Exclusive Interview with ShowEast 2022 Dan Fellman Show E Award Winner: Rolando Rodriguez

Photo Courtesy the National Association of Theatre Owners

Rolando Rodriguez, the outgoing chief executive officer of Marcus Theatres, is this year’s recipient of the Dan Fellman Show “E” award, a lifetime achievement prize, at ShowEast. The award, renamed in 2015 to honor longtime Warner Bros. distribution executive Dan Fellman, is presented annually to an industry member or company in honor of their achievements, accomplishments, dedication, and longevity in the industry.

“We are extremely honored to present Rolando Rodriguez with this award at ShowEast this year. There is no better example in our business that truly represents what this award is all about,” said Film Expo Group president Andrew Sunshine. “Rolando’s dedication and commitment to the theatrical community is second to none.”

Rodriguez served as the chair, president, and CEO of Marcus Theatres and executive vice president of The Marcus Corporation until his retirement on October 1. He will continue to serve out his term as chair of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).

Prior to his role at Marcus, Rodriguez served as CEO of Rave Cinemas and executive at Walmart and AMC Theatres. He has advocated for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the business community and has served as the board chair for the Hispanic Collaborative, which is committed to advancing the overall well-being of Hispanic people in the greater Milwaukee area.

Boxoffice Pro spoke with Rodriguez ahead of ShowEast to get his perspective on his long career, the challenges remaining for exhibitors, and the benefits of inclusion and diversity.

Rolando, you’ve spent over 40 years working in this industry. Do you remember your early days as a moviegoer and what the cinema meant to you before you began working in this industry?

I was born in Havana, Cuba, and there were only a couple of things that weren’t entertainment-related that you could do there when I was a kid. You went to the beach and played baseball, and boxing was a big thing. I happened to participate in all of those. But frankly, the family thing to do in Cuba was that every Sunday my parents would take me to the movies. I grew up at a time in Cuba when American films weren’t shown in Cuba, because of the embargo. I grew up watching movies from Italy, Japan, China, Canada, France … it was an amazing experience because I got to visit the world and learn about these other countries through this wonderful visual art form that we have.

I went to the old, grand movie palaces in the ’60s and watched all of those great films. It was something that enamored me and led to what I would call my first real job after I moved to the United States, tearing tickets at the AMC Theatres Embassy 1 & 2 in the Kansas City Plaza. I still remember the first film I tore tickets for there: Shampoo with Warren Beatty.

How did that first job in exhibition influence your career?

At the time, at the age of 15, I was thinking of going to college to become an engineer, and getting that job turned out to be a life-turning event. I grew up going to the movies with my family, and I thought it would be cool to work in a movie theater. Back in those days, you wore a bow tie and a jacket to the job; it was a very formal type of attire to become an usher. I remember everything about that job: being interviewed, getting that position, getting paid a whopping $1.50 an hour.

I say it was a life-turning event because the more I got to do the job—and I did everything, usher, projectionist, concessions, supervisor—and worked myself through the ranks into management, that is how I found that I really enjoyed working with people and engaging with consumers. I changed my mind from going into engineering to getting a management degree.

Exhibition was a very different business back then. You had a lot more family companies; circuits were regional rather than multinational.

It was really interesting. I started at AMC while Stan Durwood was running AMC Theatres, and I would get to see him every weekend. He’d come to the movies, and I had the opportunity to chat with him. These were businesses that were still owned by entrepreneurs back then. General Cinemas, Loews, Syufy, Cinemark—they were regionally oriented circuits built by entrepreneurs across the United States. That really started to change in the ’90s, when all of a sudden you saw some of the first- or second-generation exhibitors that were very well connected to the industry start to exit as private equity began moving in. Then you saw some of these companies going public. It changed the makeup of the industry. You saw circuits grow into major organizations. Look at AMC Theatres, where I spent 30 years, which has grown into the largest circuit in the world. Consolidation also had a big influence: Regal began acquiring circuits like United Artists along the way, and Cinemark went on to acquire players like Rave Cinemas, which I ran at one time. The industry has grown up, in a way. Some of those changes have given us the opportunity for a greater level and speed to innovation. It has also taken away from some of those wonderful things that we had, the family orientation of the industry, which we’ve seen change over the years.

Your story is one this industry prides itself on—being able to take frontline workers and develop those jobs into executive careers. Did you have any mentors who helped you get to where you are today?

Even in the film companies, there are executives that came from exhibition in many cases. They actually grew up, professionally, within the theater business. Most of the leaders in both distribution and exhibition came from the ground up, starting as ushers, tearing tickets, selling popcorn at the concession stand, or booking films for a circuit.

I’m very fortunate in that I’ve had multiple mentors. The first one I can recall, believe it or not, was Stan Durwood himself. I was a 15-year-old kid tearing tickets, and Stan Durwood would come into the theater all the time. He used to love talking to people and with his associates. He’d sit there and talk to me about the business, sometimes for hours. How did I feel about the theater? What did I think about this movie? He talked about pricing on a regular basis. I had a district manager that was extremely helpful to me, Tom Woolery, who helped me grow into the management ranks. One of my very close friends still to this day is Frank Stryjewski, who helped me tremendously in getting into an executive-level position at AMC. Phil Singleton gave me my first shot to be a training director in AMC’s southeast division. I can name numerous individuals throughout the course of my career with different companies, and I’m very appreciative of the opportunities they provided me to grow within those organizations. There are a lot of folks that I can name, I’m just very happy to have been a small part of this industry for a long time.

Those who make it into the executive ranks can help prepare the next generation of executives to follow the same path. You’ve been a vocal supporter of making the cinema industry a more diverse and inclusive place throughout your career.

When you think about the evolution of our industry, when I first started, it was heavily composed of entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs were incredible businesspeople who built this industry’s foundation. However, at that time, most of them—if not all of them—were Caucasian males. That’s how the industry started.

Today, you’re starting to see a lot more female leaders in film companies, in exhibition, and in filmmaking. You’re starting to see diversity take a bigger step with the African American community in the same sectors. That change is absolutely fantastic, and it’s my hope to see that also happen within the Hispanic and Latin American communities. I would love to see that representation in films, at studios, and in circuits. That is one of my big aspirations for the future.

In the next chapter of my career, I hope to get invited to participate in more business boards, where I can help build bridges and encourage the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion that’s necessary to truly recognize who the consumer is today.

It’s not just about consumers; it’s also about the workforce of tomorrow. When you see that the population base of Hispanics represents the fastest-growing population of millennials, the highest birth rates in America. When you see over 60 million Hispanic in the United States, that’s an important demographic. We represent a good portion of the workforce of today and in the future.

What are the moments in your career that stand out most?

The first one that I can cite was the rise of the multiplex complex. When I first started, the biggest theater operating at the time was a six-screen theater. That was considered a big theater back then, and all of a sudden, they grew to 12, 14, 16, and 20 screens. Then there was the big move to stadium seating that transformed the industry. I helped open the AMC Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas, and felt very proud about that moment, because it was a huge turning point in the industry. Today, we’re seeing a big move to recliner seating, taking what’s best about watching a movie at home and introducing it in a theater. Those have been the three biggest transformations, at different periods of time, that I’ve seen during my time in the industry.

You’re retiring from your role at Marcus Theatres but will continue serving as chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners. You held that role during a time of crisis in the industry, guiding it through the pandemic. Was there a moment when you finally sighed in relief, knowing exhibition would survive the existential threat of the pandemic?

I can honestly tell you that I never lost faith in the industry coming back. Working with this NATO board, they worked tirelessly during the crisis. In the course of a year and a half, we had over 50 board meetings. Think about that—it’s nearly a meeting every other week. That told me that the people that were leading these circuits were committed to bringing back the industry. That everybody—even though we compete against one another—was dedicated to finding solutions for all of us and bringing back this industry. To be part of the collaboration, support, and guidance that was provided by this board has been one of the greatest honors of my career.

I am very proud to serve this industry as the chairman of NATO, working alongside John Fithian, who’s done an amazing job there, and the rest of the NATO group, who were just incredible. It was great to see their hard work and dedication in working with government agencies, supporting small circuits that were having challenges, and coming up with the safety measures to work through Covid. When I look at National Cinema Day, which took place in September, what an incredible success story to see over 8 million people show up to our theaters on one of the slowest weekends of the year. It tells you about the power of people working together and the excitement that our industry brings to consumers.

If you were to boil down your time in this industry, what is the one big lesson you will take with you?

First and foremost, the amazing leadership and the teams that I’ve had the great fortune to work with, whether it was at AMC Theatres, Rave Cinemas, or over my nine years here at Marcus Theaters. People, I would say, have been the biggest influence in my life. It’s about people.

I have these sayings I keep repeating. One of them is, “Never say never.” That’s an important lesson for our industry. We’re used to hearing people say this industry will never recover, never get back to its heights. I remember hearing it when the VCR was introduced, how it was going to be the end. Now it’s all about streaming, and how it’s going to kill the industry. This summer proved all that wrong. Having a movie like Top Gun: Maverick proved that if you have great content, it can sell out theaters on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend.

This is a fabulous art form. It connects people. It connects consumers with great associates. It’s a social environment that lives on. It’s a necessary environment that tells great stories in a setting where people can enjoy a shared experience with others they’ve never met before. I love this industry, I believe in its people, and I go on saying, “Never say never.”

Photo Courtesy the National Association of Theatre Owners

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