Independent Spirit: Damon Rubio brings high standards to his small California circuit
“I will never forget my waiting in line for four hours to see Star Wars. That movie transformed me, it’s why I am in the business today,” states Damon Rubio, president of D’ Place Entertainment. That single experience surely played a role in Rubio’s current leadership status, managing his own new federation of theatres.
Born and reared in Anchorage, Alaska, he never believed he would someday be in the exhibition industry as he set his sights on theatrical set design and ambitions in the Hollywood production arena. But his first job as a theatre employee at Mann Theatres changed his entire motivation, as the exhibition industry became a part of his lifeblood. Today he is one of America’s new exhibition stars, reversing the trend of independents leaving the industry and instead building a company based on bringing a magical experience to movie fans.
Rubio’s decision to follow his family from Alaska to California a few days after he graduated from high school would forever change his career path. His father had relocated the family to Anchorage to become the first Dean Witter executive in Alaska, but his mother was not a fan of the cold and dark Alaska winters. So the family decided in the summer of 1988 to make the move south. Damon himself was ready for a new experience and warmer weather. “I had a wonderful life, I loved Alaska and the outdoors. We did not travel much, as the lower 48 was a trek and it was expensive to fly anywhere, so the opportunity to relocate somewhere new after high school was appealing.”
After 18 years of seasonable cold, he found his college calling at Palomar College in the desert of California. There he majored in theatre design and technical aspects of lighting and sound. “My first job was actually a fluke—I saw an ad for a theatre employee; I thought it was for theatre, not a [movie] theatre,” he laughs. “I really needed a job. The rest is history.”
Damon began his cinema career with Mann Theatres and after three years joined the CinemaStar team, where he earned the position of director of operations. His leadership and management prowess were appreciated by John Ellison and Allen Grossberg and it was not long before they offered him a position as VP of operations at UltraStar Cinemas, their newly formed circuit. During his time at UltraStar, Damon played an integral part in the development of the Ah Chin Entertainment Center that has received so much acclaim for its innovations and introduction of food and beverage alternatives as well as multi-dimensional entertainment opportunities.
After 28 years in the cinema industry, Damon decided to strike out on his own and launched D’ Place Entertainment Group. In 2016, he was able to purchase his first cinema: a single-screen theatre, the Desert Cinema in Cathedral City, CA. Soon after, he had the opportunity to take ownership of the Mary Pickford, a 14-screen cinema in the same city. His efforts led him to renovate the established theatre and expand its amenities in food and beverage and presentation options such as D-BOX, Barco Escape, reserved seating options and recliners. His ambitions are to continue this growth pattern while adding management contracts for other locations in the future.
Rubio leads his team with the goal of extending the theatre experience. For him, a big challenge is “continuing to expand the food offerings at our cinemas in a way that allows us to consistently produce good-quality products in the volume we need while [still] appealing to the guests’ tastes… I like the thought of our own fast-casual concepts similar to ‘Chipotle’ style being available in our facilities. Incorporating freshness with fast-casual speed and volume capabilities.” Rubio does point out that we need to be conscious of the numbers we serve and yet realistic about the functions of the concession stand.
Damon has always viewed presentation as the premium value proposition. “I want the guest to be able to see the product and even see how it is made. I work very much on the idea of keeping things in clear view of the guest.” This conviction is the foundation of the D’ Place Entertainment philosophy; transparency is the value-added aspect of Rubio’s leadership qualities. “I consider myself a pragmatic business showman,” he reminds us. “There is a certain logical side of me that transfers concrete practices that erect a business model, yet there is the creative artistic delivery I want that appeals to the guest needs.”
So what drives Rubio to be a loyal activist for our industry? “Well, I think the cliché about loving what you do and you never work a day in your life [has been] very true for me, and as I continue to learn more and more about the industry and as I continue to take on new challenges, it has become a natural side effect that allows me to stay competitive in the industry.”
Along with his love of Star Wars and the movies, Rubio has an affinity for the outdoors, hiking and camping. He hopes one day to see Fiji, and if not Fiji, then Ireland. (We take it he likes islands.) As for his favorite movie snack, “Give me my Chicago Style Cheese and Caramel Corn Mix!” Damon won’t commit to a favorite actor or actress, as there are so many that he appreciates. Like a true technician, he prefers to stick to the mechanics of cinema, not the politics.
Damon and wife Nicole have two daughters, Natalie and Allison.