Better and Better: FJI celebrates ShowEast awardee Bob Bagby and B&B Theatres

Cinemas Features

For Robert “Bob” Bagby, president and CEO of B&B Theatres, business is personal and personal is business. As a third-generation owner of the Missouri-based theatre chain, Bob grew up with the industry in his blood.

The B&B, in case you’re wondering, stands for “Bills” and “Bagby,” two families that merged their respective theatres into one company on January 1, 1980; around the same time, Bob Bagby married Bridget Bills, officially turning B&B Theatres into a family company.

Shown the ropes of the business by his father, Sterling Bagby, and his future father-in-law, Elmer Bills, Jr., Bob would eventually train his children: Brock Bagby, Bobbie Bagby Ford and Brittanie Bagby Baker, the latest generation of B&B Theatres leadership. “My family and I love this business,” Bob explains. “We eat, sleep and dream of movies, and I think our employees catch our enthusiasm. It’s a fun business!”

From the time Bob assumed leadership of the company in 1980, it’s grown from 17 screens to 407 across 50 theatres in nine states. By any measure, that’s success. But what’s impressive about the expansion isn’t so much the buildings erected and the money earned than something at once less tangible and more important: the spirit of integrity that guides B&B Theatres and Bob Bagby’s leadership.

Call it “good, old-fashioned, Midwestern ethics” (Baker’s words) or just plain doing the right thing—at B&B, values are not to be shed in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Ford cites the acquisition of Dickinson Theatres in 2004 as an example. “The smart business move was to let most, if not all, of their corporate staff go,” she explains. “This prospect literally kept my dad up at night. He called a family meeting to say that he just could not do it and got to work to find a way to offer everyone a place at B&B, even if it was working at one of the theatres. There are opportunities to fudge something or do things the easier way, but Dad always picks the harder way if it’s the right way.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Bob Bagby is this year’s Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award honoree at ShowEast. To celebrate his win—and the success, both financial and moral—of B&B Theatres, FJI spoke with Bob, Brock, Brittanie and Bobbie about the past, present and future of their company.

From the Ground Up: Bob Bagby, President & CEO

Bob Bagby’s career in the movie theatre business didn’t have a glamorous beginning. How unglamorous are we talking? Try “picking up trash.” It had its perks, though: Bob recalls that “Dad used to drop a quarter in the auditorium from time to time to keep me motivated.”

Young Bob was assigned more and more responsibility, moving up from the ground floor (literal and figurative) to pass out popcorn. Five years old at the time, he was probably the youngest concessions employee B&B had ever hired! Then followed a stint in the bathroom cleaning business (hey, you have to pay your dues) and additional concessions work: cooking burgers, pouring soda and “of course, popp[ing] tons of popcorn. In high school Dad hired me as the manager of our single-screen downtown theatre and drive-in. There I learned about hiring, firing, bookwork and marketing. I also ran 35mm projectors with carbon arcs.”

But a career in the family business wasn’t a foregone conclusion, even then. When college rolled around, Bob majored not in business, but in music. It’s a love he passed down to his children, all three of whom remark on their love of singing. “I played in a band for sixteen years,” Bob recalls, his wife Bridget sitting “in the audience for most of my gigs and listen[ing] to the same songs and jokes. There was nothing in her wedding vows that required that!” There was even a brush with greatness—Bob recalls auditioning Sheryl Crow for the role of lead singer back when she was a college student, and jokes that if he’d hired her, “either I would be a big star or I would have ruined her career.”

The role of accountant looked like a possibility for a brief while, “but the family business was in my blood,” Bob remembers. “In the end it pulled me back.”

He hasn’t regretted it. After college, he and Bridget managed several theatres and “drove from town to town doing film work and moving around prints.” In 1982 came the acquisition of another small circuit, which doubled B&B’s screen count and prompted a move for Bob to the corporate office and to the position of film buyer. “In those days, I personally called every theatre manager on Sunday night to get grosses and the concession orders,” Bob says. General operations and accounting were also on his plate, and “when the company bought its first computer, my job was to figure out how to prepare payroll” under the new system.

Along the way, Bob continued learning the intricacies of the business from his father, Sterling Bagby, and father-in-law Elmer Bills, Jr. Of the two, Bills “was the conservative voice, and taught me that we didn’t need to do every deal, and that if the numbers don’t work, there will be ‘another one around the corner,’’’ Bob explains. Sterling Bagby, on the other hand, “instilled in me a desire to aggressively pursue calculated expansion of the company.”

“There was a lot of back-and-forth between fast expansion and conservative growth,” Bob admits, but rather than being at each other’s throats, Elmer and Sterling were “a great team. We had so much fun working together, and now I enjoy working with my three children, one of whom is very conservative on growth, one that is moderate, and one that is very aggressive.” Bob himself is somewhere in the middle when it comes to wheeling and dealing; daughter Brittanie Bagby Baker describes him as “a fantastic negotiator, and very competitive, but he always comes out with his ethics intact.”

Through working at B&B Theatres over the decades, Bob has assembled a family far greater than just the people he’s related to by blood. The whole B&B clan is close, with the top brass ensuring that everyone, from the executive level on down, stays engaged and invested in the company by facilitating communication across all levels. “We make it a point to explain why we do things, and not just send down new policies from corporate,” says Bob. There are weekly conference calls and quarterly webinars, the latter of which “focus on relevant education and policy but are also fun and entertaining.” For one of them, the marketing department even dressed up in superhero costumes.

Bob’s management style can best be described as “employee-centric,” and that’s no surprise, given that he’s been where those employees are. Just as Bob himself has come up through the ranks, he prefers to work with a team that has, too. “Our corporate office is populated with extremely thoughtful, talented and focused professionals, most of whom started at the theatre level,” Bob explains. “They understand the operational concerns, and as a result they can more efficiently direct the corporate activity.”

Included in that set are Bob and Bridget’s children, all of whom gravitated to the family business, just as they themselves did. “We were never pressured to follow in our family’s footsteps,” Ford explains, “but all three of us fell in love!”

It’s a situation that’s helped the Bagby family—and the Bagby business—in more ways than one. “Bridget and I get to talk and work with our kids every single day,” Bob explains. “We have to remind ourselves at family gatherings not to talk ‘shop,’ but of course we still talk movies.” When it is time to talk shop, the close-knit nature of the company means it’s easy to “get the family around the table and make decisions very quickly.” Bob cites the 2004 acquisition of Dickinson Theatres: “We had been watching the circuit for years, but when the opportunity to purchase it became a reality, we knew we had to move fast. We moved from letter of intent to ownership in just a few weeks.” The happy result: doubled attendance.

And it’s the “youthful enthusiasm” of his children that Bob credits with helping keep B&B “on the cutting edge of new developments.” It’s the three of them, Bob notes, who advocated for in-theatre bars, recliners and Premium Large Format screens. Brock Bagby points out that “we were the second circuit in the Midwest to embrace PLF screens, and the first in St. Louis and southern Missouri to introduce dine-in concepts. We were also the first theatre in Missouri to offer two PLF screens under one roof.”

All that contributes to crafting a top-notch experience for B&B’s guests, one that lives up to the chain’s slogan: “Bringing Hollywood to your hometown.” Bob’s hometown since 2000 is Liberty, Missouri, where B&B is in the process of designing a new flagship theatre and corporate offices. “I’ve spent way too much time tweaking the plans, as this will be my hometown theatre, and I want it to be special,” Bob explains. “We own the land and hope to start digging soon.”

Bob’s dedication to his community extends beyond building a new theatre there; he’s also a supporter of Liberty’s Freedom House, which opened its doors in 2008. “We had the kick-off fundraising event at the Liberty Theatre and went on to raise over a million dollars to build a new facility that could house various nonprofits that provide assistance to those in need,” Bob explains. “So now we have one place for people to go to get help with food, shelter, clothing, utilities, etc.”

Bob contributes to the exhibition community by serving on CinemaCon’s convention committee. He’s also served as the president of NATO of Kansas and Missouri, one of a handful of branches that recently merged to form Theatre Owners of Mid-America (TOMA), of which he is now a board member. “Let’s face it, no one really understands our business except other exhibitors,” Bob says. “So it is always fun to share business stories with each other.”

Jack of All Trades: Brock Bagby, Director of Programming and Business Development

Brock Bagby’s official title at B&B Theatres is “director of programming and business development,” but don’t think that tells the whole story. “It’s fair to say I do a number of things that are not necessarily implied by my title, but that is what a family business is all about. You do whatever is needed,” he explains.

So what falls under Brock Bagby’s kitchen-sink job description? Sunday through Tuesday it’s booking and programming, working closely with studios, theatre managers and film buyers Brad Bills and Ed Carl. Wednesday through Saturday, the job is theatre development: “From the first phone call to opening day, I’m involved in all aspects of remodels, new builds and potential growth.”

You might notice there’s not a day off in there, but thankfully Brock loves his job. “It is so hard for me to think about [another career], because this is all I have ever wanted to do,” he says. “[My sisters and I] never had any pressure to be in the business, but there is nothing more exciting than Hollywood.”

In terms of expansion and renovation, Brock admits that he trends towards the bullish end of the spectrum. “I have a lot of passion and energy… I want a project to happen and happen now.” It’s his grandparents, Elmer and Sterling, who taught him patience, and that “everything will come in time, and if it doesn’t work out there will always be another opportunity around the corner.” From his father, Bob, came a related lesson: “Never burn a bridge with anyone.”

“This is a big/small industry,” Brock adds. “Everyone knows each other, and everyone hears everything. It is important to be kind to everyone… Along those same lines, we have always tried to never build directly against another theatre chain or independent theatre. The idea of building down the street from someone is not who we are. Our development page says that we won’t build within a four-mile radius of anyone, and we never have. There is always an emerging market that doesn’t have a theatre. We pass on countless projects every year because they are too close to another operator.”

The importance Brock places on the value of community extends to his work with NATO, where he serves on the Government Relations Committee, and Young NATO, of which he is a board member. But not being cutthroat when it comes to business doesn’t mean Brock—and B&B Theatres in general—is willing to sit back and let the industry pass him by. B&B has long been an early adopter when it comes to technology. “We were the second circuit in the nation to sign on with the Cinedigm self-financing program, thus we were one of the first circuits to become 100-percent digital,” Brock explains.

The innovations keep on coming. “We are working hard to upgrade our existing locations,” Brock says. “We want to build new, but we [also] have some great properties that are in fantastic locations that have a lot of potential, pending a remodel.”

Approximately 20% of B&B’s locations have been refitted with recliner seating, with an additional four slated for this fall. In terms of new technologies, Brock’s a big fan of laser projection, HDR and 4DX, though he warns against impulsively throwing down beaucoup bucks. “Those decisions boil down to cost and ROI. Can we pay for the exciting new technology? I am a big advocate for tangible items. What can a customer touch, feel and see? Customers can feel recliners and they can experience 4DX. To me that is important because they just get it,” he argues. “If an auditorium has too many features, it can be confusing to customers. How do you explain to a customer (quickly) about 8K, lasers and [Dolby] Atmos?  Don’t get me wrong, I want to do it all, but each expenditure needs to be justifiable.”

Busy Bee: Brittanie Bagby Baker, VP of Business Affairs

A typical day in the life of Brittanie Bagby Baker can be described by one word, and, typical to B&B Theatres, it starts with a “b”:busy. As the VP of business affairs, Baker makes sure the B&B ship runs smoothly, among other duties serving as a liaison between different corporate departments and between corporate and operations.

Basically, “I spend a lot of time managing big projects that require coordination between various departments,” Baker explains. “For example, we just launched a new menu for our dine-in suites, so managing coordination between operations, our concessions team, marketing and IT was crucial, but we saw it through to deployment. I have a hand in everything from our concession offerings to our accounting methods. We’re a family business, so we dive in and tackle anything that needs to be done!”

That “anything that needs to be done” includes adding new PLF screens, dine-in food options and alcohol to existing theatres, as well as planning for new builds. B&B Theatres currently boasts seven PLF screens (including IMAX and B&B’s own Grand Screen), with six more in the works. Fourteen locations serve alcohol, and there are three dine-in locations, three theatres with “fast-service food” and two drive-ins with grills.

The key, Baker explains, is acting strategically. A dine-in theatre doesn’t work for every market, and attempting to retrofit a theatre with a PLF screen when the auditorium layout isn’t right doesn’t benefit anyone. “We aren’t going to disappoint customers by calling something a Grand Screen if it’s not… Grand! That said, customers are seeking out our Grand Screens, and we are working to ensure they deliver.”

While her father and brother are more “focused on remodels and expansion,” Baker explains, she’s “focus[ed] on updating our processes within the corporate office so we are best suited for our long-term growth. We continue to work on ways to integrate our software, automate processes and have better reporting so we can handle whatever Brock and Dad dream up!”

So far, B&B has been successful in that regard, carving out a niche for it in both large and small markets. “The nice thing about small markets is that there is less of a chance of competition, and smaller communities really rally behind the theatre. In large markets, we have to compete with other theatres and more entertainment options, but we have a larger customer base from which to draw. At the end of the day, we are striving in all locations to give the customers the best moviegoing experience possible.”

Looking Ahead: Bobbie Bagby Ford, VP of Marketing

From television to videogames to web content, there’s an ever-growing slate of content that works to lure potential audience members away from the silver screen. As B&B Theatres’ VP of marketing, it’s Bobbie Bagby Ford’s job to get moviegoers off their sofas and into theatres. Challenging? Sure, she acknowledges, “but that is what keeps it fun!”

For Ford, work isn’t some nine-to-five slog, counting down the minutes until it’s time to leave and you can go do something you actually like. The movie business is, and always had been, “our world,” says Ford, speaking of her and her siblings. “It was our dinner conversation. When both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts and parents are involved, how can it not be? I learned so much just listening to my family talk. My parents and grandparents never sheltered us from the business; it was a part of who we were.”

On weekends, the family would pile into their motor home and go check on theatres. “Visiting my Grandpa Sterling usually meant a trip to his shop or (better yet) a theatre construction site.” (Disney World what?) On her mother’s side of the family, Elmer Bills, Jr., or “Papa Elmer,” hosted “film school nights,” where Ford and her siblings would “watch an old movie and then discuss it, and usually hear stories of when it opened in his theatre. I treasure those memories and movie knowledge.”

That knowledge—of movies and the exhibition industry—helps Ford tease out in moviegoers the same enthusiasm for movies she herself feels. Social media is key here; it “most definitely plays a role in our marketing strategy.” B&B maintains active Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts, enabling the circuit to communicate with customers, promote upcoming releases, host movie-themed giveaways (hint: people like free stuff), and advertise deals like $2 Tuesday, which lets B&B loyalty club members purchase deeply discounted concessions.

Social media is “ever-changing, which makes it fun and exciting,” Ford believes. “I love watching Facebook insights translate to hard ticket sales! The game of it is exhilarating. The industry must keep evolving and changing. We strive to be on the cutting edge of the industry and marketing.”

Do that, Ford believes, and the exhibition business has nothing to fear from Netflix, Hulu or whatever else the world decides to throw at them. “By finding ways to be innovative, we are combatting those other options and seeing the results,” she notes. “And my Grandpa Sterling always said: ‘Everyone has a kitchen table, but they still go out to dinner from time to time.’ We all know that nothing beats a night at the movies. I’m not worried. As long as we stay on top of our game, work hard and love what we do, the future looks bright.”