Reason to Celebrate: NATO Honors Michigan’s John D. Loeks with 2019 Marquee Award

With 154 screens in 11 locations, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Celebration! Cinema may be modest in size, but its leader, John D. Loeks, has had a huge influence on today’s movie exhibition arena. During his two-year tenure (2015–17) as chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners, Loeks was a driving force in the creation of the Global Cinema Federation, the first international body representing the interests of cinemas around the world. No wonder NATO is honoring Loeks with its annual Marquee Award for dedication to the business at CinemaCon’s “State of the Industry” presentation on April 2.

“John Loeks’s role in the exhibition industry defines leadership,” says NATO President and CEO John Fithian. “This humble gentleman from Michigan had the vision to create the Global Cinema Federation and unite exhibitors around the world, while never forgetting the role of the independent theater operators.”

So how did an exhibitor whose theaters are confined to one state come to think globally? “There are two things on my mind all of the time,” Loeks confides. “One is local and the other is global. On the local side, you’ve heard it said that all politics is local. Well, I think there’s a corollary in our business, that all exhibition is local. If customers don’t leave satisfied with our theaters, our projection, our sound, our safety, our cleanliness and yearn to come back, the motion picture exhibition business fails. And that’s true for everybody—for me and for all my competitors. It’s just very important to focus on the individual customer. And that’s a local thing.

“The second point is, if exhibition is to remain healthy, it needs everybody to recognize that the theatrical experience is important. And what I came to realize is that some of the best theaters in the world were being built internationally in Europe and Israel and China and Australia. I thought to myself: If we are to remain a healthy industry, we want to see those theaters build a theatrical experience worldwide, and we need to collaborate a bit and compare notes and help understand what we’re all doing so we can all improve ourselves as we see what’s happening internationally. And to do that, I thought we needed a Global Cinema Federation.

“Still, the local focus is very important for us. We are a regional chain, but that’s not just us. Even the national chains have to figure out a way to remain local and serve customers well and serve their communities well, individual communities. And at the same time, we want to see the theatrical experience survive and thrive and remain healthy and become a global industry that is recognized as the first and best place for a distributor to put its movies. That’s what my thinking was.”

Loeks adds, “You know, this didn’t come about suddenly. I served on the NATO board for quite a few years, all the way back to the early 1990s when we were a 50-member board. And then we were reduced to like 18 members. But I stayed on that board through the whole history until about a year ago. … And I kept raising this issue when we got too focused on what was happening in the U.S. domestic and Canadian box office and our relationship with Hollywood. I would often ask the question: Well, what are the exhibitors in Europe thinking about this subject? What are the exhibitors in Australia thinking about this subject? Because it’s a common problem. And too often people gave me blank looks and didn’t know. I don’t think that would happen today. But back in that era it was happening, and I came to believe that this Global Cinema Federation idea was important. I think that’ll go down in the record book as the single most important thing that happened during my NATO chairmanship.”

Over the past decades, the number of theater circuits has decreased as even giant chains get swallowed up by larger entities. Loeks has some thoughts on that phenomenon: “We all learn in business school that you create a business by finding something that’s sustainable and then reproducible and scalable. And therefore we’ve seen a fair amount of consolidation in the industry and it’s had its benefits. … But we can’t be blind to the fact that overconsolidation could hurt us too. We’ve got to keep mindful of that.”

He contends, “A lot of the best things to come out of the industry came from local and regional circuits. The circuits that caused me to improve myself have been other Michigan circuits like NCG or Emagine or MJR or Goodrich. These guys have all been innovators, and Michigan maybe more than most states has a very strong and thriving regional cinema operation. We have been successful by being sensitive to the trends: early adopter of digital sound and then digital projection, early adopter of stadium tiered seating, early adopter of expanded menus in our theaters. Regional circuits can do that, and we learn from each other. I think there is a very creative place and an important place in the industry for regional circuits.”

Celebration! Cinema, meanwhile, has undergone a dramatic transition, entering new businesses and thus rebranding as Studio C. Loeks explains: “The Studio C branding is all about the fact that our variety of companies have gone into more directions than just the motion picture theater business. It’s important to say first of all that we retain the Celebration! Cinema brand for all our motion picture theaters. But for a long time we’ve been involved in other business activities. The biggest one is a company called ShowSpan that produces large consumer show events like boat shows, sports shows, and home and garden shows. But more recently the thing that motivated us to find a brand that would sort of overarch all of our activities is an enormous downtown Grand Rapids development that’s under construction right now that takes us into the parking business with a 930-space parking garage, into the office building business, and into the residential apartment business, where we’ll have a hundred apartments and eventually another 130 condo units in a site where there’s going to be a new Hilton-branded hotel called Canopy. It’s about $170 million of investment and the largest single private investment in the history of downtown Grand Rapids.

“So when we started thinking about all of these lines of business, we thought we needed a brand name that overarches all of that. And so we chose Studio C as sort of a tip of the hat to our history. We had a very famous theater called Studio 28 that my father developed. He got famous opening it, and I got a little famous closing it. [Laughs] But it was the world’s first megaplex, with 20 screens back in 1988. And then Celebration! Cinema is the C in Studio C. All of our new megaplex movie theaters since I’ve been involved in the movie business actively as a chief executive have been called Celebration! Cinema, which will be true of our new nine-screen location in downtown Grand Rapids, which is part of that big development I just mentioned. So we’re saying parking by Studio C, a Celebration! Cinema by Studio C, etc.”

Loeks adds, “I have to acknowledge that my son J.D., who is the president of our company, is the leader on this new downtown development; it’s been his work to get it done. It’s my investment, but it’s his leadership. It’s a nice to have yet a third generation of the Loeks family deeply engaged in the family enterprise.”

That Grand Rapids project, due to open in September, will include a small music club seating just over 200 people. “It’ll be highly designed acoustically for musical performances,” Loeks says. “We recently hired a radio station manager who specializes in a wide variety of music and knows traveling acts and that sort of thing. We hope to lure them to Grand Rapids, some national names, and produce something that is being done extraordinarily well in places you would expect it to be done, like Nashville. Nashville has half a dozen of these listening rooms. We’re going to call it The Listening Room, by the way. That’s the name of it. They’re booked solid, and it’ll be an adventure for us, it’ll be something new to Grand Rapids. We don’t have that. Of course, a lot of bars and restaurants play music, but this is going to be really focused on the music itself and the performance. We’ll have a bar operation there, but that will be secondary to the actual performance of the music.”

Recently, Celebration! Cinema has also added bars and restaurants in its top locations. “A year and a half ago, we hired Kristin Kent, who came out of the restaurant business. She’d opened four or five restaurants for other owners, and she knew the liquor-license business. She knew how to set a menu and how to open a new restaurant, and it has driven us forward in the food and beverage area. We already have liquor licenses in most of our megaplex theaters, and we will soon have liquor licenses in all of them. We have expanded food and beverage items like sandwiches in several of our theaters, and before long we’ll have them in most of our theaters. It takes a lot of work and sometimes renovation and reconstruction in order to get the kitchens and all of the things necessary, the systems and the processes that have to do with food ordering—that’s all very technical stuff. I’m glad that my son and the others on his team are taking that up. It’s the next era, and after all I’m going to be 74 this month. It takes a young person to lead that charge.”

Loeks confesses, “Years ago, I was a little skeptical. I thought: Can we really be good in the food business? Really? You know, you’re trying so hard to be good in the movie business, but I think that era is upon us where we have to be good in the food business as well.”

Celebration! Cinema has also embraced the trend toward alternative programming, which Loeks says he feels can be traced back to IMAX’s pre-blockbuster fare.

“When we built our Grand Rapids North theater in 2001, we added an IMAX screen. And at that time Hollywood was sort of waiting to see if it really wanted to embrace IMAX for feature films. So IMAX was basically school film. We were playing the big nature films and the space films and the Lewis and Clark films and all of that stuff. That was a kind of alternative programming. And when you play film like that that doesn’t have a big national advertising campaign behind it, you’ve got to learn how to promote alternative programming and flex that muscle. And strangely enough, my company ShowSpan, which was not in the theater business but was really good at local promotion on radio, TV, billboards, newspapers, the whole thing, knew how to do that. So we brought that muscle behind the IMAX operation.

“Then Lee Roy Mitchell at Cinemark finally agreed to sell me two new theaters that he built in Grand Rapids. And that allowed us to take one of those theaters and put into it a combination of alternative programming and sub-run movies, and that really got us going on alternative programming. Of course, you have to have content all the time. We were quick to adopt the Metropolitan Opera; we’re doing all of that stuff, but it’s not easy. It’s harder to promote and sometimes it attracts very small audiences. Grand Rapids is barely a big enough market to do it with. It works better in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and other large markets in the country, but we’re doing it nonetheless.”

John Loeks practiced law for 20 years before entering the family business. “I attribute going into law to my father’s encouragement. He was a very innovative guy in the movie industry, but he thought it’d be best if I got a legal education. He sold me on the idea that you can do anything with a legal education: trial law, business law, you can go into politics, whatever. And I bought that program and I went into law and I practiced law. And then one of my siblings, my younger brother Jim Loeks, got into the theater business ahead of me and came into the company. So I was content to practice law for a while. But when he left, I came in at my father’s invitation to run his company, and eventually bought the company.”

Along with running a theater circuit, the new Studio C businesses, and his ShowSpan consumer show business, Loeks is also founder and former chairman of the AuSable Institute of Environmental Studies, which promotes environmental science courses at nearly 60 colleges, and founder of Schools for Sierra Leone.

“That began with a family connection,” he notes. “My daughter Emily, who also works in our community relations, is a wonderful person and employee. She married Aaron Kortenhoven, who grew up in Sierra Leone, West Africa, as a missionary kid. I had a friend here in Grand Rapids who has extensive international connections in the academic world. And he said, ‘John, let’s take a trip to Africa, to Ghana and Sierra Leone.’ We left with our spouses and Aaron took us on a tour of Sierra Leone, especially the remote parts of the country. We ended up in this little town of Kabala, of about 25,000 people, and we discovered that while they had schools, they had a terribly big need to have a good school. Typically in Sierra Leone, and this continues to the present day sadly, a classroom of 60 to 100 children is not unusual. In fact, it’s usual. That and an uncertified teacher. And we said if we build a school where we limit class sizes to 30, every teacher is certified, and every child gets a new workbook—just those three basic ideas—we think we can produce a better result. And now we’ve been doing it for close to 12 years. The school has grown from four grades all the way up through senior high school. They call it senior secondary school and we’ve had two graduating classes and most of those students are going on to college and university educations. And it’s been just one of the biggest joys of my life to see this development in this small rural, remote African community where the national leaders there are all kind of Freetown-oriented—that’s the capital city of Sierra Leone. They constantly find it remarkable that way out there in the remote part of their country the school exists and it’s producing a better result than anything nearby. It’s the only school with a science lab, the only school with a library, the only school with a computer lab with 50 computers in it. It’s the only school where almost every teacher has their own laptop. It’s been quite remarkable.”

That’s service and dedication beyond the movie theater business—one more reason John Loeks deserves to be on NATO’s 2019 Marquee.

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