Making a Megaplex: Santikos Entertainment venues build upon founder’s legacy

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Cinemas Features

“We have been gifted with stewardship of an incredible legacy that, if properly managed, will be here 100 years from now.” In our August issue, David Holmes, chief executive officer of Santikos Enterprises, told us that it is “a very big responsibility” to uphold the promise that John T. Santikos made to the people of San Antonio and Houston, Texas. In this edition, Holmes shares an equally exclusive look at how the first and only cinema chain operating as a social enterprise is continuing John Santikos’ legacy of excellence in theatrical exhibition—with all profit supporting a wide range of charitable programs while ensuring that a successful, 105-year-old business remains in operation.

“Mr. Santikos was a very smart man who realized very early on that, when it comes to the family entertainment dollar, he is not necessarily always competing with another movie theatre.” Holmes relays the late entrepreneur’s longstanding motivation for building outstanding entertainment venues. “Movies are competing with a restaurant or a bowling experience or…going out to a bar. For Mr. Santikos it was not so much about, ‘Should I go to Santikos or should I go to AMC?’ Entertainment decisions were more about ‘Do we want to go to the movies or do we want to go to dinner?’”

Already ten years ago, with the opening of the Palladium in San Antonio, John Santikos set out to change the entertainment stage with many firsts. Holmes mentions oversized seats and casual dining opportunities. “He brought in a high-energy bar” before upping the offerings again at the Palladium 22 in Houston. And now, at the new Casa Blanca, which opened to much acclaim on June 9 in San Antonio, Santikos Entertainment options not only include fast casual dining, but also a full-service restaurant and dine-in Bistro auditoriums—alongside classic and expanded concessions, Starbucks and gelato offerings, a sports bar and 16 lanes of bowling, of course. For an expanded list of amenities, please refer to our sidebar.

Did John Santikos always envision going beyond movies at his theatres? Holmes affirms that goal, and is building on the cornerstones of success laid by Santikos, which he identifies as technology and service. “Number one, we will always be the leader in technology,” he declares. Featuring Barco projection systems, Casa Blanca is “the first full-laser digital theatre in the world,” he adds. “We also partnered with Dolby Atmos and Klipsch speakers to create a sound experience that you just cannot replicate. All 2,800-plus seats at Casa Blanca are oversized and six of the auditoriums have full electric recliners. The in-theatre experience is phenomenal because of some of the largest screens in Texas”—at 48 feet high and 90 feet across (14.6 by 27.5 m).

The second way to “differentiate ourselves” is service, Holmes continues. “I realize many people say that, but we are absolutely focused on critical things like cleanliness and the absolute perfection of the service delivery… Really focusing on the guest experience has always differentiated the Santikos model and the brand.” Santikos operations philosophy reaches from “being greeted as you enter the venue and being served without delay once guests arrive at the concession stand, to how well—and quickly—the meal is served inside the auditorium.”

The Santikos legacy is also marked by growth and continually expanding on this very experience in sight, sound and service. Not surprisingly, before his passing John Santikos also “envisioned clear and definite plans for future growth,” Holmes confirms. “We are going to honor those plans and continue to grow the circuit. There are opportunities here in San Antonio and in Houston,” he says, anticipating our next question. “And we may look beyond those venues at some point. It is clear that growing the circuit has always been an absolute point of excitement for the organization and we will carry on that legacy as well.”

“There are areas within our city that, because of really strong growth patterns, are underserved.” He again names Casa Blanca as an example, located in an area called Alamo Ranch. “Mr. Santikos was a master at recognizing those underserved markets and coming to the table with something that was very, very responsive to the needs of the community.” Opening weekend of Casa Blanca, he continues, marked “the number-six box-office grossing theatre in the country,” and within only two weeks “we welcomed over 100,000 guests already,” giving credence to some “tremendous pent-up demand out there.”

At the same time as creating new venues, Holmes assures that Santikos Entertainment remains “careful of not making our existing portfolio obsolete. So, one of the other things that we are doing, and I would say stay tuned,” he teases, “is looking at making major investments in our existing portfolio. Again, Mr. Santikos was masterful at selecting timeless theatre locations.” One example he names is Embassy 14. Located on the intersection of two main streets including the major north-south thoroughfare that cuts through the city of San Antonio, Santikos Embassy “is dead-center at one of the most affluent parts of our city. It has wonderful access and serves an incredibly large market. As such, it has knocked out a lot of competition nearby,” he assures. “This will not be an aesthetic renovation alone, but it is also going to include technology and guest comfort amenities as well. We have not formally announced specifics, but bringing in the best is exactly how we intend to keep our existing portfolio relevant.”

On the real estate side of his business, Santikos recognized the value that movie theatres have in attracting people. “When you open up a flagship theatre, you attract 800,000 or so visitors a year and more. The Palladium is well over one million now,” Holmes notes, and it now features the panoramic Barco Escape, among many other features. “These venues really create a lot of value in the surrounding real estate. Whenever possible, Mr. Santikos always tried to purchase and develop the property around the theatre,” for which the Embassy and Silverado 16 are cases in point. In instances “where we did not have that opportunity, Santikos Enterprises certainly owns the real estate of our venues, but not necessarily all the surrounding real estate.” While there are exceptions to the strategy, “whenever possible Mr. Santikos liked to participate in the value that he created by opening a theatre.”

Going forward, that will not change. “We are going to certainly try and leverage the surrounding areas that we come into. But that may not always be an option for us and certainly it was not always a perfect option for Mr. Santikos. But yes, whenever possible…we are certainly going to be loyal to that model if it makes economic sense.”

Santikos Enterprises remains equally loyal to John Santikos’ pioneering—and continued—use of different themes for the design of his venues. “One of the things that we really love about this circuit is that all of our buildings are different,” Holmes notes. “With Mr. Santikos first, and us now, each theatre is made to respond to the community where it operates. If we take Mayan Palace on the Southside of San Antonio, its theming, the level of finish out, its color schemes are all reflective of the culture of the people that surround that theatre. And then you go to the north to the Palladium in a retail development called the Rim. It’s a very different crowd and that theatre is designed after the Greek architecture of the great architect Palladio.”

Moving to the new Casa Blanca, Holmes says the venue is welcoming a “very young, emerging crowd” with dual income, children and young ones in the household. “So, Casa Blanca has a very, very different kind of edgy interior—in terms of finishes, with a lot more modern look and feel—than you would see at the Mayan, for instance. We are always going to try and be responsive to the neighborhood that we operate in and create something that really fits in with the people that we are there to serve.”

Speaking of the neighborhoods and the people to serve, Santikos has indeed retained a remarkably targeted focus on being local. Does Holmes foresee going elsewhere as well? “Our default mindset will always be to remain the dominant player in San Antonio,” he contends. “As new markets emerge and develop there, we certainly want to be first in line to capture those locations and serve that audience. San Antonio may have its limits, even though we are the seventh-largest MSA [Metropolitan Statistical Area] in the United States. It is a very dispersed marketplace spreading out over a large geographic area, and while there are plenty of other players, we always want to remain the theatre of choice in San Antonio.”

That said, Santikos would certainly take a look further away, as well as for more opportunities in the Houston area. He adds, “I do not see us—at this point, anyway, and you never say never—going out of state. For right now, focusing on our existing brand, keeping our existing locations relevant and growing the company in a smart and measured fashion is exactly what our goal is.”

Not Your Typical Movie House

The new Santikos Casa Blanca is the last to be designed by the late exhibition legend John Santikos. “I can tell you that Mr. Santikos would be proud of Casa Blanca,” says David Holmes. “He was a visionary and relentless perfectionist. The first thing he would’ve done is walk every square inch of this theatre. Then he would’ve been like, ‘OK, what do we do next?’ He was a restless warrior when it came to building theatres.”

The Santikos Casa Blanca Theatre is “an entertainment venue like no other in San Antonio and the surrounding area, [with] the best projection and sound technology available,” the circuit declares. Grand-opening activities included a VIP party, a fundraiser benefitting the military, an extensive media campaign and the “Casa Blanca Cash & Cars Game” with over $450,000 in prizes. The grand-prize winner got to choose a new vehicle from a lineup of ten cars or trucks offered by local dealership Ancira.

Theatre Features

* First 100% laser digital projection theatre in the world using Barco

* Two of the biggest movie screens in Texas

* Premium Klipsch speakers and Dolby Atmos Surround Sound System in AVX houses.

* Four auditoriums offering full food and drink service at your seat

* Luxurious recliner seating in six auditoriums and oversized seating in the others

* 2,850 seats in 130,000 square feet

* Automated ticket services both online and at the theatre

* Sixteen lanes of regulation bowling

* Café and full-service bar

Other Select Vendors:

Video Lobby Signage: Cinema Scene

Chairs: Inorca

Pre-show advertiser: NCM

Architects: Building design by DL Ogden Architecture, partnered with TK Architects