The movie theater business is made up of a surprising number of veteran executives who began their careers as teenage ushers, ticket takers, or concessionaires. That is the case for Rolando Rodriguez, whose hourly job as a 15-year-old at a Kansas City–area AMC evolved into one of the most influential careers in today’s exhibition business. Rodriguez has worked in exhibition for nearly 50 years, last serving as the chair, president, and CEO of Marcus Theatres and executive vice president of The Marcus Corporation until his retirement in October of last year. It’s not a leisurely retirement, however, as Rodriguez continues to serve as chair of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), a role he took on in 2018. Prior to his roles at Marcus and NATO, Rodriguez served as CEO of Rave Cinemas and as an executive at Walmart and AMC Theatres. Ahead of CinemaCon 2023, Rodriguez spoke with Boxoffice Pro about NATO’s priorities in 2023 and why recent industry-wide momentum makes him optimistic for exhibition’s future.
CinemaCon 2023 is coming at an exciting time for the film industry. We are experiencing a wave of box office hits that we haven’t seen in years. For exhibition, we are starting a new era with the appointment of Michael P. O’Leary as the new president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). What does it mean to you to receive NATO’s Marquee Award during this moment?
Let me start off by saying, I’m totally humbled by this incredible award that I’m receiving through NATO. I couldn’t have enjoyed the type of career I had without the great teams that supported me during my time at companies like AMC Theatres, Rave Cinemas, and Marcus Theatres. As you noted in your question, I think our industry is currently going through a resurgence. We’re finally getting not only two, but sometimes three new movies a week, quality films that are now being promoted to be seen in theaters. We’re not seeing the same situation with day-and-date streaming that we had the last couple of years.
The second big piece of news we have coming into CinemaCon is that John Fithian, a great friend of mine and an amazing leader, is retiring after 30 years of working in this industry. He will be long remembered for all the work he’s done in leading this organization for over two decades. We’re also very excited to welcome Michael O’Leary as the new leader of the National Association of Theatre Owners. We’re looking at somebody who is familiar with our industry but also brings a lot of different perspectives from outside that will make us a little bit more unique.
When you couple his great leadership with the A-plus team at NATO that John Fithian put together over the years, it becomes a really exciting combination. Just look at all the exciting projects that the Cinema Foundation has been working on through Jackie Brenneman’s leadership, including our very first State of the Cinema Industry report. There is a lot of confidence in our industry right now.
It feels like in previous years when we’d have a massive box office hit, we were never in a position to capitalize on that success on subsequent weekends. It was a box office defined by the peaks and valleys of tentpoles and long gaps between exciting new releases. There wasn’t consistency in a business whose business model requires repeat visits from frequent moviegoers. Do you believe that’s finally changing?
I think so. We had some fabulous NATO representative meetings in L.A. last month, where a group of us toured and met with all the senior leadership teams at every one of the top film companies. I’ve got to tell you, we left those meetings very excited by the fact that our partners are right there with us. These film leaders recognize the importance of the theatrical business. While we can’t go into specifics about any of the film companies, what I can share with you is their enthusiasm based on the number of films that are scheduled to come to our theaters. Look at a company like Lionsgate, for example, that had a very limited slate last year; their slate this year is fabulous. I saw the same thing from Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, Paramount, Universal—all the studios have incredible slates in 2023. We work in an industry where consumers have recognized the value proposition of the theatrical experience. They’re seeing these great movies on the big screens in our new large-format auditoriums. It’s fun, it’s exciting. and it’s great to see this in this road back to recovery. I can tell you that all the studio heads we met with are very bullish and optimistic about the trajectory that our industry is on.
This momentum isn’t only coming from studios; there are other players in this ecosystem—streaming companies—that are also seeing the potential of theatrical with a fresh set of eyes. We’re talking about companies like Amazon committing significant investment to theatrical releases, Apple partnering with a major studio for the release of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, and Netflix’s theatrical rollout of last year’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Sequel. Do you believe streamers and cinemas will be working more closely together in the coming years?
MGM/United Artists are part of Amazon’s investment in theatrical, and you just have to look at the release of Creed III earlier this year for an example of their success. Everybody was expecting the movie to open to $30, maybe $35 million. It ends up making $58 million that weekend—a great example of the results you can find when you successfully cater to a diverse audience. We’re very excited because it’s part of what every studio is currently working on in their attempt to bring back those midsize pictures we need on the calendar. We’re excited to see that Netflix is testing the waters and trying to figure out a theatrical strategy. We’re hopeful and optimistic that they’re seeing the benefits of a theatrical experience with a window that can build up their business on the streaming side. It’s a win-win situation where we won’t have to compete for the same customers on day one. I think extending the life of that customer experience and that product cycle, through a proper windowing concept, is the right model for the long-term of our business.
While the box office is recovering, there are still players in our industry working to get back on their feet. You’ve been part of the industry for many years and have been there for other bumpy periods—like the wave of consolidation we saw in the 2000s—so it’s important to view these moments in context. How do you believe today’s wave of consolidation will impact our industry in the years to come?
There were so many challenges during the pandemic, not only for our industry but for any consumer-facing industry. It’s been a challenging time. There were a lot of questions asked about our industry. I’ve always said that momentum builds momentum. It builds a positive spirit. Now that our business is starting to perform consistently, that gives a lot of confidence to the vendor community, to the developer community, and to the financial community. As you noted, we’ve gone through cycles like this in the past, periods of consolidation. Back in 1995, when stadium seating was introduced, a lot of companies decided to consolidate and get out of the business. That ran all the way through the early 2000s. Some of it occurred because people got into financial challenges along the way through overcapitalization, while others bought into the opportunity of expanding their role in an industry that wasn’t going to go away. So, do I think that there’s going to be continued consolidation in our industry, caused by some of the financial challenges that are occurring now? Yes, I think some of that will continue to happen. Do I think that it’s a bad thing for the industry? Well, I never want to see great entrepreneurs and great leaders who have built this industry get out of the business—so I hope we don’t see too much of it. Some of it will be led by people who want to move on from the industry, while others grow because they believe in the long-term viability of the business. So while, yes, I think consolidation will continue to happen, I’m also focused on those who see opportunity in our industry and believe in the future of moviegoing.
A lot of the M&A in exhibition, especially in recent years, has been driven by players already in this space.
I think you’re right; it’s part of an overall investment in exhibition that we’ve seen across the board. Whenever you see circuits acquire one another, they invest additional capital into better sound systems, improved seating, and expanded food and beverage. We, as an industry, cannot settle for “good enough.” We’re coming out of a difficult period, and in order to maintain our status with consumers, we need to make sure as exhibitors that we continue to invest in our future. When we look at investments, one of the key areas the consumer has really grabbed onto has been the premium large-format auditoriums. You have the ones that individual theater companies are doing on their own, and you have others through third-party brands like Imax, Dolby, and ScreenX.
Over the last three years, a lot of us working in exhibition have been concerned with simply surviving. Keeping our heads above water. It feels like we finally have our legs under us, as the box office continues to recover, so it’s a good time to ask about the future. What are some of the priorities of the National Association of Theatre Owners now that the pandemic is mostly behind us?
Our team at NATO has spent the past three months working on our strategic plan. We’re putting a lot of focus on having a stronger connection with Hollywood. We need to have that strong connection because we need more films for our theaters. We’re a consumer-facing business, and there needs to be enough content available to make sure that we’re satisfying the consumers’ needs. That remains a top priority for us. On the other side, we also remain very diligent in our lobbying efforts associated with government regulation and policies and, frankly, lobbying efforts that are necessary not just on Capitol Hill, but also at the state level. Factors like taxes and labor laws have a tremendous impact on our business. Then, finally, we are seeing a recapitalization of the industry taking place. It’s already happening. Capital being dedicated to adding new recliner seats and state-of-the-art sound and projection systems; there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s my hope that we’re able to come up with models for the improvement of all these touchpoints that can satisfy consumers. Because one thing is to have a great film, the other is to make sure your theater is fully equipped to deliver on an amazing experience.
What are the major concerns you have as we approach the second half of 2023?
As exhibitors, we have to find ways of ensuring we reconnect with our audiences, whether that’s through social media, marketing, or advertising. We need to ensure we keep building momentum. Some of that will come back naturally whenever we have great films playing. Whenever our audience sits in that auditorium and watches trailers for upcoming movies, that gets them excited about coming back. But that’s not enough in itself; we need to be very diligent at the community level with our consumers to make sure they’re coming back. At the end of the day, we are in the business of people. Our number one job is to make sure we’re getting enough people that believe in the experience we offer. They need to recognize the value of what we offer every time they come through our doors, pay for a ticket, and visit our concession stands. Within that ecosystem, we need to make sure we have the right product, capitalization, and lobbying efforts to ensure support from government agencies.