Diamond Celebration: Ray Boegner marks 30 years at Ballantyne Strong

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Ray Boegner is celebrating 30 years at Omaha, Nebraska-based Ballantyne Strong, Inc.—a span of time that has seen dramatic changes for both that cinema equipment company and the entire movie exhibition business. But Ballantyne Strong has skillfully maneuvered through the transition from 35mm film to the digital world and continues to thrive as a leading force in cinema technology, with Boegner applying his experience and expertise as senior VP of projection and display.

Film Journal International had the pleasure of interviewing this affable and well-liked industry veteran, whose life has taken him from the wide-open spaces of Montana to Vietnam, from a service technician at Oscar-winning Optical Radiation Corporation to his current tech guru status in Omaha.

So tell us about your beginnings and how you became involved with this industry.

I was born and raised in a small town in southwestern Montana [named Dillon], which oddly enough is the same town where Tim Warner, Cinemark's CEO, attended college. In fact, Tim used to eat the strawberry pie at the restaurant where my mom worked! My career in sales actually started there as a paperboy, going in and out of bars trying to get drunken sheepherders to buy the Montana Standard. Upon graduating from high school, I enlisted in the Air Force and ended up spending four and half years serving in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam.

When I completed my military service in 1972, I moved to southern California and went to work for new company called Optical Radiation Corporation, who just so happened to win the Academy Award that year for putting a xenon light source behind a film projector. I had worked on airborne illumination systems in the Air Force, the searchlights that would come off the back of an AC-130 gunship. Optical Radiation Corporation was a bunch of guys that used to work for Electro-Optical Systems, which was part of Xerox at the time—they left and started a company which made searchlights. When I first went to work there, they hired me to be a technician to service the searchlights. And the first day I was there, they said, “You know xenon systems. Can you go over to Consolidated Film Industries? They’re having a problem with this lamphouse that we built.” And next thing I knew, I was servicing movie projectors instead of searchlights. One of my first jobs was installing xenon lamp houses at theatres for the movie The Godfather.

Over the next nine years, I completed my college education while working full time, holding various engineering and sales positions within the company on both the West and East coasts of the U.S. In 1981, I left Optical Radiation and due to a non-compete clause could only moonlight in the cinema industry. So I opted to try selling packaging equipment, which ended up being a financial disaster for me personally but I had a lot of fun and learned a lot about other industries!

In 1982, I went to work for a former co-worker at Optical Radiation, Ron Offerman, who had started his own business called Cinema Film Systems. My title there was vice president of marketing, but that wasn't saying I was important, as there were only four employees in the company to begin with and two of them were Ron and his wife!

In January of 1985, I made the move to Ballantyne, accepting the position of East Coast sales manager even though at that time I lived in Los Angeles. I was promoted to vice president in the early ’90s when Ballantyne tried its hand at providing digital sound systems to the cinema industry. When they were unsuccessful in that endeavor, my concentration shifted to further developing the company's business in the international marketplace.

In 1996, I was promoted to senior vice president of Ballantyne, and the promotion dictated a move from the Los Angeles area to Ballantyne's corporate headquarters in Omaha. A pretty big change from the hustle-bustle of southern California, but I can honestly say the only things I miss are the weather and the short golf season. It is kind of refreshing to have people say "Hello" and "Thank you" and I actually do know my neighbors!

Being in the industry for so many years, you’ve seen it all. What do you think is the biggest innovation of the past 30 years?

I think that far and away the biggest innovation on the equipment side has been the replacement of all the film projectors with digital projectors. From a facility standpoint, the newer buildings have become a destination that people enjoy going to, with marble floors, large concession stands, comfortable chairs and good sound. Forty years ago, the exhibitor’s mindset was how many screens they could cram into an existing big auditorium to make it a multiplex, not really taking into account the comfort of their patrons!

As a person who started with film, what do you think of the new digital technology?

The overall picture presentation of digital projection is fantastic, both day one and three months down the road. The changeover to digital has and will have a big effect on the exhibitor's overall business model. For in the old days they bought a new 35mm projector when they opened the theatre and they never replaced it until after their grandchildren died—they just kept buying parts to keep it running! With the new digital technology, they will need to change the system out realistically every ten years or so as the technology changes and the parts to keep it operating are no longer available.

Do you get nostalgic for 35mm?

Not really. The worst part was during the digital conversion. We installed every digital projector for Regal when they converted—that’s 6,000 some machines. And part of my installment agreement with them was…Okay, we’ll install the digital stuff (we were leasing, not selling), and my idea was: I’ll take back the 35mm stuff and if I can sell it for anything, we’ll split the difference. The sad part about that was to go out into our parking lot and see three or four hundred film projectors and consoles sitting there, rusting, and to think of the tens of thousands of hours that went into building them. The scrap value was nothing—the only things of any value were the copper and the power supplies. Finally, after a couple of thousands of units, I reached an agreement with Regal to start scrapping them locally rather than bringing them back to Omaha.

I never sold a replacement 35mm projector, never. The only cases where I did was when somebody dropped a container, or once a hurricane in Cancun wiped out the theatre. But I never sold one [to replace] a bad projector. We sold a ton of parts and it was a big part of our business.

What major clients have you done business with in the U.S.?

Over the past 30 years I have enjoyed both business and personal relationships with both large and small exhibitors ranging from the "Big Five" to the small guy with a twin theatre out in central Nebraska.

Talk about the changes you've witnessed in the business and at Strong.

I see the exhibitors constantly striving to improve the offerings of their venues. The current trend is luxury reclining chairs and a bar in the lobby that serves alcohol! Twenty some years ago it was stadium seating, then it was digital sound, then the rebirth of 3D, and it will continue to reinvent itself as technologies and trends dictate.

From a Strong standpoint, there have been dramatic changes in the last 30 years. We have gone from the largest manufacturer of 35mm projectors in the world to one of the largest, if not the largest, distributor of complete cinema projection equipment in the world. Personally, I preferred the manufacturing era better, as I always felt we had more control on our future and related businesses. We did make a great acquisition around eight years ago right at the outset of the new 3D era—we bought a premier screen manufacturing company named MDI and it has melded quite nicely into our overall business and is used around the world by exhibitors.

When did you start doing business in the international market?

Strong has been in the international arena for many years and I personally have been involved in that market since joining Strong. My initial concentration was on the Latin American market, then Europe during the ’90s, and a lot of time in Asia over the last several years, especially China.

What do you remember most about the growth of the international market?

New cinema construction in the U.S. has been rather stagnant for some time. It is true that new theatres are opening but on the flip side theatres are closing, so the net increase, if any, is negligible. China, on the other hand, has been opening in excess of 4,000 screens a year for the last three to four years. If you look at real numbers of screens versus population, you would assume that countries like Brazil, China and India are gold mines when it comes to cinema expansion. On paper it looks to be the case, but keep in mind that a large percentage of people in these areas can't afford a movie ticket regardless of the price and have never been to a theatre in their lives!

Where in the global arena are you doing the most business?

While we sell on a global basis, China is our largest single country where we are currently doing business and has been for the last five years.

Where is the growth in motion pictures headed in the next five years?

The cinema exhibition industry is and always has been driven by the quality of the movies that they can offer the public to watch. You can have the nicest theatre in the world with reclining seats, marble floors and great lobby decorations, but if you don't have a movie that someone wants to see, they aren't coming to your palace!

Movies are still an inexpensive form of entertainment, regardless of the price of a popcorn and Coke. Just compare the price of going to a movie to going to a baseball game or other sporting event. As the leases on the buildings built back in the ’90s start running out, the exhibitor is faced with the business decision to renew the lease, walk away or build a new complex. Obviously I prefer the latter, but for this to happen we need a few solid years of good movies so that hope can be given to a return on investment.

How has Ballantyne met the needs of this marketplace?

Historically, Ballantyne has always tried to provide what the cinema industry needed at the time—going back to the ’50s, when Ballantyne manufactured over a half-million drive-in car speakers. In the ’70s, they tried their hand at selling food-service equipment to the cinemas, specifically chicken fryers, only to find out that rats liked chicken bones tossed out of car windows! During the early ’90s, we tried our hand at digital sound, only to succumb to that company in San Francisco whose name is synonymous with cinema sound. When it became inevitable that digital projection was here to stay, Ballantyne teamed up with NEC Japan as a master distributor for the Americas and later China, thus providing a solution for our valued customers. In the later part of 2013, Ballantyne purchased Convergent Media Systems from Sony, thus providing our entry into the lobby-signage segment of the cinema. Ballantyne will continue to adapt to an ever-changing cinema environment as they have for the past 80-plus years, which I have had the privilege of being part of for the last 30 years at the company.

Tell us about meeting your wife…

In the summer of 2003, upon the completion of Cinema Expo in Amsterdam, Phil Rafnson, Mel Hopland, Chuck Goldwater and I decided we were going to try our hand at playing golf in Scotland. It was at the Westin Hotel in Turnberry, Scotland that I ordered a gin and tonic from a young Chinese waitress named Lulu, who would end up becoming my wife nine months later. She was in Scotland completing her internship in hotel and restaurant management while attending Glion Institute in Switzerland. I didn't really golf that well, but the trip changed my life forever and only for the good!

We currently live right off of the 13th green at Pacific Springs Golf Course in Omaha, along with our dog appropriately named Oscar 2. You see, Oscar 1 ran away one night a few years back when Lulu was on her way to New York and I was on my way to Mumbai, India.

Finally, will you be at Ballantyne for another 30 years?

Maybe not 30, but I have every intention of being here for at least another ten. I have no desire to leave.

(Interview conducted by Kevin Lally)

 

Saluting Ray Boegner

“Ray and I have been married for eleven years and life has never been better for us personally. He is, without a doubt, one of the hardest-working individuals I have ever known. He loves the challenges in the cinema industry and has passion for what he does! I wonder sometimes whether he’d rather spend the rest of his life with BTN or with me. Since I’ve known him, his job has always been his top priority, yet somehow he finds time for our family and his friends. He is a man who has a heart of gold and I am truly blessed to be his wife.”

—Lulu Boegner

“In all the trade shows we’ve been to, from Russia to Las Vegas, I’m always amazed to see how many people Ray knows in our business and how good his memory is. You can be sure you’ll get a funny story if you take the time to share a drink or two with Ray! I have personally learned a lot on the business by working with Ray and I want to thank him for that and for all the English lessons he gave me…”

—François Barrette, General Manager, MDI Screen Systems

“I had just started in the industry with a mere two weeks under my belt when I attended my first ShowEast at Merv Griffin’s Resort in Atlantic City in October of 1988. It was my first big meeting with a principal of then United Artists Theatres (the biggest circuit in the world at the time), and to say I was a little nervous would be a huge understatement! Since it was a morning meeting, I was still waiting for the coffee to kick in. As we boarded the elevator to ride up to the suite where the meeting was to be held, who should be in the elevator car but John Wilmers and Ray Boegner. Of course I knew who they were, as they were my biggest competitor and had the lion’s share of the market in our product space! I was introduced and John was his gentlemanly self. When I was introduced to Ray, without missing a beat he said, ‘So you’re the new Mexican they hired?’ As I mentioned, it’s morning and the caffeine still hadn’t worked it’s magic! So with rapier-like wit, I answered, ‘Yes.’

Little did I know that with that first derogatory slur (there would be countless more!), Ray would become one of my best friends and a mentor in an industry that has become my second home! Congratulations, Pumpkin Head, with all the love and respect from your friends at MIT!”

—Joe Delgado, Executive VP, Sales & Marketing, Moving Image Technologies

“Ray Boegner is a long-term partner of GDC and, as such, has made a huge contribution to the success of the company. Words are not enough to express the dedication that he has put into the film industry. His industry expertise and business acumen have been invaluable, and his larger-than-life personality has brightened the lives of all those he has worked with. Now, as Ray celebrates 30 years with Ballantyne Strong, we would like to offer our sincere congratulations. Ray, we wish you all the very best and look forward to working with you for many more years to come.”

—Dr. Man-Nang Chong, Chairman & CEO, GDC Technology

“Ray and I were traveling to Lake Geneva for either the Variety or the Mid States Convention. We flew to Chicago and rented a car. We were carrying our golf clubs because of the tournament at the event. We were at the rental-car place and we were putting our luggage in the car when I hear a loud scream from Ray’s direction. I hurried over to him, and he had closed the car door on his hand. He then drove dripping blood all the way to Geneva, dropped me off at the course, and then went to the hospital. He had seriously crushed his fingers and had to go through quite a bit of therapy to fix things.”

—John Wilmers, Former President & CEO, Ballantyne Strong

“The first time I met Ray, as the new general manager of NEC’s Digital Cinema Division, he came across as gruff, brusque, and ‘I know everyone in exhibition’ assertive. My initial thoughts were mixed between ‘I need to work with this guy’ and ‘How can I work with this guy?’

So much for first impressions! 

From that point in 2008 to now, Ray and I worked on an amazing array of digital-cinema conversion deals. He did indeed know everyone in exhibition! And I learned to follow his lead. He is one of the most persistent, hard-working, loyal and creative people in our business. I owe a huge part of NEC’s success in the North American digital-cinema market to Ray Boegner. He truly changed the game for NEC.

Here’s to Ray Boegner: a true friend, a loyal colleague, a fellow vet and an irrepressible salesman.”

Jim Reisteter, General Manager, Digital Cinema Division, NEC Display Solutionsof America

“Years ago, Ray and I were both in Beijing, China at the BIRTV trade show. This little guy with a Fu Manchu mustache was drawing on a greasy, yellow piece of paper the dimensions of the Strong projector. Ray somehow got a great photo of this guy’s face through the lens turret without him knowing. Ray would have given him the official drawings if he’d have asked. While in China, our host took us and a bunch of others to the Great Wall. It was a really hot afternoon, so when we got on the wall Ray and I walked about 30 to 40 yards to a snack bar and purchased something cool to drink. We sat in the shade, staying cool. That was the extent of our walk. It was way too hot to walk very far. Those that did walk farther came back dripping with sweat.”

—Clint Koch, Sales Director, USL, Inc.