Earlier this year, Boxoffice Pro partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth-annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019 and early 2020, Boxoffice Pro will continue to honor the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.
As Boxoffice Pro readers know, there’s a lot more that goes into the running of a movie theater than your average customer realizes. For a customer to show up, buy a ticket, get their popcorn, and sink into a film for two hours, there are countless things that have to be going right behind the scenes. “The cash management, the scheduling, the employees, the digital signage, the marketing, the websites, the loyalty programs, all that stuff,” explains Vista Cinemas’ Tess Manchester. And there are the intangibles—knowing the relationships, the practices, and the deals that keep this industry moving.
A lifelong fan of movies who worked on the exhibition side of things before moving over to Vista as a consultant in 2011, Manchester has spent her career listening, learning, and soaking up the information required to excel as Vista Cinemas U.S. president.
Born in St. Louis, Manchester spent much of her childhood in Wehrenberg Theatres’ Eureka 6 location. (The theater closed in 2004, and Wehrenberg was acquired by Marcus Theaters in 2016.) It was “a dinky little cinema, not well maintained,” Manchester recalls—but beloved by this burgeoning cinephile. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m totally going to work there.’ And I did. I got my start there.”
A stint as a theater manager led to the corporate office as the district manager’s assistant. Then, college, and the moment of truth: study law, as Manchester initially intended, or continue in the theater industry? The answer came down to timing; specifically, Manchester was offered a job in Wehrenberg’s I.T. department that allowed her to work and go to school, both full-time.
“That worked out really well, because I had already known a lot of the managers from working in the office as the district manager’s assistant. And I was serving the managers and the corporate staff a different way through I.T.,” Manchester explains. “I didn’t want to go on to law school and become a lawyer. The law is fascinating. But I wanted something a little bit more creative. There’s creative problem solving in the law, but I’m a bit of a goofball, so I’d prefer a little bit of a fun industry.” Knowledge of operations and I.T. gave Manchester the foundation she needed to transition to Vista, where she moved up the ranks—consultant, customer services manager, account manager, director of accounts, vice president of operations—to achieve her current title in October of 2018.
Whether it’s on the clock or catching a movie at her favorite L.A. theater—the ArcLight Hollywood, which she likes for its frequent post-film Q&As with filmmakers—Manchester is constantly open to learning new things. That was the case during her tenure at Wehrenberg; the manager she assisted at the corporate office was “a great example of someone you could watch and soak up what he’s doing, and then emulate that and apply it in the situations that you’re facing, but with your own style. He would also explain why we’re doing this or that, and how you might have to shape something for it to be successful.” Later on, Manchester looked to her managers at Vista, “learning from them, watching them in these easy or tough situations [to see] how they handled them and how they built relationships with other people. Mainly with customers, but of course team members as well.”
From the get-go Manchester approached whatever role she happened to be in “as a career, not a job. I’m all in on this. I am going to build my brand as a professional. I focus a lot on establishing credibility, on doing what I say I’m going to do. And that builds up trust with people that you work with.”
Important, too, is “building your portfolio of assets: volunteering for a project, or if someone offers you an opportunity to do something, take the risk and do it. And note those achievements down, because that is your internal résumé, so to speak, that you have what it takes to handle this stuff, to stick through challenges that are really tough. That really shows you have grit, if you face those really challenging, tough things and stick through them.
“And the biggest thing that’s helped me is realizing that you can be fun and still be professional, and shaping your professional persona in such a way that people want to work with you, because they enjoy working with you.”
Listening, absorbing, accepting challenges. Manchester has helped bring others onto the path of professional growth that served her so well through the “Vista Coach” program. The program was conceived as a series of one-on-one meetings where senior members at Vista’s Los Angeles office would give an hour a week to a newer team member, who gets to “use that hour with whatever they might need help with. It could be that they’re stuck on a particular situation and need some guidance. It could be, ‘Here’s my list of to-dos. How do I prioritize this and communicate it out?’ Whatever they might need in that moment.” The program expanded to group sessions and panels and currently covers a range of topics, from how to hone one’s presentation skills to international business etiquette to explaining the ins and outs of legal contracts (the latter presented by Manchester, putting her legal education to good use).
“We hire all kinds of different people, whether they’re experienced or straight out of college,” Manchester explains. “It could be someone’s first office job, and they don’t know these things. They haven’t learned it. Or even for others, it’s not necessarily something that they pick up naturally, or organically, so they do need to be shown a little bit. …You can be a Vista coach and put your own style on how you might share knowledge with others, and then have the team learn from you and emulate those tactics if they choose.”
Manchester is particularly excited about the recently launched Vista University, a company-wide training database that will provide “product training and knowledge that will be consistent throughout all the offices. … That’s one of the things I really want to achieve one day: I want the training and the product knowledge to be the best that you’ve seen in an organization. But it’s really challenging, because it’s such a niche industry. And then we do have this vast suite of products, and it’s a lot to learn. But one day, I really want to see that grow through Vista University and have the best training program around.”