“Keep It You”: Cynthia Pierce Brings Sight and Sound to AMC

Earlier this year, Boxoffice Pro partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019, Boxoffice Pro continues to pay tribute to the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.

Going to the movies “was always a special occasion” for Cynthia Pierce. Between her and her siblings, “there were five of us, so we didn’t go very often. When we did go, it was always a big deal.” An early experience had the potential to put her off the art of film forever: At the drive-in to see a double bill with her family, she watched The Jungle Book and was supposed to be sleeping during the second film, “a PG-rated John Wayne movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I do remember that in the movie a gentleman died sitting up in a rocking chair. For some reason, that gave me nightmares forever!”

Far from being scarred for life, Pierce embraced the movies—and decades later, as AMC’s senior vice president of facilities/sight and sound, she helps make them look and sound the best they can.

Pierce joined AMC in 1981, working her way through college as a relief manager, roving from theater to theater to fill in for managers on vacation. She got an accounting degree, but “it turns out that accounting wasn’t very fun,” she recalls. “I was in the field as a general manager and came to [AMC’s corporate office in] Kansas City in 2006 as a training director. I spent some time in H.R. and then moved over to V.P. of operations.” After four years in that position, Pierce moved to her current role—which, wide-ranging as it is, pulls upon the extensive knowledge she attained in her decades with the company up to that point.

There’s no quick sound bite explanation for what a “senior vice president of facilities/sight and sound” does. Both sides of her job have a “service component: supporting the day-to-day needs of the field.” On the facilities side, that might mean overseeing the resolution of practical issues, like “‘my roof’s leaking, my parking lot has holes’—the sorts of things where a general manager wouldn’t have the knowledge or the expertise to even know where to start.” 

Pierce and her team are also responsible for the installation of new technology—whether it’s a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine or a new Dolby Cinema—and fielding tech support issues. “The deployment side [of my job is that] the sight and sound team is deploying Dolby, they’re deploying Imax [AMC’s in-house premium large-format brand] Prime. We’re always looking for new technology to improve the sight and sound experience. It’s a rather large team, but they’ve got a lot to do.” Pierce points out that the chain has “the biggest Imax footprint” in addition to “the biggest Dolby Cinema footprint—[that’s] a little bit newer to the table, but we still have more Dolby [Cinema] than anyone else.”

AMC’s size and industry standing, Pierce says, gives the sight and sound team leeway to test products before deciding what to invest in, allowing AMC to balance risk and innovation. “The manufacturers look to us to test their equipment. So we’re able to get in on the ground floor. We’ve been very fortunate in that they look to us to provide feedback on their new technology. To the degree that, as an exhibitor, we can say, ‘This is good, but’ or, ‘We’re not sure we want to pursue this kind of technology,’ I like to think that we’ve been able to influence where [manufacturers] landed to some degree. They’re clearly also going to other exhibitors. But I think we have a reputation for a willingness to test and do R&D on emerging technologies.”

Among that emerging tech, Pierce cites laser projection as something of particular interest to AMC. “Changing the light source from xenon to laser is a big thing right now. You have some companies favoring one technology over another. Some are trying them all. And we’re trying to figure out what’s the mix of technology that’s going to serve AMC for the future. It’s probably not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says. “Our existing [digital] fleet is 10 to 13 years old, and they’re basically computers. So we’re trying to figure out, how do you maintain the computer? And then as you’re moving toward other technology, what’s the right choice? And we’re just really scratching the surface on that.”

In introducing that tech, Pierce—who was a general manger for a long time herself—makes sure to maintain lines of communication between the corporate office and those with boots-on-the-ground experience at the AMC theaters. “We are always checking back with the field to say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking. How does this affect life for you? How do you think it will impact your guests?’ We’re constantly touching back with them, and even including G.M.s along the way, [asking them] ‘What do you think? How do you think this is going to play out?’ We might think one approach is the best approach, but then after running it by the G.M.s and having conversations with them, we might change that a little bit. They help prevent us from making mistakes, because we think we know, and they often know better.”

As someone who’s moved up the ranks at AMC herself, Pierce has noted a substantial improvement in regard to gender equality. This she attributes to “intentionality” in the recruitment process. “The presence on the executive team today versus where it was 10 years ago, and then more broadly in the field, as well, [has gotten more noticeable]. I’ve seen all those things evolve over a long career. I think we’ve done a good job at making that our priority.” 

It’s key when making hiring decisions, Pierce argues, to ask oneself, “Am I hiring someone just like me, or am I looking at a broader pool and trying to be intentional about the choices that we make? The facilities/sight and sound team, when I came in four and half years ago, had a high percentage of males with technical background and expertise. And we tried to be more intentional, and guess what? There are females out there with the same expertise. They just needed to get in. I think we’ve done a nice job. One of the things that I’m proud of on my team is that we’ve been able to change the gender makeup a little bit in a way that I think is meaningful.”

Once they get through the door, Pierce’s advice to women in the exhibition industry is to find their own management style. “I think that women need to be comfortable managing people and situations in a way that’s comfortable to them. I’m not a big fan of ‘Act like a man, because that’s how you’ll make it in business.’ I think women bring something different to the table, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed or apologetic about that. I don’t have to act like a man who I work for, or a man who I work with, in order to make it. Just be confident in what you’re bringing to the table. As trite as it sounds, keep it you.”

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