Opening Hearts & Minds: Studio Movie Grill Focuses on Social Good

On February 26, 2017, Chance the Rapper announced via Twitter that he’d bought out every seat for a showing of Get Out at a theater on Chicago’s South Side, allowing anyone with some free time and an ID to see the blockbuster horror film free of charge. The theater in question: Studio Movie Grill’s Chatham branch, located at 210 W. 87th Street.

The gesture of goodwill was just the beginning of Chance’s relationship with the theater chain, which through its Community Outreach Program strives to do good in the communities it serves by partnering with local charities and fund-raising programs. In Chance’s case, the performing artist simply wanted to expose his community to a film he felt was important for them to see, and he has since repeated the gesture with subsequent releases, including last year’s Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman. 

Started in 1993 by CEO Brian Schultz, the Dallas-based Studio Movie Grill (SMG), a pioneer of the in-theater dining experience, has made “conscious capitalism” a core component of its business. Unlike many exhibitors, the company focuses on opening new locations in disadvantaged communities that struggle with issues like illiteracy, poverty, and violence, in an effort to improve the lives of the people there.

They accomplish this in a couple of different ways. First, by opening locations in lower-income areas, they attract more businesses and investment to neighborhoods suffering from urban blight. Second, they focus on bettering the lives of the customers they serve through charitable initiatives. As Lynne McQuaker, the company’s senior director of PR and outreach, puts it, this strategy isn’t just good for the communities—it’s good for SMG’s bottom line.

“I have become more and more convinced that outreach into our local communities is the most productive form of marketing and PR that we can undertake,” McQuaker tells Boxoffice. “Leaving a positive wake can be a great differentiator. If we work with local nonprofits and groups in which not only our neighbors but also our teams are personally invested and we offer them our support, we become an important and sometimes integral part of our communities. We show them we are listening and aware of what matters to them, that we care about what they care about, and they become our very best evangelists while supporting our businesses.”

SMG’s outreach initiatives cover a broad range of issues that hinge on the specific needs of the communities they serve. Occasionally these needs are more immediate than others. After massive flooding killed seven people and caused over $5 billion in property damage in Houston in the spring of 2016, the company kick-started the “Help a Fellow Texan Out” fund-raising initiative, which donated 10 percent of all proceeds from SMG’s two Houston locations to benefit the American Red Cross’s disaster relief efforts. The initiative was repeated statewide the following year, after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreaked widespread devastation.

While natural disasters and other unexpected events like Harvey occasionally spur SMG to action, the majority of their efforts are focused on a handful of key issues that it holds near and dear, says McQuaker. “We try to stay within our pillars: special needs children and families, women’s issues, and education and literacy,” she notes. One of their longest-running initiatives, the Special Needs Screening Program, was actually inspired by an SMG employee. “We learned one of our GMs, raising two children with special needs, had never seen a movie with his family,” McQuaker says. Inspired by this confession, the 15-year-old program offers “sensory friendly” showings to special needs children (who are admitted free of charge) and their families, giving them the freedom to “move around, talk, or even dance in the aisles” without fear of disturbing other theatergoers.

The company’s philanthropic mission extends to its workers. For his part, Schultz has endeavored to provide every SMG team member a living wage of at least $15 an hour—even as he admits the company hasn’t quite attained that lofty standard across the board. “Our hourly average wage is actually much higher than $15 per hour,” says Schultz, before qualifying, “however, not all team members start out making this wage.”

Nonetheless, SMG’s altruism remains rare among American movie theater chains, and the mission seems to have worked not only in touching lives but in growing the company. Since opening its first two theaters, SMG has expanded to 30 locations nationwide, with another set to open in Bakersfield, California, this month. As their official website states: “Being a good neighbor is just good business.”

Looking ahead to the rest of 2018, a number of returning and new initiatives are in the works, from perennial enterprises such as the Prom Dress Drive (which last year collected and distributed over 1,500 prom dresses to disadvantaged high school students) to first-time initiatives like an “across concept” food drive that’s being planned for Hunger Awareness Month in September. In June, the company is putting on its annual “Opening Hearts and Minds” awards gala, which last year honored 12 women change-makers by flying them out to its Dallas theater for an awards ceremony and an advance red-carpet screening of Wonder Woman. “It’s always terrific if we can work with exhibitor relations at the studios by launching an outreach campaign aligned with a movie,” McQuaker notes.

With celebrity supporters like Chance, Studio Movie Grill also has star power on its side. In addition to further partnerships with the Grammy-winning rapper—the company recently hosted the rapper’s Black History Month Film Festival at their Chatham location—the company boasts such boldface-name supporters as Lena Waithe and Common (who brought an advance screening of their Showtime series The Chi to Chatham) and Dallas Mavericks player Harrison Barnes, who bought out several screens showing Black Panther for the Boys and Girls Club at SMG’s Dallas location. This kind of celebrity engagement gives added visibility to a company that has provided a model for how to thrive as a business while improving the lives of those who support them.

“We believe our active involvement in the community—in and outside of SMG’s four walls—is a very personal responsibility,” says Ted Low, the company’s senior director of brand and creative. “We want to build buildings that enhance the neighborhoods where we live, employ, and enrich our team members in these communities, and serve the millions of guests that come to SMG every year. If we can deliver on these things, we believe we are the kind of neighbor that everyone wants.”

Chris Eggertsen

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