Like many other second-generation exhibitors, Gina DiSanto never thought she would follow in her father’s footsteps. After graduating from Bloomsburg University, she spent eight years in sales for Burroughs/Unisys before being drawn back to the family business in 1993. By 2007, she was named CEO of her family’s circuit, growing to the size of 79 screens at nine locations in Pennsylvania. Despite selling the circuit in 2012, DiSanto is still an active member of the industry. She served as eight-year term on the NATO executive board, is a founding director and executive board member of the Independent Cinema Alliance (ICA), and served on the board of the National Association of Concessionaires (NAC) from 2002 to 2019. In 2006, DiSanto was honored by the NAC with the Bert Nathan Memorial Award for outstanding service in the concessions industry. She currently acts as the president of NATO of Pennsylvania. Boxoffice Pro spoke with the exhibition veteran ahead of her latest honor at the 2019 Geneva Convention.
How did you first enter the exhibition industry?
I grew up in the family business. My father bought a theater in 1955, a few years before I was born. We had a single screen and two drive-ins. That’s what I did through my teenage years, through college. After graduating, I told my father I would never work for him again—but this business gets in your blood. We had a supply business where we supplied movie theaters in five states on the East Coast and the Pennsylvania area, and I joined the sales team.
I was a single mom with two little babies, and I came back to work part-time. My dad said, “Fine, but you can’t sell to any of our movie theaters here because that’s what we do. If you want to come back and work for me, you can carve out your own supply chain.” That’s how I ended up selling to Hershey Park and other venues around us.
Eventually I realized I really wanted to work with movie theaters. I’d already done ushering, along with every other job, so I came in as a part-time manager. We only had nine screens at that point: the little twins and single screens throughout central Pennsylvania.
What were some of the first projects you tackled when you came back to exhibition?
We didn’t have a website, we didn’t have an employee handbook. We didn’t have a lot of things that, having worked in the corporate world, I knew were important. I introduced selling bottled water at our circuit; we didn’t even sell concession combos at the time, so that’s what I dove into because I had come from selling concession supplies to all these arenas and stadiums. As we were growing the business, in 2007, I was appointed CEO of the company. At that point we had probably around 50 screens; we ended up with 79 screens, which we sold in 2012. I facilitated the sale of the company in 2012 to Digiplex who sold to Carmike, who then sold to AMC.
What were those years, at the head of a 79-screen circuit, like?
I grew with the business, and we hired great people, too. We were big on training and had great managers. I was project manager on two of the new builds and renovations that we did. It’s invigorating; there’s nothing like watching the public come to a theater and see them being entertained by something we provided for them. We used to do “Free Kiddy” matinees and would see grandparents bringing their grandchildren to a movie for the first time. We were in smaller communities; all our theaters were in towns with populations of 25,000 or less—and the people were so appreciative of these initiatives.
Our theaters were only in Pennsylvania, and we would go out and visit our theaters every weekend. Every theater we had was within a two-hour drive. Whenever anyone had an issue that needed to be addressed, we would go out and address it directly.
Those years were in the middle of the transition to digital cinema. What were some of the other transformational changes you tackled during your time at the circuit?
Websites and email were big difference makers. Today it’s hard to imagine this business back in the ’90s, when many theaters didn’t have their own websites. Everything was newspaper-driven; the decision to drop some of our theaters out of newspapers was a major decision. We had to think about the communities we were in and how vital the newspaper was to that community. We left some ads, but exhibitor websites were a major change. We traveled through a little time warp during that period.
You joined Bruce Taffet at Taffet & Associates in 2012. Could you tell us more about that stage of your career?
Bruce and I are partners in business and life partners. I joined Taffet & Associates after selling the circuit. He had a seven-plex theater in Philadelphia, and he was in the middle of construction for a location in Frackville, Pennsylvania. I helped him with operations and the build at the Frackville location, which had a full bar and a luxury-seating and PLF auditorium.
The bar was completed in 2013, and it was a whole new thing to learn about operating a theater with a liquor license. We were one of the first theaters to sell liquor in Pennsylvania, and we got some pushback from the community. They were worried that somebody would be feeding a 16-year-old beer or something. To resolve the issue, we labeled the two auditoriums with alcohol service as VIP auditoriums, which is what the township designated us to do if we wanted to serve liquor.
How did that VIP designation for auditoriums with alcohol service affect the business?
We began to upcharge for the VIP auditorium and some of our employees said, “Gee, you shouldn’t pay an upcharge because it’s 21 and older; they’d spend more money at the bar if we did that.” We surveyed our customers and found most of them liked the select auditoriums. “We don’t even drink,” they’d say. “We just like being in an auditorium that we don’t have the teenagers at the Friday night movie.”
After all these ventures, you’re still a theater owner. What are some of your current projects?
I’m still in exhibition! When we sold our circuit, we knew we wanted to keep our one drive-in, and I still oversee its operations today. Bruce and I do consulting in the industry on building and operations. We just helped on a location in Panama that opened this year; I believe it has the sixth-largest Imax in the world. We consulted on the build of that theater, which was interesting and exciting.
Being so involved in the industry’s trade associations, what are the issues facing the industry that you consider most critical?
Windows, streaming, and the availability of movies stand out as major concerns. On the other hand, I see an opportunity in how movie theaters are adapting to today’s audiences. Making going to the movies an event that people are excited to go to a theater for. We’re doing that with upscale concessions, alcohol service, and recliner seating. I think we have challenges ahead, but we’ve been through challenges before with TV and other home entertainment options. We just have to be creative and continue entertaining the public so they want to come back to our theaters. In this industry, we are all showmen at heart.