ShowEast 2019 Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award: Joe Masher, Chief Operating Officer, Bow Tie Cinemas

Joe Masher’s experience in exhibition dates back to his childhood. At age 12, he took over duties as “rewind boy” at a seasonal theater. That informal experience would be the beginning of a decades-long career in the movie theater business. 

In 1990, Masher was working for Loews and looking after five “hard tops” and one drive-in theater for the circuit. Only four years later, he was transferred to New York City with a marquee assignment: opening the chain’s new showcase theater—the Lincoln Square 12—which featured the first Imax auditorium in a commercial theater. He would go on to open another major location for Loews in New York City—the Kips Bay 15.

Masher joined Clearview Cinemas in 2000 as a division manager, assigned to northern New Jersey, New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties, and Connecticut—and went on to create the chain’s first training program for floor staff. He joined Bow Tie Cinemas in 2004, where he currently serves as chief operating officer. His tenure as COO has included two high-profile acquisitions, Crown Theatres in 2005 and Clearview Cinemas in 2013. 

Boxoffice Pro spoke with Masher about his career in exhibition ahead of his being honored at ShowEast 2019 with the event’s Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award.

You got your start at an early age in this business. How did you come to find yourself in the projection booth? 

I started out by running 35-millimeter carbon arc projectors, at age 12, in the summers at a seasonal theater, but my professional career started at the Mohawk Mall Cinemas in Schenectady, New York, when I was just 14. I ran the projectors, sold concessions and tickets, and ushered at the seven-screen multiplex. I attended a small college in way upstate New York for a semester and was an assistant manager at the State Theater in Tupper Lake, New York, for a few months before going back to Loews while I finished my education.

You were actually promoted to a manager at an early age. What was that experience like?

I became the general manager of the long-gone Loews Cinema 7 in Latham, New York, when I was 17. It was a single-screen “dollar house” that was very busy. The theater was called “Cinema 7” because it was on Route 7 and was built before seven-screen theaters existed. We’d fill the 503-seat house nearly every Friday and Saturday night! 

After it closed, I opened the Rotterdam Square 6 in Schenectady, and in 1990 I was transferred to Binghamton, New York. I spent four years there, where I oversaw the market transition from a triplex, a twin, five singles, and a drive-in to one new 9-screen theater in Vestal, New York. 

That’s when the opportunity to come to New York City arrived. And it wasn’t just any movie theater—this was a prestige assignment. Where did your career take you from there?

I was summoned to New York City in 1994 to open what would quickly become the world’s busiest movie theater, the Sony/Loews Lincoln Square 12 & Imax Theater in Manhattan. I was there for the first five years of its life and met tons of celebrities at our weekly premieres. I next opened Kips Bay in Manhattan for Loews in 1999, then in 2000 joined Clearview Cinemas, where I became a division manager for several locations in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

In 2004, I got the calling for my dream job and joined the Moss Family to transition B.S. Moss Theaters into Bow Tie Cinemas with the opening of our theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Several new locations and acquisitions followed, and I’m honored to have been the chief operating officer of this company for the past 15 years.

Is there any experience from your early days in exhibition that you still benefit from today? 

I learned quickly that keeping a theater well-maintained, clean, and comfortable were the most important things that would keep guests returning. Adapting to meet the needs and demands of guests keeps our business relevant and strong.

You are deeply involved with the Theatre Historical Society of America (THS). What is its mission? 

THS is an organization dedicated to preserving the history of theater buildings, primarily in North America. We have an extensive archive, housed at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, and publish a quarterly magazine featuring stories on theaters, operators, and other historical matters. I joined in 1994, thanks to my then-booker at Lincoln Square, Steve Bunnell. … I led the charge in 2018 to purchase the single-screen Hollywood Theater in Pittsburgh’s Dormont neighborhood, which is the last single-screen, first-run house in the Pittsburgh area. We have a partnership with the Pittsburgh Area Theatre Organ Society, and our house organ is played before the show on weekends. The theater has also been the home to The Rocky Horror Picture Show for many, many years now.

After spending so much time in cinemas, do you have a favorite movie theater? 

I have too many favorites to list, but speaking as a theater-architecture fan, the Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn is truly a wonder. As far as going to the movies, I like to go to all of our theaters as a “customer” to observe the operation; lately it’s difficult to get my friends to go to theaters that don’t have recliners, elevated food offerings, and a bar.

You’ve also been engaged on an industry-wide level through your work at NATO. What have been some of your proudest achievements in this part of your career?

I was always on top of the heap in collections for Will Rogers and Variety – The Children’s Charity of New York during my years as a manager. I remember going on TV in New York City to present the “giant check” each year. That’s where I first met Charley Moss! 

With NATO of N.Y. State, I am leading the charge along with Bob Sunshine, our executive director, on many things including changing archaic alcoholic beverage laws with regard to movie theaters. I’ve also been part of successful regional lobbies against cup-size legislation, predictive scheduling laws, trailer decibel levels, and menu labeling. Nationally I’ve been lobbying as part of NATO’s Government Relations and Political Action Committees on Capitol Hill. 

Do you have a mentor or mentors who have been influential in your career? 

Early on, I was heavily influenced by my Loews division manager, Mike Aidala, who passed away recently. We stayed in touch until the end. He was an Italian immigrant with a very strong work ethic. I’d also have to say that at Loews, Cindy Cronkhite and Chuck Goldwater were the people who moved me up and up, eventually to Lincoln Square. Through all of it though, the person who taught me the most, how to be humble, keep my head straight, and don’t sweat the small stuff, was industry legend Charley Moss. He is truly remarkable and his accomplishments are extraordinary. I work closely with Charley and his son, Ben, whose degree of knowledge is remarkable. It’s an honor to have been involved with the Moss family for the past 15 years. I’ve also gained a great deal of insight from John Fithian and Bob Sunshine, with all things NATO.

What does the future hold for exhibition? What do you believe are the keys to sustaining long-term success in this industry? 

The first key to sustaining our industry is product. People will always want to have the out-of-home shared experience, and as long as the product is good, that’s the first part. The amenities that theaters are offering these days are the second most important thing. We’ve converted theaters from sloped floor or stadium seating to recliner seating, and our occupancy percentages have increased dramatically. It’s amazing to ponder that with 60 to 70 percent less seating, you’re seeing amazing increases in attendance. Offering quality food and beverages has been instrumental in attracting some of those guests. I’ve heard guests saying that they now go to the movies two or three times as often as they did in the past. Going forward, it’s going to be interesting to see what the effect of shrinking windows has on our business, but you still can’t get the same, giant-screen, big-sound, shared experience at home than you can at a movie theater.

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