By Daniel Loria and Kevin Lally
The Dan Fellman Show ‘E’ Award, ShowEast’s highest honor, this year goes not to an individual but to a trio of executives with a combined 113 years’ experience at National Amusements, North America’s 10th-largest theater circuit. Mark Walukevich, senior VP of film and event cinema worldwide; Duncan Short, senior VP of operations; and Bill LeClair, senior VP of food and beverage, will accept the prize during ShowEast’s closing-night award ceremony on October 17.
“I started at National Amusements in 1980 as an advertising trainee,” Walukevich recalls. “The advertising department was a chaotic and demanding environment. Back in the ’80s, all of the advertising and show times were compiled manually, a job that was heavy on detail, timeliness, and accuracy. My longevity in the role was directly tied to not making a mistake. No detail was too insignificant to escape the eye of Sumner [circuit head Sumner Redstone], and if there was an error, you would hear about it.”
Walukevich continues, “The transition from advertising to film booking was part of the overall plan, as both departments needed a liaison to communicate with each cinema regarding bookings and upcoming films. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to book our cinemas in Dayton, Washington, D.C., and Quad Cities, becoming part of the Monday morning booking team alongside George Levitt, Carl Reardon, and Sumner. In the midst of this environment, I learned the brazen language of the film buyer, among many other things. Most importantly, Sumner’s insistence that ‘good enough’ was never ever good enough kept us motivated.
“As we branched out internationally to the U.K., I took on the film buying role there, giving me the opportunity to travel and learn as much as possible about this new market. Later the company expanded into Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Russia—each new territory providing new opportunities to collaborate with and learn from local partners. When George Levitt retired, I became senior V.P. of both domestic and international film and event cinema. Although more than half my career had been dedicated to international, the transition back to domestic was seamless, as most of the people I dealt with from the beginning were still in distribution.”
“I started with National Amusements in the U.K. in 1987 and opened their first international multiplex cinema as the general manager,” Short recounts. “Prior to that, I had worked in cinema in the U.K. for 10 years—my current length of service in the cinema industry is now 41 years. While in the U.K., I enthusiastically got involved in the company’s international theater expansion into South America—specifically Chile and Argentina. Under my oversight, all new South American managers were trained in the U.K., and shortly thereafter I oversaw the management of all international operations.
It was at this time it seemed most appropriate for me to relocate to our U.S.-based headquarters in Dedham, Massachusetts, as the director of international operations.
In 2015, I assumed responsibility for all U.S. and international operations and was appointed senior V.P. I have proudly been living and working in the U.S. for 21 years, and I became a U.S. citizen in 2010.”
LeClair has the longest National Amusements tenure of the trio. “I started in 1977 as an usher at Showcase Cinemas in West Springfield, Massachusetts. I worked my way up to an assistant manager. In 1980 I left Showcase to become a union projectionist. I returned to Showcase Cinemas in 1983 as a manager. I think the core lesson I learned back then that still resonates today is the importance of customer service. You have to take care of your guest. I also learned that if you want to move ahead in a company, always have your replacement ready to take over for you.”
He continues, “After returning to Showcase in 1983, I worked at various theater locations as managing director before being promoted to the operations department in the home office. I worked in operations for a number of years before being asked to move into the concessions department to help develop our U.S. concessions team. I continued to work my way up to my current role.”
Working at a multinational circuit like National Amusements poses a special set of challenges. “Communication between territories is key,” Walukevich advises. “Lessons learned—or mistakes made—in one country may fit a need in another. Advance openings in other territories give you a feel for film expectations and performance elsewhere. However, our real strength lies with our team. Steve Cooper, Jack Monahan, Richard Leonard, Luiz Silva, and Mariela Mosso are highly regarded in their respective markets, are tremendously experienced, and are a pleasure to work with on a daily basis. We may be the oldest-tenured team in the business, with each member having decades of experience in the industry.”
Short commends his management team as “highly flexible, given the need to adapt to the cultures, languages, and practices in multiple markets. In the international markets where large cinemas were just starting up, we were able to apply lessons learned from our longstanding, well-respected U.S. theater operation. Today, we actively seek to share best practices between all of our theaters in all of the markets where we operate.”
LeClair’s concessions operation also encounters cultural differences. “There are a number of things that are different working with each country—just understanding the different cultures, from the way people greet each other to the foods they eat, For example, in the U.S. and Brazil we serve salted popcorn with butter-flavor topping; in the U.K. and Argentina we serve sweet popcorn that is actually popped with sugar. The U.K. loves their sweets and candy, whereas in Brazil they prefer nuts and fruits. Brazilians love their natural fruit juices. In the U.K. they love to drink their FCB [frozen carbonated beverage]. In the U.S. cocktails are huge sellers, but spirits sell less in the U.K. and South America, where we sell large amounts of beer.”
The three executives have seen many dramatic changes over the decades. “I started in cinema when carbon arc projection was being phased out and Dolby stereo had just arrived,” Short notes. “I have seen cinema screen curtains disappear and multiscreening be the next big thing. Stadium-seat auditoriums vanished in favor of the parabolic curve. But the single most important concept I never lost sight of and that has guided me through the 41 years I have been in cinema is that we are in the entertainment business. This means knowing and caring about the entire customer journey. The customer experience starts the moment they decide to see a movie. We must do whatever it takes to make the entire customer-facing process a great experience—through new design, accessibility, technology, service, seating, the experience must be the modern-day version of what the old picture palace brought, that the total movie experience exceeds any other. Without doubt, cinema has had to adapt to changing circumstances, but through the years the industry has taken the twists and turns in the road and today the record-breaking box office results speak for themselves.’
Walukevich observes, “With the prevalence of social media, patrons are better informed about upcoming releases, and this allows us to connect with them in a more direct manner. The growth of event cinema has also become an integral part of our strategy, as we create specialized experiences and diversify our programming as both an exhibitor and distributor. We are fortunate to have a talented team with Laura Correia, James Dobbin, and Beth Pridham leading programming and marketing efforts.”
“I think expanded F&B has been a major change over the last number of years,” LeClair says, taking the culinary perspective. “When I first started in the cinemas, we sold popcorn, soda, and candy. Nowadays we have full kitchens in some locations, where we sell burgers and fries, steak tips and lobster. We have full lobby bars in most locations. Some theaters have restaurants in them, others have coffee shops.”
Asked about the challenges facing exhibition today, Walukevich responds, “The one thing an exhibitor can truly control is the moviegoing experience. We must keep it relevant, fresh, and adaptable to the changing needs and tastes of our audiences. The pressure from outside competition—whether that be Netflix or other streaming services—will always provide the motivation to change with the times, making the entertainment experience within our cinemas second to none.”
Short adds, “Our challenges for the future continue as they have throughout the past. Watching a movie at the cinema is like no other moviegoing experience. We need to ensure that we maintain the window of opportunity to keep it that way.”
The three have clearly had an impact at National Amusements, but who were some of their mentors along the way? Says Walukevich, “I’ve had the good fortune to work for the Redstone family, both Sumner and Shari. I also consider Ed Knudson, George Levitt, and Carl Reardon to be mentors as well. The learnings from each of them have been invaluable to me, both on a personal and professional level.”
Short answers, “I have had the privilege to work with some terrific people over the years who have been very strong influences in my life. At the beginning of my career, my mentor, who I have maintained deep affection for, was Gerald Parkes—he was the first manager I worked under when I started. As an assistant manager, Gerald really understood what cinema was about. He was a real showman, and every moment I had the pleasure to work with him I consider to be a special moment. Gerald really shaped my thinking toward cinema for my future career.
“John Bilsborough, the head of National Amusements’ international development, was extremely influential in my career and personal development. Even today, I try to think how J.B. would approach certain things. John was extraordinary at considering how to, rather than reasons not to.
“Tad Jankowski, National Amusements’ executive vice president, continually challenges my thinking and pushes me to consider many options. There are always good solutions to be found and just as we agree and reach a comfort level on an initiative, Tad will ask, ‘What is next?’ Tad has enabled my thinking process to reach another level—which is awesome.
“Finally and most importantly, [National Amusements president] Shari Redstone has been unbelievably influential in my career and personal development. Shari has been inspirational, her energy and excitement for the business and her confidence in our management team has allowed the individuals and the company to reach new heights of achievement. I feel very privileged to be part of the National Amusements exhibition team.”
LeClair’s mentorship started at home. “Although my father never worked in this industry, I consider him my mentor. He taught me to go out in the world and to work hard and, more importantly, to treat everyone the way you would like to be treated—fairly and with respect.”
In closing, we asked the trio to name their proudest accomplishments at National Amusements.
“Selecting my proudest moment is a very difficult task because I have been given so many opportunities along the way,” Short says. “But a standout was when I was the general manager of the Showcase Cinema in Nottingham in the U.K. We had been open just one week and a middle-aged couple, the male being in a wheelchair, came up to me and thanked me for enabling them to be able to go to the cinema together. It was their very first date night out since the gentleman had been disabled many years prior in a car accident. I felt emotional at the time, and so many years later it still stays with me.”
“The best thing about working for National Amusements,” LeClair says, “is that I have had the opportunity to work with so many great people along the way. I am so proud of the great group of people I work with, from all the staff in the theaters that are out there working the front lines, to our great group of managers, to all the folks I work with in the home office, to the best concessions teams anyone could ask for, that I work with in all our markets. It is all of them that make my job so much fun every day.”
Walukevich concludes, “Being able to develop business opportunities and form lasting relationships worldwide over decades and the collaboration of our international teams makes me very proud, along with National Amusements being a successful and respected leader in each market.”