Celebration! at CinemaCon: NATO chairman John Loeks looks forward to opening the big tent

Cinemas Features

“Well, it’s a great privilege.” NATO executive board chairman John D. Loeks is both grateful and humble when asked about his key position at our industry’s trade association. When 2016 NATO Marquee Award recipient David Passman’s term ended last fall, NATO and the nominating committee realized that “it had been a while since the owner-chief executive of a mid-size circuit had served in the role as chairman.” Heading Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Celebration! Cinema as chief executive officer, Loeks was indeed the right man for the job. “Yeah, it was an uncontested election,” he chuckles. “I’ve been serving on the board for quite a long time. So everybody looked around the room and said, ‘John could do it.’”

Humor aside, representing not only a mid-size but also regional chain with 12 locations and 156 screens in five markets, jointly attracting some 5.5 million guests each year, gives Loeks the right perspective. “We are in a position where we understand everything from this smaller side of our circuit. But then we understand the issues faced by larger circuits as well, because Celebration! is big enough to encounter all the same issues.”

About the regional aspect of the family business, Loeks notes that he actually spent more time at National NATO than at NATO of Michigan. “I try to remain active, of course, in both departments and stay abreast of all of the issues facing my home state. Michigan is somewhat of an unusual market in that our market is not really dominated by the large circuits,” he explains. “Looking around, we’ve got NCG, Emagine, MJR, Goodrich,” he names a few. “Obviously, AMC has a big part to play in the market as well as some of the other national chains. By far the majority of moviegoing experiences across Michigan are offered by family- and privately owned circuits, however.” And everybody gets along? “I think we are friendly competitors. We all know each other and I have enjoyed good relationships with virtually all competitors here.”

Assuring that type of friendly competitiveness on a national scale sounds harder to achieve. Is that part of Loeks’ job as board chairman? “Bringing people together, while being open and transparent, is really an ongoing task for any trade association. And it’s certainly a big part of what we are trying to achieve in the context of NATO.”

Loeks mentions CinemaCon as “one of our big priorities, of course. CinemaCon represents an important income stream to NATO, to be sure, but it also brings together every element of the business in what I call ‘open tent.’ One that is open to all exhibitors large and small, including many international exhibitors. It is open to all vendors and suppliers—and it is open to all distributors to come in—and for all to bring out their best products.” Bringing everybody together, Loeks believes, is “one of the reasons that CinemaCon has been so successful and continues to grow.”

John Loeks goes on to credit the team in creating that success. “I am just really thrilled that we have great leadership with Mitch Neuhauser running that entire operation. He is doing a superb job. More generally, John Fithian has proved to be an excellent president-CEO of NATO. I just have to compliment him on how he keeps things moving forward in a positive direction, and with constant improvements. So those two guys and the Association employees are doing a really, really good job.”

From his “side” job organizing a variety of premier consumer shows as part of his ShowSpan business, Loeks brings no small amount of expertise to the Las Vegas proceedings. Walking the halls at Caesars Palace, he will be taking plenty of notes. “I am looking forward to seeing a lot of tradeshow booths in many different categories. I want to be sure that we are treating all of the movie studios fairly and getting them under our roof with robust programs. And of course, like everybody else, I would want to talk to many of the other exhibitors in the industry and find out what new ideas they are trying out, how that is working for them.”

There are a handful of trends, topics and challenges on his mind that Loeks foresees discussing. “First, we are all concerned with presentation issues. Lately, there has been a big move on seating and re-seating our auditoriums. Of course, that follows the move to digital projection, which we adopted early at Celebration! That’s kind of old history for us here. Expanded food and beverages is another important area. We are deep into the process of obtaining liquor licenses for virtually all of our megaplex theatres… Bringing better and more food choices to our theatres, while a constant focus, is not easy to do,” he cautions. “There are many different approaches to it and we have tried several different ones. That is another one of the things that we are working on.”

Expanding content offerings is another goal. “Especially with our larger megaplex theatres, we have much greater ability to do events,” he adds. “Our core business, of course, is and always will be movies and getting good movies here. But we also want to be known as a place where people can gather for anything from business meetings to concerts. We have been doing pretty good business with the Metropolitan Opera already and are looking at live streaming of theatrical events and the like.”

The final item involves what Loeks calls an “elevated concern” for community at Celebration! “Community Connections, as we call it, involves relating well with other businesses in town and finding unusual ways to help nonprofit groups and to serve them.” Not surprisingly, the premiere of The Polar Express at Celebration! North Theatre involved “one of my favorite memories of my own engagement in the business.” The film opened two weeks prior to the wide release at the IMAX auditorium with a gala dinner to benefit the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Make-a-Wish Foundation, amongst others. “Five auditoriums were sold out and the IMAX screen was full,” he proudly recalls about raising $1.3 million for charity. “We think that is a fundraising record for a one-night event in the city of Grand Rapids. That was a marvelous experience and I will always cherish that with all of our partners and with Warner Bros., who permitted us to do that.”

Going “deep into my history of watching movies” brings Loeks back to the balcony of the Midtown Theater in downtown Grand Rapids. “It has since been torn down and replaced by a parking structure. My father [John ‘Jack’ Loeks] would go into his office and I would be sitting in the balcony during the afternoon. One day when we were showing War of the Worlds, I was scared out of my mind.” Going into the office, he remembers his father saying, “John, it’s just a movie.”

While that was the first theatre in the family chain—together with son JD Loeks and daughter Emily, “we have three current family members that are deeply engaged in the business—John D. Loeks’ favorite today is Celebration! North. “It is our flagship and one of our largest theatres. It is one of the most complex and complicated theatres, which includes banqueting facilities and restaurants through our tenants. It includes an IMAX screen and a very large lobby. We do lots of community events here and originated a program that marketed our IMAX to school groups. During the first year, we had 60,000 children coming on yellow buses during the daytime.” That program was developed by Emily, who continues her position as director of community affairs, with JD Loeks as president of Loeks Theatres, Inc.

The way he tells it, NATO sounds a lot like family too. As chairman of the executive board, Loeks also chairs the advisory board and the general membership meeting. “Those are all routine things that chairmen in most organizations do, but I am trying to be very active on all of our committees as well. Much of the important work of NATO happens at the committee level. I personally serve on the audit committee, which provides a good look at the overall organization. NATO also has a legal affairs committee called a committee of counsel. We have a finance committee. We have government affairs, operations. All are really important, and as chairman I intend to stay deeply involved.”

Equally important to Loeks is that “we maintain a strong relationship with the MPAA, especially for the sake of defending our movie rating system and improving it as we go along. Part of my role is to maintain a good relationship with our distributors and the studios. I recently returned from a trip to California where I met with almost all of the studio heads,” he notes. “We want to have an open door, together with the ability to pick up the phone to talk to each other should issues arise that are of mutual interest.”

Finally, he has made finding ways to grow attendance a priority, “not just for our company, but broadly for the industry at large,” Loeks assures. “How can we grow our business? How do we get people coming into our theatres?”

Looking at the past 12 months or so, “it's hard not to be in good spirits.” John Loeks knows some problem or other is certainly waiting on the horizon, “but we just came through such a terrific year. I’ve got to say we finished up 2015 with some records at Celebration! as well, starting out 2016 in really good shape. Although this year is going to be a bit more of a struggle,” he cautions, “overall we are all feeling very positive about this business. At Celebration! Cinema, we are in the theatre business for the long haul and look forward to making another transition to the next generation.”