From the Heartland: Midwestern exhibitors gather at the Grand Geneva Resort

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Each year, vice president of Rouman Amusement Company George Rouman and vice president of F&F Management John Scaletta attempt to “find some type of a trend, or something important, or some key issue” affecting the movie theatre industry which they can explore at the Geneva Convention, says Rouman. Two years ago, as exhibitors transitioned from film to digital projection, digital conversion provided the Midwestern regional event with its overarching theme. Last year, taking place as the convention did roughly one year after the tragic shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre, safety and security was the topic of choice. And this year? “We don’t necessarily have a particular theme,” says Rouman of himself and fellow co-chair Scaletta. But after musing over the several offerings awaiting attendees from the conference’s home state of Wisconsin, as well as those from Upper Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan, he suggests “being in control of the destiny of your theatre.”

Considering the caliber of guests scheduled to speak at this year’s event, to be held once again at the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Sept. 9-11, Rouman’s informal designation seems apt. “We’ve been able to find some people who we feel are good leaders, and who might be able to talk about issues a different industry faces, [and] come over and talk to us, to see how it relates to us,” Rouman explains. “There’re a lot of things that set us apart from the bigger conventions, and maybe some of the other regionals,” adds Scaletta. “We put on a convention that gives added value to owners to bring their managers. George and I operate movie theatres ourselves, and we know what we want our managers to learn. We work to bring in the best presenters so that there’s value to us bringing our managers out there.”

To that end, one of the speakers for whom both men avow enthusiasm is Captain Michael Abrashoff, the former most junior Navy commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet, and author of It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. Abrashoff’s book outlines those “GrassRoots Leadership” principles he developed while helming the U.S.S. Benfold. It was largely thanks to Abrashoff and a managerial style that emphasized communication and empathy that the Benfold earned a prestigious naval award for “highest degree of combat readiness.” Rouman and Scaletta know of others who have used It’s Your Ship in a corporate setting, and thought Abrashoff, who will also sign copies of his book available for purchase at the conference, would be a sound fit for this year’s event.

As would, they agreed, a leader who hails from a bit closer to home. Dave Skogen is the chairman of the board of Festival Foods, a local grocery store chain his parents founded in the mid-’40s and of which his son, Mark, now serves as president and CEO. Like Abrashoff, Skogen recently published a book, Boomerang! Leadership Principles that Bring the Customer Back. It’s a tome that acts as a neat summation of managerial wisdom garnered over the course of 60 years overseeing staff and serving patrons. The 2005 Wisconsin Grocer of the Year and, along with his wife, Barb, a 2007 Outstanding Philanthropist (so named by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Upper Mississippi Valley chapter) “is a very dynamic guy and he’s really interesting, so we’re happy to have him come,” enthuses Rouman of the writer who, like Abrashoff, will be available to sign copies of his book following his speech. “Those should be two really, really solid speakers that will hopefully inspire a lot of our attendees.”

The creative thinking that led Rouman and Scaletta to tap relevant non-industry speakers has informed the conference’s social offerings as well. “We’re having a pool party out on the back deck of the resort this year,” says Rouman of the annual opening reception and cocktail party. “We’ve never done that before. We’ve moved our cocktail party over the years, but this year we’re hoping to cook up something really nice and unique.” It’s a show of novelty that will likewise be supplemented by several new faces on the trade-show floor. Says Rouman, “This year we’ve had a lot of really early booth registrations that are new. We have several new companies that we’re hearing from or are talking to us about coming,” to set up camp alongside the “candy vendors, seat vendors, projector companies” and others slated to fill the booth spaces that should tally out to nearly 100. “I have to admit, for a regional show like we are, I think John and I are always pretty satisfied and happy that we can bring in the number of vendors that we can,” Rouman says.

What will not change at the Geneva Convention this September is the worthiness of the honorees. The Boxoffice Blue Ribbon award is being presented to Lionsgate for its Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the highest-grossing film of 2013. The conference’s Vendor of the Year is Sonic Equipment, which last year launched Sonic Operational Solutions, a new in-house monitoring system that is currently offering remote service to over 1,000 screens. Says Scaletta, “Sonic has done a huge number of installations of digital projector and sound systems for independent theatre owners all over the Midwest. They’ve been a big supporter of the convention, and they’ve done an awful lot for independent and regional theatres alike.”

Twentieth Century Fox has similarly “been a good partner for theatre owners, and they’ve had one hell of a year, especially this summer,” continues Scaletta, ticking off hits The Fault in Our Stars, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Rio 2. “They’ve just had so many big films this year, this is the perfect opportunity to honor them” with the Studio of the Year Award.

The two individuals receiving the Ben Marcus and Larry Hanson Awards, respectively, fit the honoree theme of substantive industry contributors. “Travis Reid is definitely somebody who should be honored with the Ben Marcus Award for everything that he’s done in the industry, and also in his personal life, philanthropically,” says Scaletta of the Screenvision CEO and former Loews Cineplex Entertainment executive who boasts 30 years in exhibition. Then there is Bill Campbell, the soon-to-be Larry Hanson Award recipient. Several years ago Scaletta’s mentor Hanson, intent on harnessing the collective buying power of independent theatres in order to obtain necessities like “cups and bags and popcorn seeds and drink cups” at the best prices, founded the Cinema Buying Group, explains Scaletta. In recent years, the CBG, which the National Association of Theatre Owners absorbed in 2006, has been instrumental in helping small theatres obtain costly and necessary digital equipment. Continues Scaletta, “All of a sudden we needed a vehicle to help bring digital cinema to independents across the country. CBG became that vehicle, and the guy who’s heading up the CBG right now is Bill Campbell.”

Campbell’s work appears to exemplify the conference’s own commitment to assisting small and independent theatres. “Our philosophy is, we want to put on the best possible show that we can, to bring as much relevant content and discussion from the national level down to a regional level and make it possible for our small exhibitors to still see it,” says Rouman. Scaletta agrees, offering a sentiment that could well conclude one of the 2014 Geneva Convention’s speeches on leadership: “Our ears are always open to what we can do to bring added value and excitement and energy to our convention."