As the cinema industry begins to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, Boxoffice Pro and Spotlight Cinema Networks are partnering to profile movie theaters and influential industry figures from across the country and asking them to share their first-person accounts of bringing the movies back to the big screen.
Veteran exhibitor and dine-in cinema pioneer Brian Schultz talked to Boxoffice Pro about his latest cinema project, Look Dine-In Cinemas. Listen to the interview in this week’s episode of the Boxoffice Podcast, sponsored by Spotlight Cinema Networks and Mondelez International.
Can you tell us about the first job you had in the exhibition industry—how you came to it and how it evolved into the career you have now?
I always loved going to the movies. Believe it or not, my first job was taking over a one-screen, sub-run movie theater that was built in 1948 here in Dallas, Texas. I was traveling from Washington, D.C., on my way back to Southern California, where I grew up. I was supposed to run a theater there, but I never quite made it back to California.
How did that evolve into your work in the dine-in space, which you’ve been instrumental in launching in North America?
I’ve been doing this for 29 years. It’s a passion project for me. It was love at first sight. I saw a movie theater/restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland. They had some frozen chicken fingers. They had some warm draft beer. I don’t know why, but I fell in love with it, and I couldn’t think of anything else. I said, “Boy, what would it be like if you could combine a great hospitality experience with a great moviegoing experience?” And we’ve spent the last 29 years trying to evolve that. Not only for the moviegoing public, but also for in-theater dining, which is an important way that people can enjoy film, especially those that maybe don’t like concession stands. They want a whole hospitality entertainment experience.
Theatrical isn’t always the fastest to innovate. I really enjoy that space of pushing the industry and continuing to re-create. When we talk a little bit about Covid, what a horrible time for all of us, but also a time for the entire industry to reinvent itself.
When you start something new in the cinema space, what are the hurdles you encounter in bringing your vision to its full potential?
I don’t look at things as hurdles. I actually look at them as additional tests, so that we can continue to evolve. I like a philosophy of plan, do, check, adjust. We make a plan. It sounds really good. It looks good on paper. We think it’s going to work. And then we do it. And then we check it. And then we make adjustments. That constant reflection and improvement, continuously, makes a huge difference in how a concept can move from one point to another.
There are always going to be things that you learn the hard way, especially when you’re bringing the hospitality sector and the cinema sector together into one unique concept. What are some of those early management lessons that are still part of your philosophy today?
A lot of lessons come from the movie theater business. It’s really feast or famine, with huge peaks and huge lulls. From a staffing perspective, it’s tough. From a food and beverage preparation and ordering perspective, it’s tough. Bringing that all together to make sure that we can pick films, schedule them properly, and then schedule the right number of staff and purchase the right amount of food is always the challenge.
If you think about serving 800 of your best friends in a one-hour period—fresh, hot, made-to-order meals—you can see where that challenge is. And the solution that I came up with was, instead of always trying to optimize or cut labor or be the most efficient financially, I focus on the team member: making sure that they always earned a living wage and had a great place to work. And that created a hospitality environment that made the difference. That made guests want to come. It really differentiated us from being solely dependent on the film. Although the film is obviously such a critical point of what we do and really represents why people come to a dine-in theater, there’s [also] the hospitality aspect. We’ve always had a lot of our guests just show up to the brand: “We’re coming to Look Dine-In Cinemas. Now, what’s showing?” It is a tough thing to execute. Eight hundred meals, high-quality, fresh, made-to-order, delivered to your seat without distracting from the main thing, which is the movie.
Throughout the projects you’ve worked on in your career, you’ve put an emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Can you talk about why CSR is such an important part of your business philosophy?
What’s a little bit strange is I’ve had five certified near-death experiences. With every near-death experience, there’s an internal transformation or learning that happens. What’s so fascinating—as we look forward, I think the entire world’s had a near-death experience and a chance to really reflect and look at life a little bit differently. Unfortunately, through my daredevil background—racing motorcycles and various things—I had a few extra that I prefer not to replicate.
But it always made me think—combined with growing up not the wealthiest, not the poorest, but on the lower end of the socioeconomic [spectrum]—“Let’s take care of the team, because the team’s the actual one that’s serving the guest.” And then I was blessed with some great mentors. Right when I came to Dallas, a gentleman named Norman Brinker—who was the founder of [Steak and Ale and] Brinker International, [which owns] Chili’s and Maggiano’s [Little Italy]—and he taught me how to build a great organization that’s team-focused. We used to meet weekly at the theater, and we would create this infrastructure. Whether it’s training, financial awareness, or just general kindness. We learned that all got embedded and became an important part, maybe even the important part. It affected so many different things that we did at the cinema.
Even our—what we call “sensory friendly” now, but we called them “special needs screenings” in the past—that all came out of one of my managers not being able to take his family to a movie. For me, movies are a platform for learning, for opening perspective and really being able to venture into different types of lives that can be educational. I know that I’ve learned so much from movies. So that’s part of that motivation. Even though a lot of the programs that we do sound good, and they’re great initiatives, it’s really movie by movie, guest by guest. We try to create this opening of perspective and an escape that allows people to continue on their journey.
Cinema is really a populist experience—it’s an affordable form of entertainment, and everyone should be able to take part in it.
I love that the movies really are for the population. And for different generations concurrently. Now, I also love food. And I love beverages. And I think that that rounds out the experience. But I’m taking this opportunity to re-create, in Look Dine-In Cinemas, the ability to have a distraction-free dine-in experience. By making some transitions, where before we had beautiful interior parts of the theaters, now we’ve really stripped that down to be more of a black box concept, so that you can really disappear and focus into the film. Not taking orders after the main feature begins. Really having the systems and processes. Ninja-like servers in their black shirts and black pants can get the food on the table before the movie really begins. All those things so that we can really honor the moviegoing experience and allow people to not be distracted in any way. That was really the chief drawback of dine-in that we heard. There’s a distinct population that thought it was distracting. So, at the start of Covid, that was one of the main things that I wanted to overcome at Look Dine-In Cinemas.
The pandemic gave us all a chance to step back and recalibrate our future activities. That was the case for you. Can you walk us through how you got the Look Dine-In Cinemas concept together?
In April of 2020, when Covid was really going on, I took a step back, started to reflect, and knew that this was going to be a tough road. I hired a consulting group called Jump, and we had one question, which was: If we were going to try to re-create the entire moviegoing community, what would we do? That’s the core playbook for the future of Look Dine-In Cinemas. Now, I always loved Look Cinemas. They had one location in Dallas, which oddly enough ended up replacing my original theater. They built an absolutely gorgeous location there. I always loved the feel of it, the brand, which is a little bit of an elevated food-and-beverage concept. I talked to the founder, Brian Mason, who’s a good friend, [and] Covid really wiped them out. There was a great relationship where we could get together, and I decided that this would be the perfect vehicle in the perfect brand to really extend and bring across the country. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. But the ethos of what he developed and that reputation for being future-forward innovation, high-quality food [remains.]
I love that idea of starting from square one and figuring out what you want to do from there. Because there’s a lot to experiment with in how the traditional theater is run.
Change is tough. A lot of things have been baked in for decades. Being able to start from a fresh piece of paper and just build from there was really a treat. A little bit scary. But a lot of fun. It got me really thinking, talking, learning, and trying things from all different kinds of industries that we could piece together into what we think is something really special that’s going to help lead our industry out of Covid and onto bigger and better things.
That’s a question that every exhibitor around the world is asking themselves right now: What can we do as an industry to emerge from this pandemic in a positive way? What is in your mind that cinemas can do to move forward past the pandemic?
So many of us are still tethered to the past, where there are big Hollywood blockbusters and we show them five times a day. It has to be in the largest auditorium for a certain amount of time. There are all these rules. I think the move is going to be from film booking to content programming. Our theaters hopefully will become kind of community centers. With the audiovisual improvements, with folks like [event cinema distributors] doing different things, I think we’re going to be bringing a lot more content to the screen. And with the shrinking of windows, I think that there’s going to have to be mutual flexibility to really bring to the communities what they want and to be more of a community gathering place that can use technology to bring us forward. Whether that’s video conferencing and training, concerts, education. And, obviously, our main thing is film.
From a moviegoer’s perspective, you show up to a theater and you see a movie—people don’t really have an idea of the complex relationships that go into this business and how financially challenging it can be at times. One of the things that helps on that latter front is in-cinema advertising. Could you fill us in on your connection with Spotlight Cinema Networks and how cinema advertising can help Look Dine-In Cinemas as it expands?
That’s a great relationship. It’s an example of a chance to really start from a blank page of paper and focus on, “Who would the best partner be?” And I don’t think of Spotlight as cinema advertising. I think of it as part of the show. Bringing our guests information about products, films, all different kinds of things that are educational. They’ve done a great job partnering and creating a preshow that’s both entertaining and informative. But not just hawking national brands or general products that you can see on TV. They’re really trying to tailor the content to that customer base.