The Evolution of Entertainment: Third-generation exhibitor Mitchell Roberts goes big with Texas destination center

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Cinemas Features

In recent years, Film Journal International has been reporting on the concept of family entertainment centers—complexes that offer not only movie theatres but a range of other fun options like bowling, arcade games and laser tag, along with restaurants and bars. Third-generation exhibitor Mitchell Roberts, the grandson of Cinemark founder and chairman Lee Roy Mitchell, has followed the trend, but he knew he wanted to bring something different to his inaugural business venture: family entertainment done up big…you know, Texas-style.

“My whole family’s been in the theatre business, and when I was about 16 or 17, I decided that was what I wanted to do as well,” the genial 20-year-old entrepreneur explains. “That’s when I got into management with my dad’s theatres [the 40-screen Texas Cinemas chain, owned by Mitchell’s dad, David Roberts]. “When I was 18, we were up at my grandfather’s ranch and I was fishing with him, and we were talking about the new craze of family entertainment centers with the bowling and games. And I said, ‘It’s just entertainment, it’s just like movies. It’s all the same thing.’ And the more we got to thinking, we thought: What if it was the same thing? What if we did put a movie theatre on top of bowling and games and a restaurant, and create kind of a one-stop shop for entertainment? That was the birthplace of that idea.

“I went home and thought: Damn, I really like that idea! I told my dad about it, and for another year we mulled it over and finally decided we were going to make it a reality. We saw a couple of theatres that had combined bowling and stuff, but we really wanted to do it big. Nobody had done it big yet. We originally designed an 85,000-square-foot, but that was a little too big. So we ended up doing a 70,000-square-foot building.”

That venture, which opened in November 2014 in Kyle, Texas, is called Evo Entertainment. Located on the I-35 Corridor some 20 minutes south of Austin, the complex features 11 movie theatres, 14 bowling lanes, a 3,500-square-foot game arcade, Hardihoods Bar & Grill, and spaces for parties and corporate events. The complex was designed by longtime Cinemark collaborator Beck Architecture.

Roberts has actually been part of the family business for over a decade, thanks to a precocious entrepreneurial instinct. As he tells it, “For Christmas when I was maybe nine or ten, my grandfather gave me an arcade game. I played with it for a couple of weeks, and then I called him one day—I was really embarrassed and kind of ashamed. I said, ‘I don’t want you to be mad at me, I really appreciate the gift, but would you be upset if I put it in one of my dad’s theatres and made money off of it?’ He just started laughing and said, ‘Why would I be upset? Good thinking!’ So me and my dad drew up a contract and did a 50-50 split. Fifty percent of the revenue was considered rent, and I’d go in every week, empty the games and write up a report.”

Arcade games are a very lucrative part of Evo’s overall business; Roberts has apparently chosen the selection well. “If there’s one thing I do know, it’s games. I had a lot of help from Brian Cohen—he runs my grandfather’s company iTz Pizza and Pinstack as their director of operations. We both got started in arcade games, and we mulled over a list of the entire array of options.”

Which are the most popular? “Redemption games are big,” Roberts reports, “the whole idea of playing a game and getting points or winning prizes in return. Also, big, giant, flashy games are always popular, because they’re almost a destination in themselves—we have some games that are twenty feet tall!”

As for who is playing those games, “There are a lot of families, but there are also a lot of Millennials and adults. If you do it right, the adults will come out and play the games just as much as the kids do.”

Roberts chose Kyle as his debut location for several reasons. “A lot of that had to do with where the rest of our theatres were. We’re in Central Texas, so up and down the I-35 corridor works well for us in terms of operations. The other thing is that Kyle is a fast-growing family market. We had been mulling over the idea of putting a theatre there for a really long time and decided: Why not try the new concept there?”

The young exhibitor describes himself as “extremely close” to his father and grandfather and values the lessons they’ve taught him. “It’s a different lesson every day. A lot to do with running theatres, but the biggest is just staying humble and staying connected to your customers and understanding that we’re in the business of entertaining people and creating an escape. It’s not always about your dollar, it’s about making people happy. That’s one of the things I’ve taken to heart, that I really appreciate learning from them.”

He’s also absorbed a strong belief in the power of showmanship. “Back in the day, going to the movies was a big deal for a family: We’re going out, we’re dressing up, we’re going to watch a show, and the people at the box office are friendly and polite and engage with you, and you get your popcorn from this happy person who asks about your day… It was a fun family outing. Now you go to the movies and it’s kind of generic. You walk in and get your ticket and watch the movie and that’s it. It’s kind of a problem—a lot of operators have forgotten or overlooked the aspect of show business. We’re just as much in show business as Hollywood is. Hollywood creates the content, but we create the experience. That’s something I like to preach about—bringing show business back, really focusing on the entertainment experience instead of just putting a picture on the screen.”

To enhance the experience, Roberts says he stages theme nights at least twice a month. A prime example is Evo’s recent “Ladies Night” tied into Magic Mike XXL. Guests walked the Dolby Atmos Red Carpet, where staff snapped their photos; visitors were then encouraged to post their pictures on social media for a chance to win a Kindle Fire HDX. Raffle drawings also gave away “Family Night Out” packages, gift cards and Magic Mike and Dolby Atmos swag. Three Olives Vodka provided portable bars inside the EVX premium auditorium, serving MMXXL-themed cocktails such as “XXL Colada” and “Mikes Hard Berries.” There was also a complimentary beauty bar inside the auditorium, where Salon Mink employees provided hair styling and makeup consultation. And Ladies Night guests enjoyed complimentary sweets from the restaurant all night long and each left with an MMXXL mini-one-sheet. “It was one of the most fun events I’ve ever been a part of,” Roberts says of the night, which got 2,500 views on Facebook.

We also do little things each week,” Roberts adds. “At least once a week we have themed cocktails and drinks for different movies coming out. In all our plush games we’ll put Minions plush or Jurassic Park plush or Avengers stuff. We try to cross-market and expand the experience outside the auditorium into the whole building.”

As a young exhibitor, Roberts is especially keen on social media. “That’s where we spend most of our marketing efforts. It creates an opportunity for direct connection with your guests, whether it’s feedback on what you’re doing, or ideas for how you can be better, or just general conversation to keep them thinking about you. A lot of companies make their Facebook pages and blast out generic messages, almost like you would on a billboard. But they’re forgetting what social media was made for—social media wasn’t made for marketing, it was made for people connecting to each other, and it has kind of developed into a marketing tool. So what we did was revert back to its original purpose and said, ‘Evo is now a person.’ It was a strange thought in the beginning: The company in legal form is an entity, but in a personal form, not really. We spent a long time deciding what kind of attitude Evo was going to have, what kind of person would Evo be. We set strict guidelines for how we would interact with our guests as a person would. It’s really fun! Our guests appreciate it and they’re extremely comfortable with us, which is great. They’ll send us a direct message on Facebook: ‘Hey, I went last night. Normally I have a great time, but this happened and I didn’t really like it. Can you tell me what’s going on?’ It’s good feedback, instead of blasting us with a bad review. They communicate with us as a person, instead of a big corporation.”

Roberts has words of caution for any entertainment complex looking to open a restaurant. “Movie people, we don’t realize how easy we have it. Our industry is pretty easy, but a restaurant is hard, really hard.

“We decided to go with the basics—good old American food, with some different twists and flairs. For bowling and dining in the theatres, we wanted stuff that was easy to eat, that wasn’t going to be messy. Everything’s wide open, you can go sit in the restaurant and eat. So you can hop up to the bar and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to a movie, I’d like to order some food that I can carry over there.’ It’s kind of like counter service.”

Some 300 employees answer to Roberts at the Kyle location, quite a responsibility for someone so young. “In the beginning, it was kind of awkward,” he admits. “People thought: He’s just a kid. But once they’ve spent some time with me, they realize that, yeah, I’m a kid but I’ve spent a lot more time in the industry than most grown men have. They start to realize that I know what I’m talking about. It’s all about mutual respect.

“Everyone always says that the energy of a company is passed down from its leadership. So if I have this crazy energy level, I think it’s passed on to the rest of the team. I get e-mails from general managers, assistant managers, all the way down to the high-school kids at the bowling lanes. They’ll shoot me an e-mail if they have an idea or they feel there’s a problem. We’re very open and close-knit.”

Evo Entertainment’s reputation has grown so quickly, it recently hosted a visit from International Cinema Technology Association delegates during their recent Business Retreat in Austin. “All the feedback I’ve gotten has been extremely positive,” Roberts notes. “I’m really blessed to hear their great comments and compliments.”

Technologically savvy [see our vendor sidebar below for details on projection and sound], Roberts was especially determined to land some cutting-edge devices for his arcade room. “There was this new technology that had been pitched to me,” he recalls, “but technically it wasn’t ready yet. And, man, I wanted it bad. It was NFC technology—near field communications, so instead of a swipe or coins, you just touch your card to the game and it reads the information through the air. I thought that was cool, I had never seen it before, and I remember arguing with my dad about it. He said, ‘We’re not going to be the guinea pig, there’s no other place like that.’ And I remember turning around and snapping at him, ‘Yes, there is! There’s one in South Korea!’ I won that argument and we went with the NFC, and man, I love it. There’s so much you can do with it.”

At press time, Roberts was about to announce a second Evo location, and he has a third in the works. “You have to have a perfect original before you can make decent copies,” he reflects. “But I think we’re really on track.”

 

Supplying Evo Entertainment

Seats:Irwin Seating

Screens:
 Harkness

Front Ends, Drapery & Masking:Soundfold

Projectors:Barco

Servers:GDC

Audio Processors:Dolby for Dolby Atmos,USL for 7.1 Audio

Amplifiers:QSC

Speakers:JBL

3D:RealD

Projection & Audio Installation: Moving Image Technologies (MiT)

Auditorium Lighting:Tempo

Dimmers:Moving Image Technologies (MiT)

Concession Equipment:Gold Medal Products

POS:TicketSoft

Digital Signage:Texas Digital

Stanchions & Extra Candy Racks:Lavi Industries

Bowling:Brunswick Bowling Corp. 

Arcade Games: Betson, Redemption Plus, Sureshot Redemption

Architect: Beck Architecture