Friend of the Family: Hank Lightstone presides over Bow Tie Film Group

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“Charley and I started working together when we were about around 30 years old.” While politeness prohibited this author from asking Hank Lightstone when that was, suffice it to say that both he and Charley Moss have been at this for a long time. “We have been friends for many, many, years and remained close always, even when we were not working day-to-day together like we are now.”

As president of the Bow Tie Film Group today, Lightstone buys and books film for the 115-year-old chain as well as for Paragon Entertainment, where he is also a partner. Back in the day, after working with Moss for ten years during the first round, Lightstone “went to United Artists Theatres when they purchased half of the Moss theatres. So Charley was a partner with us until I left UATC and he sold the remaining assets to them.”

The two men share more than a long friendship. Just like Charley and Ben–with Benjamin S. Moss and Charles B. Moss, Sr. before them–Hank comes from a long line of exhibitors. “I am third generation in the business, starting out when I was in school, working for my dad and his movie theatre–the Apollo. Not the one on 125th Street in Manhattan,” he adds. “It was just off Delancey Street, on the Lower East Side. Before I was born, my grandfather ran theatres in Manhattan. And my father was actually in the motion picture supply business; he ran a company that worked with theatres across the country. My uncle Lenny was working with Joe Levine and Embassy Pictures,” but it was another one of his father’s brothers that set Hank Lightstone on his professional path. “Uncle Marty was an independent film buyer. He used to work for Don Rugoff before going out on his own. My first booking job was for him.”

Even before that, Hank had already demonstrated his hand at picking winners. “The first movie I booked was called A Thousand Clowns and it became a favorite of mine. I was a theatre manager at the time and had seen the [1965] film at the trade screening. So I asked the general manager, who was also buying for the theatre, to get it. And he did. It turned out to be a house record. Many years ago someone gave me a copy as a gift. I did not realize that it was actually in black-and-white. Well, it made money anyway,” Lightstone laughs.

“There are so many memories,” he sighs when asked about another good moment. “One of my favorites, though, is when we opened E.T. at the Moss’ Movieland on Broadway. We showed it 24 hours around the clock and set house records. What a great memory! We played E.T. for one year at least, and so did Loews on the East Side. It was just an amazing experience for us.” Movies playing for an entire year, in only two Manhattan theatres no less: The business has surely changed. “In those days we did not have multiplexes, obviously,” Lightstone contends. “In New York, we had these big barns that did not have the ability to play multiple film companies. So certain theatres played certain studios exclusively. The Criterion in Times Square was special,” he admits. With the main auditorium first expanded and then split, and tiny theatres carved into the basement, “we had three first-run and four holdover theatres. We basically played Fox, we played Warner Bros. And then Loews, of course, had Paramount and Columbia… UA had Universal. So we all dealt with our own companies.”

Back in those days, there were other “exclusives” as well. If a movie played Radio City Music Hall, one would not see another print until Philadelphia, perhaps. Was that for the better? “If you were right on a movie,” he chuckles, “yes, of course. But if you were wrong, then no! Clearances in New York is where it got interesting,” he continues. “You could open a film exclusive or you went with East Side/West Side or with a 34th Street run. All depending on the film. It was a different world if you talk about across the country.”

In Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, for example, “we probably had a dozen pre-player zones where you just could not play everything. So we needed to have the clearances that were set up. Once we went into multiplexing, however, everybody needed to play everything. When you start building 12-, 14-, 20-screen complexes, you really need to have the ability to play every company.”

With a broad range of Bow Tie cinemas at his booking disposal today, Lightstone says the programming always reflects “the location, the competition, and the demographics of the neighborhood. Bow Tie always had a good group of art theatres that has since increased with the acquisition of Clearview.” Increasing his portfolio in one step created “a different focus than what we had before,” he notes. “Especially in dealing with triples and quads, they are more difficult and demand more attention. In those theatres we try and play more family films and they seem to be more successful.”

And for Lightstone, these theatres also represent a New York homecoming of sorts. After working with Muvico in Florida, he had moved on to Dallas and booked the enlarged Rave Cinemas circuit, where Charley and Ben Moss were investment partners (FJI February 2010). “It is funny you should ask,” he says. “When Bow Tie got involved in the Clearview theatres, it turned out that some of them I had built; others I had at United Artists; many I had competed against; and some I went to when I was a kid. It was a homecoming indeed.”

With a few exceptions, the Bow Tie cinemas are fairly close to everybody’s home base. “Well, we are certainly strong in the greater New York territory,” Lightstone agrees. He believes there are advantages in being a regional player in terms of business and for the Moss family and the Bow Tie team. “I think they need to be able to get in the car and get to the theatre… They do not want to get on a plane for five hours and visit a theatre.”

Is being close to the business and being close-knit as both a family and team the secret to Bow Tie’s success? As someone with a decidedly similar family/business background, not to mention his working with three generations of the Moss family, Hank Lightstone can afford to give us the last word. “It is often very difficult for a father and son to work together,” he assures. “When I worked with Charley and his dad, I was amazed at how well they respected each other and how they appreciated each other. It was not Charles Sr. making all the decisions…  I see the same respect and appreciation of each other’s contributions in Ben and Charley. It is a wonderful way to run this great and storied company. I think that goes a long way toward the success of their business.”