Geneva Convention 2018: Interview with Bob Bagby, President & CEO, B&B Theatres

A family company at its core, B&B Theatres has experienced dramatic growth under the leadership of Bob Bagby—who has helped establish the circuit as one of the 10 largest cinema chains in the country. The opening of the circuit’s new flagship location in Liberty, Missouri, represents a new chapter in the storied history of the Bills and Bagby families and a new era for the company. Boxoffice caught up with Bob Bagby ahead of the Geneva Convention, where he is set to receive this year’s Larry D. Hanson Award, to discuss some of his most recent accomplishments at the helm of the family-owned circuit.

B&B Theatres has enjoyed impressive growth over the last decade, becoming one of the 10 biggest circuits in the United States. Can you tell us a bit about that journey, working together with the family to grow the circuit into national prominence?

It has been a journey for certain! But your question really touches upon the simple answer: we approach each opportunity collectively and make decisions as a group. If a member of the family has reservations or doubts, we table the discussion. We are honest in our business dealings, we value relationships with lenders, partners, investors, vendors, and guests and evaluate and assess every opportunity presented us. Additionally, the B&B “family” is comprised of more than just the Bagby and Bills clans; we have dedicated and hard-working people from frontliners to corporate executives who have helped and continue to make the journey possible.

What are some of the greatest lessons you learned from your father and father-in-law?

My father, the late Sterling Bagby, was very aggressive and wanted to grow the company. Everyone loved Sterling, as he was very approachable and never met a stranger. He taught me to work hard and play hard. Dad was involved with overseeing construction and our equipment division and he leaves a legacy of many B&B Theatres that he personally built. We talked every night about 5 p.m. to recap the day.

My father-in-law, the late Elmer Bills Jr., was also a hugely influential player in my life, and I cherish the time I had to work alongside him. My office was next to his for 16 years, and he taught me how to negotiate by listening and how to work with bankers. Elmer was more conservative and cautious. He was a man of his word and for him, a handshake was better than a 50-page contract. His sense of integrity and honesty were known industry-wide, and his capacity as a financial manager placed us in positions to grow, expand, or reinvest time and time again.

These two gentlemen not only worked together to lay the foundation for what B&B is today but were tremendous formative influences in my life and the lives of my three grown children. It should be noted also, however, that my mother, Pauline, and mother-in-law, Amy, were equally influential in both building the company and fortifying our family ties.

With its roots as a family company, what do you think sets B&B Theatres apart in the industry?

Our family roots inspire us to be more wholly dedicated to our employees and our guests. We want any experience associated with B&B Theatres to be magical, whether you’re working in the office, managing a theater, or attending one of our facilities as a valued guest. Our personnel policies reflect this concern, and our employees are taught to treat guests as what they are: valued visitors who are looking to escape into the magic of the movies.

Additionally, our family has been in the business for generations, and we’ve seen great development and technological revolutions over our 94—almost 95!—years in the business. That experience is enabling, and as a result, B&B has become an industry leader in innovation and experiential enhancement. Having the next generation waiting in the wings gives us an advantage. I pushed my parents to leave the old downtown palaces and build multiplex theaters on the edge of town. My kids have pushed me to be one of the first circuits to become all digital and to add large premium-format screens, recliners, and bars.

The opening of your new flagship location in Liberty (profiled in this issue) marks an important step forward for B&B. What does this location signify in the history of the company?

For me personally, the Liberty location is tremendously important. Liberty is my hometown, so it will be my go-to theater to see the latest movies! On a company level, though, the Liberty location remains significant. That beautiful facility represents the best of B&B and showcases a number of things that have really put us on the map in recent years. From our top-notch theater design to heated recliners to the full-service bar, the place is truly second to none—for now!—in the B&B circuit. Plus, we have had incredible success with our diverse and signature moviegoing options in Liberty, including MX4D, our revolutionary screenPLAY! theater, the luxurious art house auditorium called the Lyric, our B&B Grand Screen, and the largest ScreenX venue on the planet. Guests have been blown away by the spectacular presentations and customer-centered experiences in Liberty.

The Liberty location very much acts as an entertainment complex, a community hub. Do you believe this is the direction we’re headed in as an industry?

Undeniably, and I’m glad! We are thrilled to give our guests options for entertainment and reasons to come back and visit us time and time again. In addition to the moviegoing opportunities in Liberty, we also are proud to have Johnnie’s Jazz Bar and Grille sharing the footprint. Johnnie’s offers a full-service dining menu and the best bar in town, but also live music and trivia throughout the week. While we are, and always will be, a theater company first, we strongly believe that it is our responsibility to learn about (or predict) guest expectations and do all we can to exceed them.

There have been so many trends in exhibition over the past decade—from premium seating to premium screens and enhanced concessions—what do you think is the next trend that could have an impact on the industry?

I should let our Liberty location do the talking. We feel that additionally enhanced theatrical experiences are the future, from MX4D to screenPLAY! to ScreenX. These concepts offer something spectacularly different from what guests are used to, and as we implement them into our facilities, we are reinventing the moviegoing experience—and guests love it!

What would you consider to be some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the industry?

Our biggest challenge is that our attendance is based on what kinds of movies come out of Hollywood. We can build the biggest and best theater in the nation, but without strong product, we have empty theaters. However, if Hollywood gives us good movies and we give our customers a presentation that is so fantastic that they want to leave their couches, then movie theaters will be around for many years to come. We continue to find ways to remind guests of how magical the theatrical experience can and should be, and they are coming in record-breaking numbers. A good movie on a gigantic screen in a comfortable recliner with great food and friends? That’s hard to beat.

Daniel Loria

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