What was your first job in exhibition?
I got my start in the industry in Butte, Montana, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. My first job was sweeping up the lobby—back then they called them pageboys. I worked throughout my high school and college years, having every different role in a theater—including as a janitor for several years. I learned the business from the ground up. When I graduated from college I worked as a theater manager for a couple of years with a company called National General Corporation, which was a fairly big circuit back then—around 1966 to ’68. In 1969 I joined a couple of other individuals in forming our company, called Theater Operators Incorporated (TOI), and it was just one or two theaters in the Billings, Montana, area. We grew that into a fairly substantial regional circuit from 1969 to about 1989, building it up to 225 to 250 screens. In 1973 I had also started a film-buying business for independently owned theaters called Warner Marketing Associates. We represented small exhibitors to the studios, so my roots for 20 years were as a very small exhibitor based in Montana. A lot of people might think of me as running a very big company, but I spent over 20 years as a very small exhibitor. I sold those companies and headed NATO of California and Nevada and was the general chairman of ShoWest, representing exhibitors to the studios and to the various state and federal offices of government.
Could you see at the time that ShoWest would evolve into CinemaCon?
ShoWest was a small, regional gathering, but it was at the same time that the international box office was starting to equal the domestic box office. From 1989 to 1996, when I ran ShoWest, it went from a regional show to a huge international gathering, and when I left we had over 79 countries attending the convention. Of course now that’s become CinemaCon. The industry was going from a domestic-based business to a global one. To me it’s absolutely critical that we have a gathering like CinemaCon in our industry here in the U.S., because we’re still at the center of the entertainment industry. The important thing about it is how we come together with the studios, distributors, and suppliers to grow the industry.
From my role at ShoWest, I could see that the international portion of our industry was going to be the real growth story. I made up my mind that when I went back into the day-to-day part of exhibition that I wanted to be in the international space. Lee Roy Mitchell was a real visionary. He could see the potential of the international business, and he invited me to become the head of Cinemark International, which gave me the opportunity to develop an international company.
What was the most ambitious project you were involved with at Cinemark?
It wasn’t just the most ambitious project I’ve been involved with—it was also the most rewarding phase of my career. It was all built organically, so we developed the management teams and expertise from the ground up. We were the first modern theater in every country we entered, so we were reinventing an industry in a new segment of the world. It has really blossomed since, not only in what Cinemark has done, but through the work of other exhibitors like Cinépolis, Cinemex, or Cine Colombia. There are a lot of people now in the region. Probably the smartest decision I made was to hire local people in each country, bring them to the U.S. to teach them the exhibition business, and take them back to their countries. Many of our hires in those countries from 20 years ago are still with us today.
Did you ever expect the company to become a global leader when you first tackled that international expansion?
We took it one theater in one market at a time, and when I returned to work in the U.S. it was after the acquisition of Century Theatres, which was a major acquisition for Cinemark. It allowed us to go from a private company to a public one, which we did in 2007. From there the focus was to grow the company, and we ultimately ended up as the No.1–attended movie company in the world, although we might now be overtaken by AMC’s acquisition of Carmike.
You’ve been involved on the NATO side of things as well. What were some of the biggest issues facing exhibition when you first began, and what can they teach us about today’s most pressing concerns?
The thing I learned as head of the trade association in California is that we really have to view each other as partners rather than adversaries and work together in how we address industry issues. Back in the ’80s they had a practice called blind bidding, where you had to commit to booking movies without ever having seen them. The exhibitors worked with state legislatures to pass anti-blind-bidding laws, and finally the industry realized that it didn’t make any sense to fight each other—it was better to come together without having to resort to a legal process. Another example was the challenge to get to digital cinema, and since the studios were going to be the ones who were going to benefit the most from it, it only made sense they share in the cost of the transition to digital through DCIP and other groups that enabled that transition. Another recent example is satellite delivery, which over the long term will save millions of dollars, but in order for it to become cost effective you have to transition the entire industry to it. So we formed DCDC with Warner Bros., Universal, Regal, and AMC and transitioned the industry to satellite delivery. It’s going to save studios millions of dollars in delivery costs, but what it did for exhibition was to provide one-point access to the theatrical platform. It’s always been a pay-per-view platform, but now with a one-point delivery via satellite you have the largest pay-per-view network in the work. This one-point access took us from a platform to a network. In addition to films, you have the ability to play all types of live content and explore activities like gaming.
Which innovations to the cinema-going experience most stand out for you?
We realized once we transitioned to digital that you could create your own premium private label large format, and we came out with our XD concept. A lot of exhibitors have followed, and we’re really glad they have because it was important for the platform to expand in the U.S. and around the world, but I feel that Cinemark really led that innovation. It was brought about thanks to the digital cinema platform. George Lucas said it best at CinemaCon a couple of years back—once you get to digital, all types of innovations could get enabled. And he was right—not only do you have private-label premium large format, you also have sustainable 3D now. It was something that had come in and out of theaters every couple of years but would always fail because it was such a poor experience, but now with digital we have a real sustainable 3D platform.
What’s your outlook for the state of exhibition?
I think this is the best time to be in the business because we’ve solved all the technological barriers. I feel that film would have been a totally unsustainable platform—from both a cost and accessibility standpoint. Now that we’ve solved those issues with digital and satellite deliveries, all other innovations to follow ensure that the future of the industry is brighter than ever. We’ve taken a lot of the cost out of the system, and now we can focus on improving the presentation and customer experience at the local movie theater.