Every year, the Geneva Convention’s Paul J. Rogers Leadership Award is given to someone who has displayed visionary leadership in adapting to a constantly changing industry. The last two years have certainly been constantly changing, and they’ve just as certainly required innovation and a willingness to experiment. This year, fittingly, an award for leading the industry into the future goes to a steward of the past: Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, which melds the old with the new to create a moviegoing experience that is at once technologically advanced and, well, classic. Johnson spoke to Boxoffice Pro about walking that line.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Part of Classic Cinemas’ brand is providing luxury amenities at an affordable point. I would imagine that’s been challenging in 2022, with the cinema industry (and the world) in such a state of transformation.
One of the things we’ve always positioned ourselves as is affordable luxury. We try to give everybody what they want, while still keeping the prices reasonable. The amenities: Look, you have to have recliners. That’s an amenity that you just can’t do without. We’re almost there, with converting our entire circuit. We always try to do the heated seats. We tried to do, in many of the sites, the motorized headrest. You have two motors in your chair, one for the recline and one to be able to reposition your head.
In that same vein, another thing we do is really subtle. The standard light level in a theater—the spec is supposed to be 40,000 [lumens]. We’ve gone to all of our locations and made our minimum spec 60,000, and then even higher where we’re able to do that, definitely in our PLFs. You don’t really notice it in our theaters, other than [thinking] the picture looks really good. But you do notice when it’s not there. You take it for granted.
We’re elevating the light level, the sound, a lot of different things. The biggest challenge is that it squeezes your margin, but I don’t think raising prices is the answer. And that hasn’t been the direction that we have gone in, even though our input costs have gone up substantially.
There’s a threshold where people are making the decision: Should I go back to the movies again or not? First and foremost, it’s the movie. You have to have movies that appeal to [different] demographics. [Beyond that], you don’t want to put a roadblock up with, “Jeez, they’ve jacked the price up so much. I would have gone, but I’m not going to.” Let’s give them everything and more—and keep the price reasonable.
At this particular moment, we’re trying to break even and reintroduce the moviegoing experience to our audiences.
For a movie theater opening in 2022, what would you consider baseline in terms of amenities? Recliners, PLF screens, expanded menu items, alcohol—are there “must-haves” in today’s cinema world? (Other than, of course, good films.)
Considering a baseline for a cinema opening in 2022: Recliners are number one. The PLF screen is important, but [at Classic Cinemas, the priority is] quality projection for all our screens. Alcohol is important. Otherwise, the number one [thing] that you can do is to have clean theaters that are staffed. I understand staffing is incredibly difficult. But you have to have theaters that are maintained and that don’t look like you haven’t put a penny into them.
One of the things we elected to do—professional cleaning contracts. They are incredibly expensive, and they raised all their prices, but we decided to put those in. Some places they call “self-cleaning,” where they run the shows all day and then have the staff stick around and clean, and then they open up the next day. But that just isn’t to the level that you would want it to be.
Expanded menu items are fine, as long as you’re doing them excellent. Mediocrity is a real issue in movie theaters. If you’re serving a mediocre hamburger or a mediocre salad or a mediocre whatever, that’s what people [will] think of your location. If you can’t do it exceptionally well, I would say don’t do it.
I do think you have to have pricing set up in such a way that there’s some value proposition. It’s not that everybody is shopping for price, but it can be a stopping point for some people. [You can lower prices with] a loyalty program, $5 Tuesdays, or a kids’ series for a buck or two. Whatever it is, work with them. By the same token, I’m not a fan of dynamic pricing. It seems like a short-term great idea. But we graph our market share, and we’re definitely on the lower end of the price spectrum. It seems like our market share grows, and other cinemas are increasing their prices and going down in terms of market share. Overall, it just seems like a path to bad things.
As people are coming back to the cinema and looking for unique experiences, what’s Classic Cinemas’ approach to marketing? How do you connect with your customer?
As far as marketing, it’s the classic experience. Our marketing department definitely took a hit during the pandemic, and we lost people. It’s been a little bit challenging. One of the things we do is, if somebody writes a review or any comment, we reply to them, normally within 15 minutes, and we correct any issue. Most of them were very positive. We have a money-back guarantee: If it’s 30 minutes into the movie and you want your money back, no problem at all. We’ll take care of you. People don’t really take advantage of that, but when they do, they’re very appreciative.
I monitor Google reviews like crazy. Except for two theaters that we just took over that were rated 4.5 [out of five], every one of our reviews are 4.6, 4.7, 4.8. I’ll go into my competitor’s reviews, and I’ll read what [the customer doesn’t] like. Then you play off that and figure out, what do I need to do in order to attract that person?
The other idea is [that] we give free refills on every size drink, every size ICEE, every size popcorn. It’s not that we’re giving the stuff away. They’re still, quote, unquote, “not cheap,” but people feel good about spending that money because they know they can get [what they want]. It’s a signal to them that, “Hey, we appreciate you buying, and have at it if you want more.”
Two of your theaters are not yet equipped for recliners—I assume that’s something to do with the age of the buildings. How old are your cinemas, on average?
We have one that just turned 100 years old. The Lindo Theatre in Freeport, [Illinois]. We have many theaters from the ’20s. I don’t know why, but 1998 was a big year for movie theaters, so we have a lot of theaters from 1998. All but one [of our locations] were existing theaters from another operator. When we adopted the name Classic Cinemas, it was because our first several theaters were all old, downtown theaters. We got going in 1978, and that was when downtowns were looked at as inferior. Everybody was at the mall. And then things shifted. Now malls are out of favor, and downtowns are back in favor. Actually, we’re in the sweet spot right now.
[In one of our theaters, built in 1925], while the auditoriums are newly shaped, we have all these artifacts—exposed ceilings that have murals and [traces that indicate] where the former balcony was. Really cool stuff that gives you the feel and ambiance of the old, but at the same time you’re getting—we have DTS:X sound in most of our auditoriums. You’re getting 20-, 30-channel sound and laser projection and high contrast lens and all this stuff that really makes it great. It’s a mix of the old and the new.
There’s something great about old cinemas. There’s so much to see, and there’s a real sense of history.
We differentiate ourselves by having these classic buildings, coupled with clean facilities and state-of-the-art projection. It’s one thing to have this nostalgia feel, where it’s gritty a little bit, and that’s cool. But it’s not super cool when the light levels are too low or the sound is tinny.
I don’t know too many people who do it anymore, but we hand out mints when people leave the theater, and we say, “Good night.” I tell everybody, “We’re not handing out mints. We’re handing out ‘good nights,’ and we’re giving everybody the opportunity [to tell us] if there was something that bothered them.” My philosophy is, how do you treat people when there’s no money being exchanged? I think we do a pretty good job of that.
Do you remember the first movie you saw in a theater? What was your hometown theater growing up?
I don’t remember the exact first movie that I saw. But I do remember the first movie that I went to for a birthday party. I saw the movie The Shaggy Dog, with Fred MacMurray. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Later, we actually acquired that theater from AMC, so it was really a full-circle moment. My first movie in the city of Chicago was 2001. My two older brothers wanted to go see it, and I didn’t understand what the heck was going on. But it was an amazing experience. Forty years later, I got to bring my son [to a screening of] 2001 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was super cool, handing that off to my son. He’s like, “Yeah, I didn’t really get it much.” [Laughs.]
My hometown theater was probably Tivoli Theater [in Downers Grove, IL], which we later acquired. We acquired it by accident. My dad and my uncle, in 1977, had bought the building, just to rent it out as real estate. The guy who ran the theater jumped ship in ’78. They decided to run it, and I became an usher shortly thereafter. It was a local downtown theater. It was funny, because we’d work—it was at the time a General Cinemas theater—and after work we’d watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, because we had nothing else to do. Once you get that theater in your blood, [it’s there for life].