Four Decades in Film Buying: Interview with Sonny Gourley, VP of Film, Marcus Theatres

Film booking has traditionally been crucial in ensuring the success of both distribution and exhibition—two sectors that have seen transformational changes over several years. Sonny Gourley began his career in the cinema business in the mid-1970s with AMC Entertainment, a professional relationship that spanned 37 years and led to several high-profile roles such as executive vice president of film marketing, head film buyer, and president of film programming. Gourley joined Marcus Theatres in 2012, establishing a West Coast office for the midwestern circuit in his native Los Angeles. Boxoffice asked Gourley how film booking has changed during his long career.

I’m assuming you didn’t just walk into the film department of a circuit. What was your first job in exhibition?

I entered the industry back in 1975, when I went to what I believe was the first four-plex in Philadelphia to sell the theater manager a copy machine. The manager didn’t end up buying the machine, but he hired me instead, and that’s how I became assistant manager for an AMC location in Philadelphia. I had always been interested in the film-buying side. I had majored in English in college and had taken some film courses, so I let them know, and after four years of managing a theater they moved me into the film-buying department at their New Jersey office in 1979.

What was the booking process like in those days?

From the film-buying standpoint, there weren’t as many movies back then, and the films didn’t go through as many runs nationally. We would see what was available and would bid on those movies instead of just licensing them, and you found yourself not only evaluating these movies like you do today but also bidding for them in order to play them in whatever your territory was. The big difference now is that we simply license the pictures and the studios decide which theaters they want to play, but there’s no longer this elaborate bidding system.

What do you think contributed to the industry shifting to the system we have in place today?

The shift came when we started having more movies come out and getting more runs on those pictures. A picture would roll out slowly, but now most movies will take 2,500, 3,000, or 4,000 runs on a picture. Once the number of productions came up I think the studios realized that with all the marketing they were spending, it was better to play more theaters. The distribution side felt it was better to have more runs on a movie and get their investment back quicker.

The other big shift in your career came more recently, when you moved from a national circuit at AMC to a regional one at Marcus. Does the job change significantly when you’re programming for a specific region as opposed to the country as a whole?

I think the main difference you see comes with genres; there are certain movies that do better on a market share basis in the Midwest. For example, here at Marcus we do very well with female-oriented and faith-based movies. There are certain genres we’re on the lookout for, and when we get those movies we put them on more screens and achieve a higher market share. All the movies play, and good movies do well everywhere, but there are genres that do better in the Midwest than they do on the coast, and vice versa. It’s just the type of clientele that we have.

The industry has been moving away from a seasonal release calendar, with more event movies being released throughout the year. Does that affect admissions on certain titles in a region like the Midwest, where snow can affect foot traffic coming into a theater?

There’s something to that yes, with major storms coming through, but once those big storms settle down you have people coming out to the movies. I don’t think the weather is that much of a factor because there’s pent-up demand once a movie is out, and you get the chance to get out of the house and go to a theater. That’s another one of the big changes; it used to be a summer-and-Christmas business, and now we have big films coming out 52 weeks a year for the most part. Some weeks are better than others, sure, but lately we’ve had a hit every month to start off the year. American Sniper last January, Deadpool this February, Batman v Superman in March, Furious 7 last April—if a film is marketed correctly, it can do business throughout the country in any month of the year.

We’ve written about Marcus’s $5 Stimulus Tuesday program, where $5 gets you a ticket, popcorn, and soda. Have you seen an uptick in any particular genre or types of titles on those days?

You definitely see that there are customers out there, loyal moviegoers, who take advantage of the Tuesday movie bargain. We haven’t necessarily seen a change in any individual movie— they’ll come out to see any genre, especially family films, on that day. I think it’s something that allows customers to get in the habit of going to the movies.

Event cinema has really grown from an alternative to a viable programming option, particularly on weekdays. Are there any specific strategies you look at when it comes to programming it?

We’re playing more content now than we ever have, and I’m sure that’s not just at Marcus—people at other circuits would say the same thing. This part of the business has really taken off, led by the Met Opera, and there are other players that are also doing well and filling a void during the week. We’re glad to have it; it’s all about increasing attendance and getting more people interested in coming to the cinema. We’ve done a great job here at Marcus thanks to my colleague [Marcus CEO] Rolando [Rodriguez] in increasing our attendance every year, not only in having more people come to the movies but having them come more often. That’s something you can see through our loyalty program: an attendance-driven approach where we want to have people come to our theaters habitually.

With more content, more movies, being made available, how do you approach independent titles that might not have the same marketing muscle behind them as a studio release?

There’s obviously a big audience of baby boomers out there that is starting to look at the Oscar season as early as September. As we see movies pick up awards, we try to get them in as many of our mainstream cinemas as quickly as possible to develop that audience. It’s not just the Oscar season, but that’s primarily when we have baby boomers looking for different types of movies to come see. Our goal is to bring those movies to the suburbs and promote them to allow enough capacity for these movies so people can get accustomed to seeing more independent product. It’s a big goal for us, to get these runs out to our mainstream cinemas as early as possible. And it’s working out very well; there’s a big audience out there for independent film outside of just the Oscar season.

What have been some of the biggest surprises you’ve seen at the box office in the last couple of years?

Nobody last year thought Jurassic World would make $208 million in its opening weekend, and then to follow that up with Star Wars: The Force Awakens—we all knew it was going to do great, but a $248 million opening weekend is something we never dreamed of. My favorite part of the business is forecasting, trying to figure out what these movies are going to do, and I love the fact that this business is so unpredictable. Deadpool is another recent example. Nobody had that movie opening anywhere near $150 million for the four-day opening weekend, and sure enough it hit a nerve with customers and just exploded. It’s amazing how social media can sell a movie that people like really quickly, but if a movie isn’t so good it can really hurt that movie that first weekend. The word spreads in a hurry. You used to be able to sell a movie for a week or two, but nowadays the quality of a movie stands on its own and the customers tell you right away if they’re interested or not.

Genres tend to be cyclical in popularity. What type of film is performing particularly well today?

The most popular movies right now are comic book adaptations, Marvels and DC. I would also say that animated family movies continue to be very well received. The smaller movies, like romantic comedies that aren’t dependent on special effects—those can present challenges. If they don’t get Oscar recognition, it becomes tougher for the studios to get them recognition and marketed out to the mainstream. Nowadays the other big trend is that movies are made for global audiences, so something like a comedy, with humor that we would only get here in the U.S., that presents a challenge for the studios.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out almost 15 years ago—a foreign art-house genre movie that ended up selling out theaters at suburban malls. Since then, however, we have seen very few foreign films with that level of success in North America. Do you think that will change as audience demographics in the U.S. change, or is it something we’ll see more of on a film-by-film basis?

That’s another one of those areas that are so unpredictable in our business. I think it works more on a film-by-film basis. I don’t see a trend of those movies doing business as much in the United States. The ones that are really good, however, like Instructions Not Included, they tend to break through on their own. It depends on the marketing campaign helping the right movie at the right time.

Moviegoing has changed significantly throughout the years, and you’ve had a front row seat at many of those changes. Which contemporary innovation do you like best when you go to the movies today?

I was there with AMC back in the mid-90s when stadium seating came out, and I think recliners are the biggest innovation making the biggest impact since that time. At Marcus we call them DreamLoungers, and I love them. I love the environment, especially when it’s paired up with today’s sound systems. Good sound and a comfortable seat are a great combination, then you just need to throw in a good movie. Something else our own customers are really responding to in our circuit are our Take 5 Lounges, a place where people can come in and enjoy a drink before or after the show. Some of our theaters have Big Screen Bistros as well, where customers come and have dinner in our theaters. Our overall challenge is creating the right environment to get people to make the choice to get out of the house and come to the movies. It’s a product-driven business: the theaters are doing their part with bigger screens and better seats, and studios are spending bigger budgets and trying to get movies that appeal to a wider audience. Even niche movies, they’re being targeted for a limited audience but in great concentration. It’s very difficult now that customers have a lot of different options of how to spend their time, so it’s great that the movies had their biggest year ever last year. It just shows that moviegoing is alive and well as long as both sides of the equation do their jobs.

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