Book ’em! Jeff Kaufman brings diverse films to Malco audiences


“I’ve been in the business virtually all my life. I grew up with it, just like these guys did.” Senior VP of film and marketing Jeff Kaufman has worked as Malco’s film buyer since early 1997. “My dad owned some theatres in Texas and was an independent producer of film,” he explains. “I graduated with a degree in Radio, TV and Film from the University of Texas, and worked for Universal Pictures in the Kansas City, Missouri, branch from 1977 to 1980. Until 1985, when I joined MGM in Dallas, Texas, I had my own business, shipping depot and sub-distribution.”

After MGM shuttered its office, Kaufman placed a call to company chairman Stephen Lightman “to express my condolences on his father passing away, and at the same time wishing him a happy birthday,” he recalls. “They asked me if I was interested in coming to work for them and I said, ‘You know, this is really not why I called you, but I will certainly consider it.’” Within a month, the deal was done.

“At the time when I came here and transitioned from distribution to exhibition, you still had salesmen and branch managers that handled a specific circuit. There was one person that worked with the Malco circuit, no matter where the theatre was located. And there was another one that handled United Artists Theatres or General Cinema in a given region. Film buyers were teamed up with their counterparts in distribution.” Today, he continues, distribution and marketing have become cohesive. “It’s all part of one big team…essentially to make things easier for distribution to quantify expenditures,” he believes. “To make the process more efficient, they are using distribution and marketing together. Now you have sales people set up according to marketing designations,” Kaufman explains, “and I may have to deal with five different sales people from one studio for my theatres alone. It’s not like we have thousands. Malco has 33 theatres and they are pretty much within the same geographic area. Nonetheless, not only do I work with two people in the L.A. office, but I also work with three people from New York. You went from having a total of 15 people or so in 1997, to dealing with 50 people today. And that’s just for little old Malco Theatres,” he laughs. “Well, it’s definitely a different kind of work.”

Another change that has occurred is “really a change across all businesses.” Back in the day, Kaufman did most of his dealings on the telephone. “You picked up the receiver and you talked. You had personal relationships, be it with a branch manager, with the president of distribution, with all of these guys. Now the majority of my business is done by e-mail, because there are just so many people that I have to contact in a short time, especially doing holdovers on a Monday. It would be absolutely impossible for me to pick up a phone and call everybody to get holdovers done.”

Nonetheless, Kaufman makes sure that “at some point in time, I pick up the phone. I want to create a personal connection, because that’s what we are: Malco is a family company. We rely on our personal contacts with people. I want our business partners to know who we are, what we are and what we stand for; what our strengths are and why we are different. And that’s part of who I am and how I try and conduct business.”

He goes on to compare the film industry to baseball and football. “It is always the same group of people. They just happen to be in different positions at one time or another. Most of us have known each other for a long time and there is always room for negotiating…that is always part of it. We are looking at the best way to present the studios’ films, not only technically but also making sure that our guests are comfortable.”

Seating has not only become qualitatively better, it has also grown in sheer numbers to accommodate guests more effectively. “With the expansion of our cinema complexes, distribution and exhibition have trained the audience into thinking that it is really a one-weekend business. We don’t allow sellouts, right? The industry hates sellouts,” Kaufman answers his own question. “When I was going to the movies, you still stood in line and if you couldn’t get in, you couldn’t get in. Well, that doesn’t happen anymore. The digital revolution has given us a tremendous amount of flexibility to make additional auditoriums available and to screen films in multiple formats.”

Calling upon the example of the Ridgeway Cinema Grill–one of the earlier Malco theatres that was recently renovated to complement its success as more of an art-house venue (see our August issue)–Kaufman professes his keen interest in programming variety. “One of the things that I really enjoy is expanding the palette of releases and the choice of film that the people of Memphis have the ability to see. We also do some Bollywood programming for a very vibrant community here that supports that kind of film… Sometimes these non-mainstream films work and sometimes they don’t, but again, it gives us an opportunity to expand the palette of what we release.”

When it comes to figuring out what “really works,” Kaufman believes in what he calls the “Water Cooler Test.” “This summer, we played Chef in the Ridgeway for ten weeks. I mean I couldn’t get rid of it, even if I had wanted to. Chef passed the Water Cooler Test, because all of a sudden, after the third week, it went up. And it was stronger in the fifth week than the fourth week. Why? Well, people were talking about it. That really didn’t happen with any other movie this summer, but it did happen with that one… a picture like that becomes a part of the social fabric.” Elsewhere during the summer, the movies did not play a big part in any fabric, he readily admits. “Moviegoing, just like everything else, is habitual. When you go to movies you see the trailers, the one-sheets. And when you experience something fun or something that really makes the hair on the back of your head stand up–you just have to talk about it. While this just builds on itself, the reverse is also true,” he cautions. “When people stop going to the theatre, they stop seeing our trailers and one-sheets and they stop talking about it. And that’s kind of where we were at this summer. People were looking for other things to occupy their time, and their first thought was not about going the movies. And while it’s hard to get them back, you know, it only takes one. It only takes that one movie that everybody is talking about to spark excitement and generate renewed interest.”

This is where the competition comes in. “People are looking for ways to entertain themselves. And they can do it now for free, virtually. For eight dollars a month they get hours and hours of not just TV, but also great drama, excellent comedy at their fingertips. Streaming makes all this entertainment available to them” on bigger television sets and better home presentation systems. “I don’t think it’s a problem, though,” Jeff Kaufman says, closing on a note of encouragement. “I think it can be an opportunity for us to sell the best that we have. Because the best that we have onscreen is always going to be better than what television has the ability to produce, but we have to get them into the theatre first. We’ve got to get them in to see all that we have to offer.”