Geneva Convention 2018: Interview with Bud Mayo, Chairman, New Vision Theatres

A veteran in the exhibition industry and pioneering voice for the expansion of digital and event cinema, Bud Mayo has been at the forefront of cinema innovation for the past three decades. Over the last couple of years, Mayo has been busy with his latest project: the launch of New Vision Theatres, a new circuit that found its way into the U.S. exhibition market following the acquisition of Carmike by AMC. Boxoffice spoke with Mayo ahead of his being honored at this month’s Geneva Convention as the 2018 recipient of the Paul Rogers Award.

You’ve been involved with several high-profile projects throughout your career, and now you’re going back into the fold and launching another new circuit. Tell us about the experience of bringing New Vision to life; how did this opportunity come about?

As much as anything else, there’s always room to continue what you started out doing a long time ago, adding lots of tools to the toolbox, so to speak, in terms of reaching and engaging customers. It’s always been a fascination to me, going back to my Clearview [Cinemas] days. We didn’t have digital cinema, we didn’t really have the internet, we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have so many ways to touch and engage people who walked into the building that are at our disposal today. Obviously, we’re going to play the movies from major studios like everybody else. The differentiators—how you offer a unique experience—that’s what represents the biggest challenge. And I love a challenge.

Having watched the business go through various evolutions over the past 25 or 30 years makes me very happy to have assembled a really crackerjack team of people that I know well. And who, frankly, were out of jobs when the opportunity came to bid on these assets. Knowing that you could assemble a crackerjack team quickly and then put a very competitive bid together, knowing that because of the backgrounds of the team we would be welcomed—by AMC, by Carmike, we knew folks at Citibank. We had officers from a number of public companies all related to this industry. The SEC certainly knew all about us, and I’m sure made it a lot easier dealing with DOJ.

You mentioned that you’re attracted to taking on new challenges—what were the biggest ones in establishing this particular circuit?

The challenge is always about assembling a group of good theaters for an opportunity like this, pay the right price, and have the right financial partners. All of which we were able to do through what I would call a rollercoaster ride, finally getting to the point where we were able to make a deal. For anyone who likes challenges, and I do, trying to build the platform underneath the theaters we’d just bought and getting cooperation from AMC during that process. We didn’t take over the theaters until toward the end of last year, and now we’re able to operate and bring all those tools to bear, which we continue to do.

Once you have control of the theaters, that’s where the fun begins.

That’s the fun part; being able to use the digital tools that we know so well, the addition of alternative programming, the addition of hot foods and appropriate alcoholic beverages wherever we can, to provide more choices. To work with the audiences to make those choices fit the people who are interested and follow that kind of Amazon model of getting to know your customers, knowing that they’re interested in a particular kind of content and trying to bring that to them, based on their interests expressed historically.

We’re still meeting the challenge, adding bells and whistles, exploring all the technology and subscription-based services to try to fit them into what we’re doing, trying to get better in every way. How we do it and how we deliver to the customers—that’s the movie exhibition business 101: clean restrooms, clean everything, smiling faces. Challenges are fun when you’re entrepreneurial, as our senior team certainly is. I would say we’re all having fun. Now we’re at a point where we can grow the business, we can add more theaters, which is something we’ve had great success with in the past year.

What are some of the advantages your team brings to the market with New Vision?

One of the advantages of being smaller than the huge multiplex circuits is paying attention in a much finer way to each building and each audience. Obviously, there are some disadvantages too, in size and financial wherewithal to do everything we want to do a lot faster. I would say our ability to use all of those tools in a very directed way and very specifically, site by site, is a real advantage. Thinking about our management team, many of whom come from a network for many years, we understand the evolution of technology.

I remember from our days at Clearview, dealing with the frustrations we had in trying to get content and filling seats that were empty during the week. We looked at digital cinema as a solution to that capacity utilization.I’m a huge fan of the use of technology, the application of technology. At Cinedigm, where we were a tech company in every way, I often was quoted as saying, “It’s not about the technology, it’s about what you do with it.” That I really do believe; it’s all about application of technology.

Social media is certainly a good example of that, the use of the internet, the use of portals that allow everyone in our company to share information and good ideas, the communication can be instantaneously by text between our various general managers and executives. The ability to use virtual offices, to be on the road but still have your iPad and your cell phone with you. You can be sitting anywhere and still accomplish a great deal without taking hours or days of travel, you can still stay connected 24/7. Those kinds of things make it easier and more efficient to run a circuit—but just as importantly, they enable choices that simply weren’t there before, from the content side and also from the engagement side of the world we live in today.

Are there any innovations in the cinema space that you find particularly compelling?

I think that’s a byproduct of engagement and understanding your customers. One size does not fit all. We’re watching these subscription-based services very closely, working with people at Atom Tickets and MoviePass, to understand what they’re doing and collect data so we can make good decisions about where we want to go. From our viewpoint, we’re working on our own version of a paid rewards program. We’d like to be able to offer our customers and get a closer picture of what they’re interested in. It comes down to community engagement. We want to be part of the social fabric of the community surrounding each of our theaters. That, for me, comes from a project that I’ve been involved in for 25 years in creating one of the best regional performing arts centers: a not-for-profit in Morristown, New Jersey, that bears my name. I’m very proud of it.

Subscription-based programs are fascinating. We want to be observers and users of that technology and really understand whether it makes more sense for us to have our own program or purchase with others. From the standpoint of NATO and the Cinema Buying Group (CBG), this would be the kind of project that I could envision would enable smaller theater circuits to aggregate. Together, they might put a program together that might be, from a cost or risk standpoint, more burdensome for smaller circuits. I think it comes down to the very basics. If customers want to have a subscription, we’ll give it to them. We like the idea of something in between that would be more of a paid premier type rewards program; I’m fascinated with that as a concept.

When it comes to amenities, what are some of your priorities when it comes to renovations in the circuit?

Right now, we’re just getting some online ticketing together, reserved seating, remodeling plans. We have a theater in Fleming Island, Florida, which is going through that transformation to recliner seats and reserved seats and the ability online to pick your seats. I’m a big fan of reserved seating. Frankly, I’m less concerned about the chairs themselves than I am about knowing that I’ll be able to sit next to my kids and grandkids when we go out to the movies. It gives people the time to go to the concession stand, which of course is every exhibitor’s dream, and have them order from an expanded menu that wasn’t there a few years ago.

All of these things are great tools. I think we can overthink things and get lost in the bells and whistles, forget the basics of our business, which is essentially to have great theaters that are comfortable and clean, sell popcorn and soda. Everything else to me is ancillary, with some exceptions. The dine-in experience can work very well in certain areas, but it can’t work everywhere. You’re now combining two separate businesses. If you have the right audience, that’s great, but we don’t want to stop them because of price or because they feel constrained or compelled to order a lot of food and beverages just to come see a movie.

It comes down to knowing each building and its audience: who they are and what they really want. It comes down to offering the right choices of content and the food-and-beverage packages that go with it.

You helped lead the way in making digital cinema viable for the industry. Are there any emerging technologies on the market today that catch your eye?

I love the experiment IMAX is putting together with VR. It’s an experiment for them; we’ll see how it works out. If it does expand, I could see that being very generational. As kids who are now six to nine years old being very excited about it, five or 10 years from now. The ability to make the movie experience more interactive is already available and here—it’s just a matter of the quality of content that accompanies it.

I’m also interested by the ability to add that second screen—a smartphone or an iPad—and give the audience the chance to make decisions during the course of a movie and take the movie somewhere else, branch it to another place and still another place. The same movie could be seen maybe eight or nine or 10 times, and it would be a different movie based on the audience’s reaction. I just don’t see the younger generations feeling good about not being able to text their friends, even while they’re watching a movie. As terrible as that may sound to a lot of people, I think it’s just the way it is. Anybody who has grandkids or kids who are in that range of five to 10 knows how much time they spend communicating with their friends or playing video games, doing all the things that they’re growing up with from the time they’re little. That changes their lives and their perspectives. They’re texting each other, as you probably know, sitting next to one another in the backseat of a car, or even in the living room.

I’m not implying people should speak on the phone at the movies! All I’m saying is that we don’t make those decisions, the audiences do. I think we have to figure out how it will fit into our business.

What do you think exhibitors should focus on to ensure the business stays competitive in the coming years?

Every once in a while I encourage my senior team to step back for a minute. Think of the business as a whole, not down to the number of popcorns we sell in a day or getting so engrossed that we really forget the business and the audience, what they want. We’ve got to allocate some of our time to take a measure of that if we’re going to be successful in the long term. It’s not what’s going to happen next week or next month or even this year; we’re in this for the long haul. There are many billions of dollars invested in the infrastructure of this industry around the world. That’s a hungry beast that has to get fed. It’s an ever-changing beast that wants to be fed. It’s up to us to come up with the right recipes.

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