ShowSouth Statesman of the Year: Phil Zacheretti, Phoenix Theatres

A cinephile since childhood and an exhibition professional since the age of 15, Phil Zacheretti has spent the last five decades working to bring moviegoers the best experience possible. From a small-town single-screen to tenures as an executive in some of the nation’s biggest theater chains, and to his current role as the founder and leader of his own circuit, Zacheretti’s career is a testament to the passion and resiliency that drive the exhibition industry. Boxoffice spoke with Zacheretti ahead of ShowSouth, where the executive will be named Statesman of the Year.

Your career in exhibition had very humble beginnings.

I became a movie buff at age eight. I saw a Laurel and Hardy movie and just absolutely thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I had posters on my wall, pictures of the old silent comedians from back in the day. And this was in the early ‘70s! I just loved the business.

I was doing a school function at the high school; my mom actually tracked me down and said, “I just read in the paper they’re hiring ushers for the local single-screen theater.” I couldn’t drive, so I talked one of my best friends into giving me a ride over. We both applied. Luckily, they hired me. Otherwise, what would my life have been? The theater was called the Cine Central—happiest day of my life when they hired me. I was 15 years old, making the huge payday of $1.15 an hour.

I’ve been friends with that theater manager, John Hopkins, ever since, going on more than 40 years. About 10 years ago, he called me and said, “I’ve got something for you.” He pulled out my original application that I had given at the time. The first thing I said was, “Why are you keeping paperwork from 30 years ago?” He said it was in a box behind the screen and they were cleaning it out. On that application from 1975, when I was 15, he wrote, “He has long hair, but OK.” I had a huge Afro at the time.

Had he written “Not OK,” then I could be selling insurance or something for a living. I have that framed in my office.

Did you take any lasting lessons about the industry from that first experience as an usher?

The first movie I ever worked was Benji. I was hired and I worked that Saturday night at eight. After the movie was over on that single screen, I thought I was seeing the biggest mess I’d ever seen in my life—but one of the theater’s three principles was cleanliness. We couldn’t leave that theater dirty. My boss taught us that at every performance it should be as clean as when we opened the door in the morning.

I’ve kept that philosophy. We still clean between every show. If I’m at the theater, I’ll walk through and inspect—I actually still help sometimes. The ushers are there working, but if there’s another show time, I’ll go pick up trash, sweep the floor, whatever to help them out. Expect a clean experience. That was probably the first lesson I learned.

In the ’80s and ’90s we saw a shift in the industry from a local, family-owned model toward a national or regional corporate structure.  You’ve witnessed that transition first-hand, from working at a small-town single-screen to some of the biggest circuits in the country. Was that change palpable during that time? 

Absolutely. The ’70s were pretty cool, all the way around. From a film perspective, from the late ’60s through the ’70s, you had a lot of great films. The second movie I was ever paid to watch was at a single screen, and we had a little stool in the back of the theater. I sat there and watched the movie, made sure nobody lit up a cigarette, nobody put their feet up on the chair, nobody was too loud. That second movie was One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of my all-time favorite films. My wife—who I hired when I became an assistant manager years later—our first date was seeing One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

From there I went to work with AMC. I remember something that affected me in that corporate culture, which I still carry to this day. Computers were very new—all you could really do was type something out and then they would fax it. We used to get so many faxes of how to do things—one minute you get one, the next minute somebody else will send you something different. I thought, “If I ever run a company, I’m not going to make my people crazy with paperwork and memos. Let them run the theater!” We still hold that true today, as best we can.

After working at national circuits, your next step was going out on your own, founding Phoenix Theatres in 2000. What was that experience like?

As a young kid my goal was always to have my own theater. If I had a single-screen theater somewhere, I would have thought my life was done; I’d met my ultimate goal. It took me 25 years in the industry to get there. I tell people it doesn’t happen overnight, unless you come from a culture where your grandfather started the business as a nickelodeon. I learned a lot from AMC. I worked for CineMark for seven years. I worked for Regal for three and a half years.  It was just a goal of mine.

It was one of those things where a young bird was pushed out of the nest. I was age 40 when I was let go from Regal for no particular reason. I decided, “It’s time. I’m 40 years old. I want to start my own company.” Many 14-hour days later, we are now going into our 17th year. We use a lot of the philosophies that the big guys had, but we wanted to keep that focus where we can operate like an independent. We can make quick decisions. We can take more risks than the corporate people do, as long as they’re calculated risks. We’ve done OK over the years.

Did it ever feel like going out on your own was a bigger risk than you had anticipated?

We named our company Phoenix, based on the mythical bird rising from the ashes, because we started the company right as many chains were starting to go through bankruptcy. They were just going to get rid of some of their lesser theaters. Within 60 days, we were selling our first ticket.

My wife and I drove to Herndon, Virginia, for about two months and literally worked seven days a week, from open to close, to get that theater rolling. We never really had time to think too much about what the future would hold. We opened doors and two months later we were running a theater. All we did was make sure employees showed up and the popcorn was being delivered.

There were a lot of changes. Digital was one. We had a couple of theaters that were marginal, where we didn’t want to make the investment, that we sold to Carmike. We tried to make a calculated risk. We didn’t just back ourselves into a corner and stay where we were. We survived, but there were a couple of failures. I believe it might have been ’05 or ’04 that was just a terrible year. But we weathered the storm. One year is a bad year, but the next year is going to be good. We’re still family owned. We have to go at our own pace. We’ve seen a lot of people who started about the same time we did and only lasted a couple of years. They were too anxious to grow fast. We want to grow and continue to grow, but at a comfortable pace.

We just opened our first luxury theater two months ago. Completely remodeled it—there’s a new kitchen, a bar in the lobby. We saw what was coming a couple of years ago and waited for the right position. That’s our future; we’ve got to go with the recliner seats and alcohol. Keeping our core values of good customer service and cleanliness, that’s not going anywhere, but now we’re going to that next level. We’ve never been a leader in the industry, the first one to do this or that, but we sure can’t stay too far behind.

What goes into a new site assessment today, the decision to either renovate or open a new location? Are there any new or unique factors that maybe didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago?

What’s changed most is VOD. Both when I started out in the ’70s, and when I started Phoenix in 2000, you couldn’t stream anything live or watch anything on demand. Now you can watch a movie on your phone! When you’re making an investment of a 10-year lease or a bank loan, you’ve got to be pretty sure you’re going to be there for a long time to come.

Consolidation has changed the industry, too. We still look at competition very strongly. We’re not afraid of competition. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, there’s a 20-screen Cinemark four miles away and a 14-screen Regal about 10 miles away—but we know we’re offering a different product than they are. There are fewer of us mom-and-pops. Today it can feel like the supermarket business, with the top three or four circuits in the country.

You touched briefly on staying ahead of the curve. One of the projects that you pioneered is finding and fostering diverse and international audiences through programming. What was that experience like in hindsight? 

To us, it was business. We were going to do something a bit different and make some money on it. If you talk about 2008, I had 33 years of experience. But you want to talk about looking down the path and make a complete 90-degree turn? That’s what happened when we partnered with Reliance. If someone had told me the year before, “You’re going to be working with Mumbai, India, with one of the Ambani brothers, you’re going to take over 12 theaters in 13 weeks, and you’re going to be a leader in the Indian film market,” I would have said, “Who are you talking to? Why would you even say something like that?”

Years before, that was my goal, to do something international. Because we work hard and have got some recognition out there, it just kind of came to us and we embraced it. I will say, in my 42 years in the industry, it was the single hardest deal I’ve ever done in my life. It changed a couple hundred times in the months that we were working on it, but we held in there.

My wife, who’s been my business partner and 38 years married come this December, she still owns a piece of the company—it was tough for her. She was working 10 or 12 hour days, and because of the time change, she would work until two or three in the morning with them. Then get up the next day and start all over again. It was very exciting but it was a lot of hard work, because you’re just not familiar with the culture and the language.

It really legitimized Indian moviegoing in America, because we were one of the very first to report true and accurate box office numbers. There were some other circuits that showed, in very small numbers, a couple of films in certain markets. There were a couple of majors that would show an Indian movie in New Jersey or Seattle, some of the high Indian markets, but not on a widespread basis. It was a great experience. It was hard, very hard, but we learned a lot. It took us out of our comfort zone. Our staff did a great job of learning and working hard to make it work. I’m glad it’s part of our history.

These legacies aren’t built alone. Is there anyone you’d like to highlight as you accept this honor?

I mentioned John Hopkins, the gentleman who first hired me. I learned a lot from him. We’re still friends; we still talk regularly. Mike Campbell, who founded Regal, actually hired me twice. I worked for Mike when he first bought a small circuit that I was working at. Then he brought me to the corporate office. I left for Cinemark, but when he built his company up to about 800 screens, he hired me back. In three years, we took it to 3,000 screens. I learned a lot from Mike Campbell.

I want to draw out my family, starting with my wife, first and foremost. When a theater manager gets the call to move to another city for a $25 a week raise, you load up the U-Haul and bring the kids to that city. She knew my goal in life and she supported it. She didn’t say, “You’re not making enough money. You’re working every weekend and every holiday, while I’m by myself.” Every spouse of every theater manager in the country knows exactly what I’m talking about. To stick with it for so many years until we were finally able to do it ourselves, I couldn’t have done it without her.

All the employees at my company, the corporate staff. Sometimes they don’t have the security of the big guy or all the benefits, but I’ve got a lot of managers who have been with me now for over 10 years. They run the business for us; we just guide them and help them do it. The corporate staff does whatever we need to make things happen.

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