Steve Knibbs entered the cinema business in 1987 as manager of the first purpose-built multiplex in the U.K. and Europe, The Point in Milton Keynes, operated by AMC Cinemas. His role grew following the circuit’s acquisition by Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios and its renaming as United Cinemas International (UCI). In 1993 he was named managing director of the chain’s U.K. and Ireland business, eventually becoming the senior vice president of Northern Europe for UCI in 1998. That role saw him overseeing operations in more mature European markets such as the U.K., Ireland, Germany, and Austria as well as in emerging markets including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.
In 2003, Knibbs left UCI to join Tim Richards at SBC, working as chief operating officer on the consolidation of the U.K. business, which became what is known as Vue International today. Several international acquisitions have seen Vue International grow to become the third-largest exhibition circuit in Europe, operating nearly 2,000 screens across the continent.In this interview with Boxoffice Pro, Knibbs looks back on his career and ahead to the opportunities waiting for exhibition as it emerges from the pandemic.
As a 35-year veteran of this industry, what are some of the early lessons you picked up in your first years in the business that are still relevant today?
Three lessons come to mind: Bad cinema visits don’t help anyone; be nice to everyone; keep challenging and changing and keep ahead of what people expect of you and your company.
Do you have anyone you would consider a mentor in your career?
I have been very lucky with the people I have worked for and with throughout my career who have helped, guided, taught, and encouraged me with advice and knowledge. From day one at The Point in Milton Keynes, I came across Millard Ochs and Charles Wesoky, who passed onto me the basic fundamentals of how a great cinema operation should be run. It was great fun and a joy to be part of building a new industry in a market like the United Kingdom. A market that had essentially, with a few notable exceptions, given up trying to be relevant to people as a leisure offer in their lives. Millard and Chuck changed that, and I learnt so much from them, and that remains the bedrock of my standards and beliefs today.
Whilst I was at UCI, I first met and worked with Joe Piexoto, Tim Richards, Alan McNair, and Geoff Moore, who would all in different ways teach me lots of things which have helped me along the way. Joe gave me the opportunity to work across multiple territories in a senior leadership role, and at a relatively young age he believed in me, and I will always be grateful for that. Alan taught me the need to focus on the details and make sound decisions based on facts, Geoff how to get things done no matter what the challenge, and Tim what real entrepreneurial vision looked like, not just being part of a corporate team, and to aim high and be bold in life.
Tim, Alan, Geoff, and I all came back together when I left UCI and joined Tim as COO at Vue in 2003 and they had acquired the Warner Village circuit in the U.K. I think we all took the lessons we had learned along the way to build together with an amazing team that over the years has included Anne Whalley, Dee Vassili, Roland Jones, Mark de Quervain, Alison Cornwell, Euan Sutton, Kam Dosanjh, Dominic Rowell, and many, many others who have all helped make Vue the world-class cinema business it is today. At this stage in my career, I feel I have a responsibility to make sure I pass along some of the things I have learned to the next generation of brilliant managers and leaders we have in our business.
As a multinational operator, you have unique insight into the pandemic recovery in different markets. How has the moviegoing recovery progressed across Vue’s territories?
I don’t think I necessarily have any unique insights as to what has happened over the past two years. I do think that experience burnished over many years helps you make key, potentially life-changing, decisions, in a calm, yet balanced way. You have to move quickly to stem the flow of cash and ensure all your team is looked after in the very best way you can manage. Those two things were key for us and the foundation of the decision-making questions we asked ourselves on a daily basis.
Moviegoing is improving every week as people return to pre-pandemic habits and the flow of content gathers pace and the gaps in the film release schedule start to be filled. Having just returned from CinemaCon in Las Vegas this week, I am more and more encouraged with the breadth, quality, and quantity of the films that are being made and released in the coming months and years. It is as good a lineup as I’ve ever seen, and I am very positive about the future.
The differences we have seen across our territories in the recovery phase tend to be related to the length of time a country was locked down, how many restrictions were in place; Passes, capacity constraints, masks, and food and beverage (F&B) sales. Countries like the U.K., Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands bounced back fairly quickly after each reopening and are performing well today. Poland and Italy have been slower, as they had greater restrictions than the countries I previously mentioned.
Reseating has been a big focus for many major operators around the world. What role does premium seating play for Vue?
Full recliner leather seats are, in my view, a game-changer. They elevate the customer experience to a new level in terms of their comfort watching films and perfectly complement the viewing experience only a cinema auditorium can provide. Nothing at home comes close—I don’t care how big your TV is, it’s still a TV and is just a compromise to the real thing.
I think digital technology—whether it’s booking films using artificial intelligence or our customers booking their tickets and concessions order on our website and apps—are combining to make the cinema experience frictionless. I also think laser-projection technology is going to provide the next step in quality and also cost efficiency that we need to round out the auditorium experience
What other trends or innovations in the cinema business do you consider to have been the most influential to the industry throughout your career?
Without a doubt, digital projection. It massively improved the quality of all cinema presentations and the flexibility of what we can show and what a cinema can be. It remains in our hands as exhibitors how we choose to use and develop that flexibility. Social media was another game-changer in how we engage with audiences. We can be so targeted now with how, when, and what we say to our customers. It is so powerful when used effectively and creatively. And finally, content. The range and quality of what is made and offered to our customers today are mind-blowing. It doesn’t matter what your taste is, we are likely to have something to offer you. It’s a myth that multiplexes don’t play a major role in the wide range of films on offer and only show blockbusters; it literally couldn’t be further from the truth. We just need to get better at promoting the platform we provide these films.
How is the moviegoer of 2022 different from the moviegoer of 2019?
I’m not sure I have that answer. Some people have dived straight in as though the pandemic never happened, while other people remain more cautious. That’s not necessarily tied to our audience’s age but is more dependent on individual concerns or even what a country’s pandemic experiences were like.
Our job is to continue to offer films to all the different demographics that make up our audiences. We need to make sure, along with our distributor partners, that our audiences know what’s on our screens and when they can see it. We need to make sure we have enough great content, especially for families, that provides our public at large with the incentive to return to our cinemas and regain their moviegoing habits.
What are the challenges and opportunities facing theatrical exhibition as we emerge from the pandemic and return to normality?
I think it’s pretty simple when you break it all down: Our key challenge is to recover the public’s moviegoing habit. At the same time, we can’t ignore the significant cost and supply-side challenges that are affecting all industries across the world. General inflation levels, the price of energy, and how tough it is to get the resources and materials you need for projects. These are the headwinds that can slow our recovery growth. There is a huge opportunity to grow and develop cinema’s place in peoples’ lives to a much greater extent than it has been in the past. If we can consistently surpass people’s expectations of what they see on the big screen at an affordable price, then there is no reason why we can’t say we are at the start of the next great era for cinemas. An era fully enabled by digital technology.