How did you become NATO’s chairman?
I was elected by the 17-member Executive Board last fall. The board is composed of representatives of small, midsize, and large movie exhibition companies. I have been on the NATO Board for 25 years, so it seems the other board members thought it was my turn to be chairman.
Since my company, Celebration! Cinema, is a successful midsize family-owned regional circuit with roots in the business going back to 1944, I think I am viewed as a person with an understanding of how the movie exhibition business works. We also have a pretty good understanding of important issues.
What’s the history behind Celebration! Cinema?
I established Celebration! Cinema in 1997 as an owner and operator of modern megaplex movie theaters. We operate in 12 locations with 157 screens. The deep roots of our company begin with my father, Jack Loeks. He was an entrepreneur who was good at identifying important trends: He started in 1944 with a single-screen downtown theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Next came numerous drive-in theaters. We still have one of them. This was followed by suburban multiplex movie theaters throughout West Michigan. Finally, his work culminated in the construction of a megaplex theater in 1988.
Would that make it the first megaplex in existence?
Yes, we believe that our 20-screen Studio28 was the first movie megaplex in the world.
When did you first enter the business?
My father asked me to be the president of Jack Loeks Theatres in 1990. Prior to that I had a law practice and operated other companies outside the theater industry. In fact, I still own other companies outside the theater business.
What challenges have you faced as an exhibitor?
It is important to identify important trends early, adapt, and change. We have been a fairly aggressive developer of real estate and new theaters in West and Central Michigan. This also means having good bank financing. We’ve been an early adopter of several innovations in our business, including digital sound, stadium-tiered seating, IMAX screens, digital projection, screen advertising, expanded food and beverage, alternative programming, lounge-style seats, reserved seating, and engaging customers through social media.
What else is unique or characteristic of your theater company?
Two things spring to mind. We have a 72-year history as a regionally based exhibitor. This has enabled us to build an extraordinary engagement with local communities. We designed many of our theaters with the vision of being a community center, hosting events that range from movie discussions to worship services, school outings, corporate parties, and major fund-raisers.
Secondly, we are committed to a high degree of customer service. We practice open-book finance and invest a great deal in teaching employees to engage our customers effectively. Empowered and informed employees begin to act more like business owners. They are more creative and take their work personally. Guest experience matters. Line efficiency matters. Inventory spoilage matters. Clean restrooms matter. Not every employee will make a career in our business, but we believe that our investment in teaching, training, mentoring entry-level employees is good for business.
One program we developed involves both service and community engagement. It is called the Celebrated Service Award. This award calls for our employees and the community at large to identify, recognize, and reward other businesses who inspire us with an exceptionally high level of service. Our employees learn by telling stories about these businesses, and we are proud to champion the award recipients all year long.
Ticketing and reserved seating are emerging as important topics this year—what’s your view on those trends?
Ticketing is one of the critical factors going forward. Our company has a goal to get 20 percent of our tickets sold in advance online. We have made good progress this past year. I believe this will be an important CinemaCon topic.
Most exhibitors are grappling with a seating issue again. We upgraded our seats with no upcharge for the recliner or lounger seat. In some theaters we have done a partial change to recliner seats and in others we have done a 100 percent change to recliner seats. By June of this year all of our first-run theaters will be converted to reserved seating.
Is there anything more you can share about the NATO chairmanship?
It is a good thing that one of the midsize family-owned regional circuit owners steps into the role of chairman for a while. We understand the problems of theater owners who are conducting the business on a small scale, but we also are facing all of the challenges that the large circuits are. We understand the business relationships and issues before the large circuits. I am gratified that both the larger circuits and the smaller circuits saw me as person worthy of stepping into the chairmanship.
What important tasks are ahead for NATO?
The NATO executive board adopted a prioritized strategic plan. The number one priority is to think carefully about a more sophisticated windows model. Maintaining a robust but flexible theatrical window for movies before they go into the home market is thought to be, by the Executive Board, the number one priority for exhibition. We will urge our members to have ongoing conversations with the studios on this topic.
Secondly, there is more that can be done to promote attendance in our theaters. We now have new sophisticated social media tools.
We think these are the most important issues and we want to encourage conversation between individual studios and individual exhibitors on these topics so that something good can evolve.
I have had great get-acquainted sessions with studio chiefs. Some I knew from the beginning. We are at a good place. It is better to establish a relationship first and then face the inevitable problems when they arise. I look forward to a fruitful, ongoing partnership.