The family-owned B&B Theaters is North America’s ninth-largest cinema circuit, with 391 screens at 49 theaters. But their latest location in Liberty, Missouri—just north of Kansas City—is the crown jewel. The recently unveiled Liberty Cinema 12 venue features the world’s largest ScreenX theater with a 258-foot-wide screen, immersive 4D seating with seats that move and vibrate and produce sensory effects, a large stage that hosts live music (jazz is a specialty) seven nights a week, trivia and open-mic nights, and a full indoor playground for the kids.
Plus, a menu item called funnel cake fries.
Liberty is considered part of greater Kansas City, a fast-growing metropolitan area that now ranks as the 30th largest in the country; and the population is growing. “Around 2010 or 2011 we started dreaming of a new theater, knowing that the market had outgrown the current building,” says Brock Bagby, executive vice president. “It was ready for something bigger, better, bolder.”
“Our slogan is ‘Bringing Hollywood to your Hometown since 1924.’ Since Liberty is my hometown, I wanted to make it our flagship theater,” says Brock’s father, president and CEO Bob Bagby.
The amenities at the Liberty location include the single largest ScreenX auditorium in the world: a 258-foot-wide 270-degree panoramic screen. It’s proved to be an alluring draw for local audiences, and after opening with Ant-Man and the Wasp in July, B&B moved on to The Meg in August to huge success. Currently about 10 to 12 movies per year are formatted for the ScreenX technology.
“We were the number 20 theater [for The Meg] in all of North America, out of more than 4,000 theaters,” Brock Bagby says. “You’ve got to remember too that in the Midwest ticket prices are about half of the East Coast and West Coast. So while we were number 20, our admissions were probably even higher than that.”
But it’s the live events that really get to the core of what makes this location unique. “We discussed adding a lot of new formats to the theater side, but I also knew that I wanted a large bar and grille so our guests would ‘linger longer’ and enjoy the enhanced theatrical experience,” says Bob Bagby. “The result: a true community hub where people can hang out before or after the movie or just come to Johnnie’s for a drink, dinner, or just to listen to live jazz.”
The theater’s community-hub ethos draws audiences to an eclectic schedule of events, including trivia competitions every Tuesday night, open mic nights, and live music. “We had 80-something people to watch the very first night of open mic,” Executive Director of Development and Construction Dennis McIntyre estimates, “and on the first night of trivia there were 22 teams.”
“Thursday to Sunday you can come out of a 7 p.m. movie at 9 p.m. and the bar is full, the band is playing, and there is tons of excitement throughout the bar and lounge,” says Director of Design Jesse Baker. “It’s really fun.”
B&B has a history of hosting such live events even before this location opened in July, although this space with its larger stage certainly allows for greater possibilities. “Last year for Baywatch, B&B Theaters had a one-night-only Baywatch Beach Party. This included T-shirts, EMTs on-site teaching CPR, drink specials, lobby games, activities, and trivia,” Brock Bagby wrote in a March article for Boxoffice magazine. “This one-off event created an evening with a strong emotional connection to a program that could only be experienced at the cinema, and it sold out.”
Looking to bring in as wide a cross-section of audiences as possible, the Bagbys furnished the Liberty location with an auditorium, called screenPLAY! featuring a full jungle gym and playground including a slide. Families and children get 30 minutes of playtime before it’s gated off and attendees settle in to watch a kid-friendly movie. On the quieter side of things, B&B also made sure to include a smaller 38-seat venue to screen art house–style films. Named the Lyric Theater after the chain’s first 1920s theater, the new Lyric is meant to invoke a more nostalgic moviegoing experience. It features classic waterfall curtains, as well as wooden floors and trays attached to each seat. This summer, the Lyric screened Eighth Grade, BlacKkKlansman, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
On the food and beverage side, B&B launched Johnnie’s Jazz Bar and Grill, a sit-down restaurant with an eclectic menu. Items include the Lady Sings the Blues Griller, a Kobe beef burger with bacon onion jam and a fried egg on top, and the Johnnie’s Jazz Club, a club sandwich with fried green tomatoes and sriracha mayonnaise. The menu also boasts a 12-ounce ribeye, bourbon-buttered salmon, and Thai chili chops. “My wife,” McIntyre adds, “says I should try the salads.”
That’s not to say they’ve neglected the more traditional fare at the concession stand, which includes hot dogs, chicken tenders, and—funnel cake fries? “Yeah, they’re pretty ridiculous!” Brock Bagby says with a laugh. Owner/Designer Bridget Bagby (and Brock’s mother) adds, “You dip it in chocolate, by the way!”
Johnnie’s namesake is Johnnie Genevieve (Miller) Bills, the matriarch of the family that runs the company today (and so named because her father wanted a boy). She played live piano for the silent movies back in the 1920s at the Lyric theater, which would later become the B&B Theaters chain. The company even refurbished that nearly century-old piano with money raised on a GoFundMe page and prominently features it at the restaurant.
The Liberty location is a reflection of B&B’s identity as a family company. Almost every aspect of the decision making for the Liberty location was a family affair. Most of the top people at the organization today can trace their lineage either to Elmer Bills Sr. or Sterling Bagby, the two men who combined their respective companies in 1980 to form the namesake B&B Theatres.
Many of the present-day executives’ earliest memories involve the theater in some manner, such as when Elmer Bills Jr. would intentionally leave coins under the seats for his children to find while doing cleaning duty. When they accumulated enough coins they would be allowed to purchase a ticket, rather than seeing the movies “for free.”
When Sterling Bagby’s son Bob and Elmer Bills Jr.’s daughter Bridget got married, the two families become biologically linked as well. Bob and Bridget’s three children all work for B&B today, as the fourth generation to do so: Brock Bagby and his sisters, Bobbie and Brittanie, all share the executive vice president title.
With the Liberty Cinema 12, B&B sees itself as being on the forefront of a trend.
“Guests want choices when it comes to their moviegoing experiences. But they also want options that don’t involve movies at all!” Brock Bagby wrote in a March article for Boxoffice magazine. “In the future, cinemas will be more than simply movie theaters but rather gathering places where guests can enjoy varied entertainment activities.
“These entertainment centers … can be a multi-use, multi-generational space for everyone. The experiences can differ from auditorium to auditorium and from bar area to lounge spaces to arcades and more. Theater owners will create different pockets and uses of space to define the area of the building. This idea creates a more usable space for different events based on time of day, demographic interest, and so much more.”
In other words, the biggest advantage to this concept is that it has something for everybody, regardless of age or interest—or whether there’s a movie currently playing that appeals to you.
The ScreenX auditorium, now the venue’s calling card, almost didn’t get built at all. “We were already under construction when we made that decision [to install ScreenX], so that had its challenges,” McIntyre says.
“The walls of the auditoriums were already done; as a matter of fact, stadium risers were already in the process of being built. Think of a room that’s 71 1/2 feet wide and about 90 feet deep. The screen is 70 feet wide, so that’s only nine inches on either side before the wall. And once you get your risers in, it’s very difficult to move anything around in an auditorium like that.”
So how did they pull it off? “We got a lift called a spider lift, which can reach 65 feet in either direction—up, down, or around—without having to build scaffolding or anything like that,” McIntyre explains. “ScreenX did a great job with their team. The construction crew did a great job of retrofitting areas.”
Other ideas were discarded or changed at various points throughout the years-long process. “At one point we had balconies, we had an outdoor screen with turf hills, we played with having a known restaurant chain inside our theater,” says design director Baker. “When we started the drawings, MX4D, Screen X, and the [music] stage weren’t in the plans.”
B&B’s next project is in Ankeny, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. In addition to its 12 screens, it will feature 12 lanes of bowling along with 4,000 square feet of arcade, as well as MX4D screens and screenPLAY! just like the Liberty location.
“The arcade was originally going to be this little room to the side, but then we actually hired an arcade consultant—which I didn’t even know existed!” McIntyre says with a laugh. “We want to be as highly competent as anybody else, approaching it from a pride standpoint. People always want to add things to their business; it’s just a money grabber. But if you don’t do it right, it just comes across as a second-rate experience.”
Yet despite all of the technological upgrades and renovated spaces, that makes little difference if the customer service isn’t strong, Brock Bagby notes.
“We came from a small-town community. That’s our history, that’s our bread and butter. Those small towns, there are only so many people; you can’t afford to upset someone,” Bagby says. “So our customer service has always been our key. As we’ve grown into bigger markets, we’ve tried really hard to keep that going. It’s an amazing building, but if you don’t have the customer service, you’re not going to have any business.”