Earlier this year, Boxoffice Pro partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019, Boxoffice Pro continues to pay tribute to the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.
Jennifer Douglass admits with a chuckle, “I did try several times to leave the company.”
Starting in the sixth grade, Douglass was a regular visitor at AMC’s Santee Village 8 cinema, outside San Diego, where she estimates she saw Footloose 10 times. “Because I practically lived there, they finally broke down and gave me a job right before I turned 16,” she recalls. Being raised in a family of educators, Douglass intended to join that field herself, and … well, while she was doing student teaching, she might as well stay with AMC and do training part-time, “because that felt to me like teaching.”
“I kept trying to quit—I actually did teach for one year—but then I realized: I could be a teacher for the rest of my life, but I was loving what I was doing at AMC!” Thirty-two years after the manager of the Santee 8 decided to give that Footloose kid a job, Douglass is AMC Theatres’ senior vice president of food and beverage.
Douglass describes herself as a “generalist” who likes “to be exposed to different areas of business and different parts of the company. I loved working in the theater, because you can work in the H.R. group, in terms of writing schedules and doing payroll. You could do the accounting piece of it and pay all the bills. You could run the food and beverage, which ironically wasn’t my favorite thing!”
Early in her career, Douglass worked in the West Division, headed up by Nora Dashwood, now the COO at ArcLight Cinemas Company. “I think having visible examples of female leadership is very inspiring to women who are coming up,” Douglass reflects. “If you can see someone you relate to who is doing a much bigger job, it opens the possibilities that maybe someday you can do something like that. [In AMC now], having two of our executive members be females—Elizabeth Frank [EVP worldwide programming and chief content officer] and Carla Chavarria [senior vice president of human resources and chief human resource officer]—is very inspiring.”
At last year’s internal general manager meeting, Douglass helped host a panel “that was talking about women in the industry—how can women get more opportunities? It was an optional section, and it sold out in like 10 minutes. We had about 140 people, and not all of them were women, which was even more inspiring to see. … We had different folks who talked about their paths that led them here to Kansas City and the corporate headquarters. You walked out of there, and it’s like you were singing the Beyoncé song: ‘Who run the world? Girls.’”
From the theater management side of things, Douglass worked her way up to operations and later oversaw the growth of AMC’s dine-in brand, a role she held for six years before shifting to her current position late in 2018. “When I joined dine-in we only had eight locations. When I left, we had 49 or so,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to have four or five different careers. I was just lucky enough never to have to leave AMC for those opportunities.”
Crafting AMC’s food and beverage experience—including both traditional concessions and dine-in options—requires experimentation, expanding the limits of what people think of as movie theater food while still staying within the bounds of what is practical for the theatrical landscape. Douglass refers to this as “empathetic food.”
“There are a lot of things people bring to us, and it’s like, well, that sounds like a great idea. It’s a great product. But take it into a darkened auditorium and then show us how that works,” she says. “Every now and again our enthusiasm gets the better part of us and we maybe put something out [that isn’t a good fit]. And guests are very clear about what does not work. Those things have to be retooled or come off the menu. We try to be disciplined in that approach. It has to be empathetic and has to be inspired. We’re always looking to surprise and delight.”
Douglass cites as one of AMC’s dine-in successes the Royal Burger, which mixes up the traditional bacon cheeseburger recipe by adding brie, arugula, and fig jam. “It’s delicious! Obviously, your best seller is always going to be a bacon cheeseburger. [But you want an option for] people who are looking for something a little bit more adventurous in our menu, whether it’s on the dine-in side or on the traditional side. Rather than just basic pretzel bites, here’s a honey mustard version. Here’s a cinnamon sugar version.”
“I think I have the best job in the company,” Douglass says—and that’s not just because of the opportunities for taste testing. (“I have a terrible sweet tooth, so I love all the different candies that we offer. I’m particularly fond of the sour ones.”) AMC’s food and beverage division “has so many different aspects and so many different places where you can play and innovate. I started when I was 16, and the biggest innovation was Icees. That was a big deal back in the day!”
Now, not only has AMC added a wide array of different menu options (including some gluten-free products, opening the menu up to those with varying dietary needs, which Douglass is particularly proud of), but they also have digital technology that enables them to get food and drinks to the customer quicker and more efficiently.
As an example, Douglass cites mobile concessions ordering, which AMC introduced in select markets early this year. So far, “there’s been a very positive response from our theater teams and also from guests,” Douglass says. “I was out visiting theaters the night Avengers: Endgame opened. I happened to be in Jacksonville. [I was] looking at the number of mobile orders that poured in. It’s great to see that, especially for a high-capacity movie. It was exciting to see how guests were responding to that technology. Guests were like, ‘This is the best thing ever.’ I can’t disagree!”
As for the future of mobile ordering, Douglass notes that “we’re doing it in a phased rollout fashion. We want to make sure that we’re optimizing it and getting the best, most frictionless experience for the guest.”
Thirty-plus years after Douglass first joined the AMC ranks, the spot where she learned to love movies is now home to a grocery store. But it lives on in some small way in one of the conference rooms at AMC’s corporate headquarters. “When we moved into this particular conference office in Kansas City, we were naming the different conference rooms after movie theaters. I lobbied very hard, and I’m pleased to tell you that 100 feet from my office door, there’s a nice conference room called the Santee Village 8. I’m very nostalgic for my little theater.” The theater may be gone, but AMC is going strong, with Douglass an integral part of operations. “My motto has always been, ‘When it stops being fun, I’ll do something else.’” The fun’s still rolling.