“Larry Miller always used to say, ‘I don’t mind getting big. I just don’t want to act big.’”
It’s that philosophy—explained by the circuit’s president Blake Andersen—that has carried Utah-based Megaplex Theatres to its 20th anniversary, which it celebrated in November.
The late Miller, who passed away in 2009, didn’t go into the theatrical exhibition business already bitten by the movie bug. The owner of several sports teams iAndersenn the Utah area, as well as dozens of car dealerships and other assorted business ventures, Miller was approached by the Mayor of Sandy, Utah, to do something with a sizable plot of land in the city. “Jordan High School stood for over a hundred years on this site, and it went into a major disrepair,” recalls film buyer Cal Gundersen, one of Megaplex Theatres’ original hires. “The school district couldn’t afford to bring it up to code,” so for years the property languished. Miller came on-board, and in November 1999 the property found new life as Jordan Commons, a business and retail complex that boasts offices, restaurants, and Megaplex Theatres’ flagship location.
At the beginning, Gundersen says, Miller didn’t really know how to run a theater—he recalls Miller asking him, around the time the building was completed, “‘How do get your movies?” I said to him, “Well, you have to contact the movie studios and sign an agreement with them.’ And he said, ‘Gotcha! Guess we better get on that, because we have this building almost finished, and we don’t have any movies!’
“He didn’t have a clue how to get movies, but he was determined to build something and give back to the community. And here we are 20 years later, still giving back.”
The road, at first, was rocky, since no one knew what Megaplex Theatres was. “It took us, oh, probably six months or so until we had an opportunity to play Toy Story 2,” says Gundersen. “It proved to be a very successful run for us. It actually put Megaplex Theatres on the map with major studios. After that, instead of us chasing people, [they would] call us and say, ‘We have this film coming up, and we’d like to play it in your theater complex.’”
In the 20 years since they proved themselves with Toy Story 2, Megaplex Theatres has grown exponentially. The chain currently has 182 screens in 17 locations (16 in Utah, one in Nevada), with expansion planned in 2021 and 2022 to states in which the Miller family owns car dealerships. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve had a great opportunity to rank in the top five locations across the country for most of the major tentpole films, like Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars,” says Gundersen. “Harry Potter was extremely successful here. Hunger Games. All of those we did major premieres for. We have theaters that are ranked in the top-five-grossing theaters for North America.” Family movies do well for Megaplex, as do musicals (“We played [The Greatest Showman] until they made us take it off!”) and movies based on books. “Utahans are quite well read,” notes Gundersen. “They read a lot of books, and so when something’s made into a movie, they support it wholeheartedly.”
Andersen attributes the success of Megaplex Theatres in part to the chain’s embrace of technology. “We always try to stay cutting edge without being bleeding edge,” he says. Megaplex was “one of the very first chains in the nation to go 100 percent reserved seating. We were the first chain to bring out heated recliners.” They were, he continues, the first chain to “roll out Dolby 3-D” and the first outside Atlanta to install the now-ubiquitous Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. Within Utah, Megaplex was the first chain to introduce Dolby Atmos, laser projection, and D-Box motion seating. “We have five Imax locations,” adds Gundersen. “We’re the only theater chain in the Intermountain West with that many.”
In May of this year, Megaplex Theatres became the first chain to partner with Atom Tickets for a custom subscription service, created through the latter’s white label Atom Movie Access platform.
Beyond the technological angle, Megaplex’s Jordan Commons location, with its many food venues serving as hubs for the spoke-like arrangement of theaters, is “something that you would never see in a normal movie theater chain,” Gundersen says. “All of the hallways are framed with marquees of theaters from gone-by times that were very prominent in Salt Lake City. [They’re the places] where Gail and Larry Miller used to go as teenagers to see movies. It’s a unique place. We’ve had people say, ‘Gosh, I’ve never seen a movie theater complex like this before.’ And I say, ‘You probably won’t [again], because you couldn’t afford to build it.’”
Larry Miller’s goal of giving back to the community isn’t just accomplished through Megaplex’s amenities. The company’s connection to the community mainly lies in its uncanny understanding of what people want to see, even—perhaps especially—when those desires extend outside mainstream cinema. “Larry gave me the charge when I started doing the film buying that he wanted me to keep my mind and eyes open for any great independent film,” says Gundersen. “And so we support the independent film and filmmakers here and around the country that come to us with their films. In most instances, if we feel that there’s something that the public wants to see, we’re great supporters.”
Adds Andersen: “[Community involvement has] been a mandate from the Miller family, from Larry and Gail, from day one. When we go into a community, one of our principles is to make the community better for being there. We work with local filmmakers. We try to assimilate and become part of the communities in which we have our theaters.” (You can find testimonials from those involved in the Utah film community throughout this piece.)
With the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints having a large presence in Utah, Megaplex Theatre plays a lot of Mormon and otherwise faith-based films. One of those is T.C. Christensen’s The Fighting Preacher, which opened in July 2019. Anderson recalls hearing from the director after his “little independent film” had played at Megaplex for 13 weeks: “He said, ‘I can’t thank you enough.’ We moved it around to different markets and different places. He was just overcome that we would give him a chance and let him compete that way. And he actually did very well. That’s neat to hear from a director like that.”
Gundersen plays an active role in seeking out these smaller films. “We just finished up an independent film that was made in Vermont called Farmer of the Year. I contacted [the filmmaker] and asked him about playing it. He said, ‘Clear out in Utah? What do you want to watch it for?’ But I’d watched the trailer and I thought, that’s something that will play well here. … People send me a lot of stuff now that they know what Megaplex Theatres is all about. But, on the other hand, I’m always looking for things that Utahans will love that may not play as well in other places.”
(Another example of being open to off-the-beaten-track options in programming: Anime does really well at Megaplex Theatres. “We kind of stumbled onto the fact that there are huge anime fans out here in Utah,” says Gundersen. FanX, a well-attended comic convention, puts on events in Salt Lake City several times a year. Megaplex Theatres taps into that crowd by screening films from anime distributor Funimation as well as Fathom Events, which has a partnership with anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli. “We [screen anime] quite often, two or three times a month if we can get that much content. … The anime’s turned out to be a lot bigger than what I thought it was going to be.”)
When it comes to making potential moviegoers aware of smaller titles, Megaplex benefits from other components of the Miller empire. “We own a local radio station, so we can help get the word out [with that],” says Andersen. “We own sporting events, so we can place adds in the Jazz arena or in our Bees stadium.” (Basketball team the Utah Jazz and minor league baseball franchise the Salt Lake Bees are owned by the Miller family through their LHM Group.) In addition, Megaplex creates its own pre-show, giving the chain more freedom to promote independent titles months out from their release.
“There isn’t much that happens” in the Miller empire, Gundersen explains—whether it’s Megaplex Theatres, sports teams, or car dealerships—that “the [Miller] family is not highly involved in.” That strategy won’t change. Gail Miller “continues to be a very viable part of the community and is very much involved in trying to give back,” Gundersen says. And the Miller children and grandchildren, Andersen explains, “are active in the business and learning the ropes from the ground up. The Miller family has all of the children who want to work in the business start just like everyone else: in the concession stands, the ticket booth, doing what everyone else does to learn the business and work their way up through the ranks. … As we continue to grow and reach out and spread our footprint throughout different areas in different states, I hope that we can continue to operate in a way that melds with [our] communities and that brings in innovative ideas and technologies.”