Movies in the Middle: TOMA takes the lead for diverse membership

Cinemas Features

“We needed as much unity and coordination among exhibitors as possible to address the potential challenges facing the regions’ movie theatres.” Todd Halstead, executive director of Theatre Owners of Mid-America (TOMA) is talking about last year’s blending of several national NATO-certified trade associations. “The main driver to doing the merger was to increase the resources that we could bring to bear to address legislative and other policy issues.”

Representing Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, “from the Main Street exhibitors to the large circuits,” Halstead says, “TOMA is now the only trade association that serves the business, legislative and media interests of the cinema operators in the aforementioned states.”

“Missouri and Kansas were added after discussion with the then-board of South Central States NATO,” notes TOMA board member Byron Berkley, president/CEO of Kilgore, Texas-based Foothills Entertainment. “We go back to NATO of Texas, which is really where all of this started... during the days of John Rowley.”

Rowley was the president of Rowley United Theatres, “a well-respected exhibitor and NATO member,” Berkley says, offering some more history. His company ultimately became UA Theatres Southwestern Division, with locations covering Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Berkley too has been an active member of NATO for more than a quarter-century, in one iteration or another. “I’ve been around for a little while. I think I’m getting up to the senior citizen status now,” he continues with a chuckle. “I am like a yo-yo. I just keep bouncing back every once in a while... They throw me out and then I come back again.”

It is certainly a good thing that Berkley is bouncing around, offering his leadership and expertise alongside his fellow board members, Halstead affirms. “The merger into TOMA was truly a team effort by the regional leaders representing all six states and made possible by the dedicated efforts of all the volunteers currently serving on the Association’s board. We represent roughly 80 companies throughout the region and they have more than 3,800 movie screens.” In the process, TOMA not only “raised the profile of the regional association... no longer potentially duplicating work,” he notes, but is also enjoying “a great success in retaining the membership that we had prior to the merger and actually having grown it as well.”

What is interesting about the Association, Halstead opines, is that it covers a very large region compared to some of the others around the nation. “When you look at our membership, it is almost like a microcosm of the National Association of Theatre Owners, where you are going to have more companies that are Main Street or independent, but then the majority of the screens is represented by the mid-sized and the large circuits. That’s probably true for TOMA as well.”

What about some of the political issues that TOMA is facing? Does he see similarities as well? Halstead responds, “We continue to confront new and difficult legislative challenges at the state and local level.” Beginning in 2007 at NATO as deputy director of government affairs and, since starting with TOMA in July 2015, “I have been involved with legislative issues... and each year it becomes more challenging for the industry. It’s no different than a whack-a-mole game,” he says, providing a hard-hitting analogy. “We might knock one legislative issue down or another challenge down and a dozen more surface.” That said, Halstead does confirm that the issues are generally homogenous around the nation. “Across the nation, we are facing at the local level the same minimum wage, paid leave, and various tax issues as lawmakers seek to find new ways to shore up their budget shortfalls. So, yes, the issues are very similar across the country.”

“Here in the TOMA region,” he elaborates, “we were recently involved in a special session in the state of Louisiana. Due to the drop in oil prices, the state is facing tremendous budget gaps and they were passing various bills to implement new taxes to help shore up their budgets. Last year in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, there were efforts to increase the minimum wage to significantly higher levels than the federal level and those issues were defeated as well. We joined a coalition of businesses to address those efforts... but those are the same issues that NATO regionals around the country are facing.”

One of the more fun activities that Halstead, Berkley and the TOMA board members are looking at—and forward to—is CinéShow. This author enjoyed attending the annual convention and regional get-together three years ago (FJI November 2013). Scheduled for its 18th edition on August 30 and 31 in Dallas, Texas, “it started off as a tabletop show and adjunct to our annual NATO of Texas meeting,” Berkley notes. “It took place in a small hotel meeting room and just got growing from there. Many of the people who still attend today were involved at the time [including Byron Berkley himself]. It has a long and interesting history.”

To this author, CinéShow felt close-knit and friendly, almost like a family gathering. Would he describe the show in the same terms? And does that apply to TOMA too? “That’s a good description,” Berkley agrees. “For the most part, people who attend the show know one another, and they have known one another for a number of years. So there is a lot of commonality and camaraderie there. I would also like to say that being in the South, we are by nature just kind of friendly people anyways. You get some of that Southern vibe out of the group, if you want to put it that way.”

Halstead “fully” agrees. “My predecessor, Rein Rabakukk, who ran CinéShow for close to two decades, did an amazing job of growing the convention to the region's premier event and engendering a truly collaborative environment for exhibitors and industry partners.” Last year was Halstead’s first full year with the convention. Attending the prior year’s show, “it was eye-opening... I probably had the same experience that you did. I saw cinema exhibitors from different parts of the region and different backgrounds in the industry gather as a community and learn from one another—all in an environment that fosters innovative thinking and new partnerships.”

What were some of the topics on theatre-owner attendees’ minds then and, more importantly, now? “Like everybody else,” Berkley broadens the view, “we have some serious concerns about some of the major issues that have been getting a lot of publicity lately. Obviously, where streaming of content is going to go is a big concern amongst many of us. Are we seeing a change in the public’s willingness to accept watching motion pictures on handheld devices or on their large-screen video systems at home, as opposed to going to the theatre? I think that’s a major concern we all have and, of course, associated with that are windows. Will our partners at the studios continue to honor and respect these windows and allow us to continue to be the premium showcase for their product? Or are we going to be confronted with some big changes down the road? I think all of us, at whatever level we are in the business, are very concerned about that issue right now.”

After all, Berkley knows only too well that this very business “is undergoing a lot of changes,” and not only in terms of content consumption. “The physical presentation of cinema today and the development of the dine-in theatre, the recent development of premium-large-format theatres—all of these are positive moves for the industry. They present some challenges to smaller exhibitors who do not operate in markets that can justify those kind of expenditures,” he cautions. “I guess some of us smaller operators, including myself, have some concern about whether or not those types of formats will ultimately become standard in the industry.” In that case, he reasons, the consumer might say, “Well, if we are going to go to the movies instead of watching it on our handheld device or watching it at home, we want to go to a dine-in theatre or a premium-format theatre.”

In other words, consumers may not be “too anxious to go to a traditional small-town movie theatre anymore,” Berkley fears. “Especially smaller operators are concerned right now where that development is going to take the industry. Does moviegoing become more and more of an event occasion, and less and less of a regular form of entertainment?” While all in this industry “try very hard to keep our facilities as up to-date and modern as we can,” he concedes that challenges do lie ahead. “If the public’s perception of moviegoing changes dramatically and their expectations become different, then we are confronted with whether we can meet that expectation. I don’t think it is an immediate concern that we are going to deal with tomorrow or the next day, but it is something that we have to look at down the road as this business continues to evolve. We are very much in an evolutionary state right now from an exhibition standpoint.”

The outlook for exhibition remains positive and optimistic, however. “All of us believe that watching a movie in the theatre is still the preferred and ideal experience,” Berkley assures. “But we have an obligation to the public to meet whatever the demands are in that respect and to provide guests with whatever viewing environment they expect from us. I think we are doing a good job of that at the moment, and hopefully we would be able to continue to do so.”

“Do or do not, there is no try.” For his thoughts on the subject, Halstead quotes the venerable Yoda. “Exhibition is a very resilient industry and a can-do industry. I like Byron’s sentiment and honestly believe that the exhibition business has never been stronger.” In response to the many challenges that movie theatres have faced over decades, from television to streaming, he knows that “exhibitors, especially the ones operating in TOMA’s region, have been identifying new opportunities that they might not have taken advantage of in the past. I think that’s probably more true now than ever. These exhibitors are truly leaders in creating cutting-edge, innovative moviegoing experiences.”

“Which is all of the more reason why national NATO and the NATO regional associations are so important,” Berkley adds. “In a sense, they are kind of the glue that holds exhibition together and keeps exhibition informed. Addressing issues that confront exhibition and that are possibly harmful to the business is the true value of a trade association. And there is no organization that can do a better job of preserving the moviegoing experience than NATO and the NATO associations.”


TOMA Board of Directors

Bob Bagby / B&B Theatres

Jeff Benson / Cinergy Cinemas (Treasurer)

Byron Berkley / Foothills Entertainment (President)

Don Burchett / Malco Theatres

J. Syd Hall / Rio Entertainment

Adam Harris / Spring Theatre

Ron Krueger II / Southern Theatres (VP)

Kevin Mitchell / ShowBiz Cinemas

Gary Moore / Premiere Cinema Corp.

Shane Morrison / Celebrity Theatres

Steve Schoaps / Seminole Theatres (Secretary)

Chris Stebbins / Cinemark USA

Karen Whited / Regal Entertainment Group