Ironman with a Gold Heart: Variety of Texas honors Cinemark’s Steve Zuehlke

Cinemas Features

“I hope to have everybody understand that this is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful charity.” Steve Zuehlke, executive VP of global operations at Cinemark USA and 2016 “Texan of the Year” honoree is not holding back when it comes to praising the work of Variety-The Children’s Charity. “It’s the industry charity. It does great work. It’s done great work since its inception.”

As the Texas chapter is celebrating its 80th anniversary and honoring Zuehlke with a gala as the centerpiece of the Theatre Owners of Mid-America’s CinéShow, he muses whether “the founding members actually even thought that this would be…what it is today. From small beginnings and small, good steps come huge things.”

As we caught up with Zuehlke, he was taking “a bit of a break” in Lake Placid, New York. “If you call doing an Ironman a break,” he adds with a chuckle. His competing in this endurance-testing event actually provides a good introduction to the philosophy that drives him in his work, be it for charity or at Cinemark. “I’ve got to have something to shoot for. I can’t just go in a gym and run on the treadmill. I need something to go for.”

In this particular Ironman race, friendship provided the motivation. “I had almost decided to hang up my shoes and have my bike cleaned, so to speak. Then my friend, Tom Hulsey, who had prostate cancer surgery a year ago, asked me if I would train with him in order to compete for this race and that was a personal goal of his. This is my sixth and his tenth Ironman. When we started, I said ‘Okay, instead of just training with him, I will actually go to the race and will compete with him.’” For a good cause, of course. Hulsey is a spokesman for ZERO—The End of Prostate Cancer.

For Variety–The Children’s Charity, Steve Zuehlke has been taking equally big steps, as Randy Hester attests in our sidebar. Speaking about “the greatest financial impact,” the Variety of Texas president and chief executive officer names the annual Gold Heart Pin campaign. “Before 2008, Cinemark sold about $100,000 each year. Then Steve took over and made it a priority. The following year, sales doubled, and since then, Cinemark has sold over $5 million in Variety Gold Heart pins in their theatres.”

“It’s not a one-man thing,” Zuehlke insists about facilitating and “making sure that we as a company and even as the industry try to raise a lot of money for some folks who really need help.” The recognition may have his name on the award, he reflects, “but it actually goes to our team and all those wonderful kids that work for us. When you start telling them the story of what Variety is all about, they get so behind the fundraising that they have a wonderful competition going… It’s a celebration of them getting behind a great cause and doing something good…and that is just a totally cool thing.” Not surprisingly, Zuehlke says sales on marvelous amounts of Minions last summer, and “being able to raise that much money on that pin series was just amazing and wonderful.”

There is a lot of his heart as well going into the Variety Gold Heart pins. Zuehlke calls the following encounter an “inspiration” as he relays the story of one of Cinemark’s young ushers in Florence, Kentucky: “Being in a motorized scooter, he had some challenges. Nonetheless, he made sure that he was selling for ‘kids who need the help,’ as he would tell everyone. For me, wow, that was really powerful. And he was just absolutely beaming and as happy as he could be…”

Zuehlke also beams when talking about his 43 years in the industry. First off, he mentions Wally Kemp of Commonwealth Theatres, where he “got his start” at the Grand Theatre in Grand Island, Nebraska, a registered not-for-profit today operated by volunteers. “He was huge into Variety and huge into Will Rogers. When you get a start early in your formative years—I was 14 when I started working at the Grand—that kind of commitment becomes part of your foundation. It is just very easy to continue from there on.” Zuehlke offers more credit: “Dale Stewart, Dick Orear, Darrell Manes and Web Meredith—all of those folks from Commonwealth continued that same tradition, because Variety is the charity of our industry. At Mann Theatres it was Bob Pennock, city manager in Fort Collins, Nebraska. All that support and commitment obviously carries all the way through at Cinemark today.”

Zuehlke mentions Tim Warner and Lee Roy Mitchell, who was also honored by Variety of Texas back in 2001. “To be able to use our ‘operational/organizational’ abilities for support, has made it very easy,” he says. “I received an early introduction to Variety and a consistent reinforcing of the importance of supporting the industry's charity, starting over four decades ago… To not give back would feel, well, selfish.”

Zuehlke started his career in high school, so can we assume he never wanted to do anything else but be in the movie theatre business? “I didn’t think it was going to lead to anything as far as financially successful,” Zuehlke admits. “So I went to college, got my degree in political science and economics. I was going to be a lawyer.” But as he “got the theatre bug early,” Zuehlke was so inspired by Wally Kemp “and how much fun he had doing his job. You know, it sounds kind of corny and it’s only a two-hour break for people… But, at the end of the day, you are making people smile. For whatever reason, they come into the theatre—if it’s on a date or for a family movie or to have the wits scared out of them, whatever—it’s a great break. You know, if you can make a living out of making people happy, gosh, that’s a pretty cool thing. I think I like my job here more now than had I been a lawyer, because I keep getting to make people happy all the time.”

Is that not the hardest part in operations, to keep people happy? Calling the answer “very easy,” the number-one priority for Zuehlke and his team is guest experience. “You cannot take your focus off the guest experience. That literally goes from the front door, the curb appeal, if you will, and the drive up, all the way through the entire process, step-by-step. We have to pay attention to all those details because that’s where the devil will live. From the interaction at the box office, to the tasty snacks and making sure that they are ready on time, to the smiling employees, to air and temperature in the auditorium… You need to make sure that the show spacing is right and house placement is right and that the auditoriums are cleaned on time. Guest experience covers all those little details, because any one of them can become a speed bump… We need to get all of those out of the way of customers so that when they are done and they are heading back to their car, they will be talking about the movie and about being with family and friends… I want the show to be the show.”

Returning to TOMA’s CinéShow, and with Steve Zuehlke’s commitment to Variety well documented, one question remains about the award. How does a Nebraska man become a Texan? While having run theatres across seven states, including for Mann Theatres while attending Colorado State University, it was Santikos Theatres that first brought Zuehlke to Texas. “When Cinemark hired me away in 1988, they send me out to Utah before bringing me back into Dallas in 1994. So, after a couple of decades,” he chuckles, “I guess they think I am close enough to a Texan.” (For more thoughts from Variety on that, see our sidebar.)

Does that include wearing cowboy boots? “Yes, in fact. My wife is from Steamboat Springs and she grew up on a 1,600-acre ranch. For a short while we had a small horse ranch. And you know what they say about how to make a small fortune in the horse business? Start with a big one,” he relays the answer. “So, we got out of that business pretty quick. But we love the outdoors and we love all things Western. So, Texas kind of fits real close.” Even as he has traveled far and wide. Zuehlke holds the distinction of being the only remaining Cinemark employee who helped open theatres in every country in which Cinemark has ever operated, in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Taking that well-rounded, broader view, how does Steve Zuehlke see the future of moviegoing? “With technology, Moore’s Law tells us the computing cycles are just going to go faster and faster and faster.” With that, he wonders, “What are Hollywood and our creative folks going to be able to do with storytelling and for movies in movie theatres? There will be a time when the experience that we offer is going to be much more immersive than just on a single flat screen. Even with 3D, which is wonderful technology, and everything else, what are those artists going to create?” For Zuehlke, the answer is clear and his goal defined with it. “Something that is experiential and that people in a communal entertainment can enjoy together. And in three to five years, who knows what they are developing? But I want to make sure that we are ready at Cinemark, technologically and with everything else.”


Saluting Steve Zuehlke

Randall L. Hester, president and CEO of Variety-The Children's Charity of Texas, reflects on this year’s “Texan of the Year” honoree:

What makes Steve Zuehlke a Texan?

Over the years we have presented the award—the trophy is a huge cowboy boot—to many deserving people, including Wayne Lewellen, Chuck Viane, Jeff Goldstein, Lee Roy Mitchell, Steve Holmes, Tom Stephenson, Frank Liberto, Richie Fay, Juli Mitchell and Mark Gaines. Essentially, to qualify, in addition to being an industry leader, you must display the attributes of a true Texan—such as courage, integrity and perseverance, much like the Founding Fathers of the Great State of Texas.

That boot certainly fits Steve. Please provide some examples of how he and Cinemark have helped Variety.

Ever since Cinemark became a company, they have supported Variety. That is a direct result of the leadership of Lee Roy Mitchell and his wife, Tandy. That support has never wavered and has spread throughout the entire company. Over the years, Cinemark has been our largest corporate contributor through the sale of Variety Gold Heart pins and via sponsorships of various events. They have graciously included us as one of the charities benefiting from their annual fundraiser. In addition, Cinemark raised all of the funding for a single-screen theatre at our 122-acre Variety’s Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children, complete with stadium seating, digital projection and sound, concession stand and game area. Located near Killeen, Texas, about 90 miles north of Austin, we serve about 6,000 children with special needs every year.

What was your favorite moment with Steve?

There have been many… Last year at the Variety International World Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Steve accepted a Variety Corporate Award for Cinemark’s support. He delivered one of the most passionate and eloquent speeches I have ever heard. I was bombarded with compliments to pass along to him by the delegates. The most impactful part to me was when he referred to Variety as “family.” That is what Variety is to the entertainment industry: family.”

What are some of the plans at Variety of Texas for your 80th-anniversary year?

At our Gala we will take a trip down memory lane with photos and videos from the past. We have some great shots of Coach Tom Landry and Roger Staubach dancing with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders at our 1976 Variety of Texas Telethon. We also have a scrapbook filled with letters, telegrams, news articles, etc. from Joan Myrlik [Baby Catherine Variety Sheridan]. Her son, Mike, is on our board of directors.