, we've introduced our DreamLounger seats that are way beyond what people can get at home. You also have to look at 40-, 50-, and even 70-foot-wide screens.
You've been through the rise of home video, the introduction of the multiplex, and the transition to digital cinema. What do you believe has been the most influential shift in our industry?
You just put your finger on them. Digital cinema has been an enormous change. It has really enabled us to do programming of a much greater variety than what we were able to do previously. We used to have to move pictures from one auditorium to another in order to match demand for a film to the specific capacity of an auditorium. Today we can accomplish that at the touch of a button. Now, instead of having to put up a picture on a screen and having it play there all day long seven days a week, we are able to have one picture play at a particular screen during the daytime hours and a different picture play on the same screen in the evening. For example, oftentimes a Disney picture will perform very well during the day but not very well at night. We never had the ability to move that picture off that screen at night so we could do more adult-focused programming during those hours. Today we can do that. That's a subtle but a very important change. The profitability of an enterprise always occurs around the edges, not necessarily down the middle.
You were instrumental in helping Marcus diversify its business by entering the hotel and restaurant industries. Movie theaters today, however, are incorporating more and more lessons from hotels and restaurants in how they approach consumers. Do you think this part of the exhibition business can grow?
They certainly increase the breadth of the experience that people find when they go to a movie theater today. Previously, in order to have a drink or enjoy a pizza they would have to go elsewhere before coming to the theater. That meant making two stops, and took time and extra effort. Now they get the whole experience in one place. It doesn't work everywhere, but in many locations it adds to the overall moviegoing experience.
In our research, we found that Marcus Theatres ranks among the top exhibitors in the world. Despite being a global leader, Marcus very much maintains a sense of community. How important is it to cultivate that sense of community in growing a business beyond its hometown roots?
It needs to be cultivated because you always need to have management at the theater level who understand it. It's not only a manager that makes it happen; the staff is involved as well, so good leadership and planning skills are required to make sure people are engaged with their community. We need to play pictures that the community will like at the hours they want to see them. You need to be part of your community; you can't just operate without regard to what your customers' regards happen to be.
What would you say is the state of the exhibition business today?
I've always thought we were dancing on the head of a pin, because it seems like there have been threats out there forever. People have been predicting the demise of the movie theater since the television came around back in the early '50s. I always eye our operations with a certain level of nervousness about what's going to happen. History has proven, however, that as long as we can keep our experience of viewing movies ahead of everyone else's, our industry will be fine. It's very important to those who make movies, to the studios, and those who distribute movies, that there be a vibrant exhibition industry at the front end. Theaters not only provide an enormous amount of revenue but also bring a great marketing value for studios and distributors when that film moves on to the next channel. They reach new platforms with a tremendous amount of marketing and public relations behind them. That's why we feel we need a reasonable window between the time we open up a movie in a theater and when it comes out on the next platforms. That's what helps develop the marketing for the next channels.