A New Vision: Bud Mayo maintains oversight of rising theatre circuit

Features
Cinemas Features

“It was very exciting to do a restart with a bunch of assets that are all over the place.” Bud Mayo, chairman of New Vision Theatres, is talking about 194 screens at 17 locations that he and his team of industry veterans and investor partners assembled in the wake of AMC Entertainment’s March 2016 merger with Carmike Cinemas. “Some are remodeled and wonderful, beautiful theatres, and other ones we need to attend to and remodel. And that’s always fun to do as well, because you get to look at the audience and at the budget, deciding how to reasonably invest where the best results will come from, in any one particular place.”

For the 2018 edition of our annual Exhibition Guide, Film Journal International can count on the ultimate exhibition expert and consummate elder statesman sharing some enlightening business insights. Bud Mayo not only facilitated our industry’s transition to digital cinema by designing the virtual-print-fee model, but also headed a variety of innovative cinema ventures along the way. In fact, he pursued his theatrical ambitions with a decidedly “clear view” of what he wanted moviegoing to be like—creating a DigiPlex of digital cinema “destinations” being just one of them.

Geographically, New Vision Theatres are different from the early Clearview Cinemas in the metro New York area. Mayo draws the comparison to about 25 years ago: “Obviously, we always tried to take the best assets in the areas that we are operating in.” With New Vision Theatres located across nine of the United States, “we address each location as if it were our only theatre. That is a philosophy we already tried to apply to Clearview, and we have learned from that.

“We bring neighbors to the movies,” he says, quoting the latter circuit’s onetime tagline. “We are really trying to do the same thing at New Vision Theatres by nurturing local audiences and by becoming part of the fabric of the community itself. This allows us to choose content that fits the audience and to anticipate what we can do around that program offering.”

He continues, “Our plan this year is to do reserved seating and to upgrade seats. We know all about recliners, but the other part of that is that we intend to obtain liquor licenses—at least wine and beer—in every location where we can. With that, we also intend to offer a menu of ‘good’ food. Not in-theatre dining, not gourmet foods in most cases, but food and beverage choices that complement a one-stop shop at a reasonable cost for families.”

Costs were certainly reasonable back in 1994, and options on snack and content much more limited, Mayo recalls. “We did not have to be as much of a curator of content as we are today. Our business was to take whatever came down the pike, put it up on the screen, making moviegoing a family-friendly atmosphere.” In addition to Clearview Cinemas’ signature fireplaces, “we had a phone on the concession stand that allowed people to call home, because there were no cellphones in those days. You could call your babysitter and call a cab, whatever you needed to do... Our business has since evolved, and it is much more exciting today than it was then. Thankfully, we have a great team behind it all, many of whom were with me at Clearview, Cinedigm and at DigiPlex Destinations,” Mayo notes, mentioning his other ventures. “They are allowing me to be a true chairman of the board now, as opposed to somebody keeping the weeds [away].”

With “many, many years of experience in dealing with a combination of audiences and demographic data, which is far more available to us today than it certainly was in the Clearview days,” New Vision Theatres aims for the best results in each location, Mayo says. “So, the challenge is different. In some ways it is greater and in other ways made easier by the availability of information and content choices that simply were not there before. DigiPlex Destinations was an evolution, and certainly a major step forward. After that, all we did was to take some 26 DigiPlex sites and folded them into Carmike Cinemas. We had a much bigger platform to work with content, reaching 150 Carmike locations.”

Mayo’s time at Carmike opened another opportunity for him when AMC Entertainment became interested in those very locations. “As a member of the senior team at Carmike, I was very much aware of all the discussions, and really understood that at the end of that year it was time for me to retire,” he contends. “I was very happy to be able to do that, to go on a few boards, and at least keep my finger in the pie of business and try to bring my experience to the table. And to play a little more golf, which I am terrible at,” he chuckles. Tennis, sailing and spending time with nine grandchildren also beckoned Mayo. “There’s a classic ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do’ phase. But, little by little, conversations started to come to me about the divestiture of certain theatres. ‘You could easily assemble a team,’ I was told, ‘and financing would be, for you, a very easy thing to do.’ All of which was true,” he says. After trying to resist initially, Mayo admits to changing his mind. “Maybe we’ll buy a few theatres just to keep some good people employed, and let’s see where it goes from there.”

The rest is (exhibition) history, as they say. “I was heavily recruited to put a bid in for the entire package… I was encouraged actively by AMC and Carmike, and by the Department of Justice, because of my history and reputation in the business. All those things told me, ‘Okay, if I can get my team to sign up for this, and become chairman and not a CEO of the venture, then why not?’ I will put a package together, get the right financial backing, and then let’s see if we can pave this and build from there. It turned out a bit of a rollercoaster, to be honest. We were on again, off again as a bidder, ultimately getting back after we thought we had lost the bid.”

Mayo recalls receiving a call in the parking lot after grocery shopping with his wife. “If we are the only group you talk to from now on, of course, we will get back in the saddle,” he told the people on the other end of the call. “We did just that and closed in April last year. Only to find that we entered four or five of the worst months the industry had seen in a long time. What a great way to start! That told us a lot about our financial partners—that they were big boys, and that they understood what we were going through in transition to a platform that we had to create from scratch. After all, we did not have a business in place.”

“We had a bunch of theatres, and we had to scramble,” Mayo says of the good-news/bad-news scenario that followed. “Putting a platform together from scratch means you can cherry-pick the vendors and the choices of software and hardware to do something that gives you the maximum amount of flexibility in the 21st century.” Doing just that, “we really started running this business in September, for the first time as New Vision Theatres.” Some locations do go back, way back with Bud Mayo, however, such as the Rialto in Westfield, New Jersey, where corporate headquarters are located. In a further nod to continuity, New Vision’s accounting department is based in Columbus, Georgia, near the former Carmike offices. “Well, all our theatres are my favorites, as they represent opportunity. Some are performing better. As every circuit, we have our battleships. Three or four of those, and we expect to have five or six more theatres that really anybody in the country would want to own.”

Mayo was able to weigh in on which theatres to acquire during the bidding process. “We did not take the entire package as it was presented.” In some cases that may have been a disadvantage, especially not knowing some of the AMC locations, of which six ended up with New Vision. “Let’s take each building,” he says of the process, “and strip it down to exactly what it is. What kind of product has been successful there? What can we do that would be incremental to those theatres? Because some of them did not do alternative programming at all. Those are the opportunities, and it means you need to do the work. That is really the secret to any business, as far as I am concerned: You do the work. You get into the market, you get to know the audiences—not just for five or seven miles, but fifteen or twenty miles around each theatre. Who lives there? What kind of content would they be interested in? And how do we reach them?”

On the reach of his circuit, Mayo adds. “I know the industry has evolved to the point where, in many cases and certainly the big guys, companies are looking at the world and at their circuits as a global business. New Vision Theatres is very much a regional business. We look at each one of our regions as a territory that we address. We have no aspirations about going abroad, but we certainly see opportunities for further consolidation in the United States.” On his way to a board meeting in New York City with his financial partners when we spoke for this article, Mayo had prepared “a full presentation of not only our results, but also our plans for the coming year, which are very aggressive.”

Speaking of those partners at The Beekman Group, Mayo gives credit to managing partner John G. Troiano. “This boutique private-equity firm is run by the gentleman who started it, who had some success with the old Sony Loews circuit when he was working for a larger private-equity firm. John has a pretty good handle on what this business was all about and has been looking for an opportunity for years.” Indeed, when the investment in New Vision Theatres was announced, Troiano commented, “The Beekman team identified the exhibitor industry as a stable, attractive segment for reasonably priced out-of-home entertainment and has evaluated numerous platform opportunities over the past few years. New Vision represents a compelling platform given its size, geographic breadth, and the ability to partner with such a complement of talented operators led by Bud Mayo and Chuck Goldwater.”

“We certainly kissed a lot of frogs as we interviewed potential partners,” Mayo says, returning the compliment. “And we found a prince. John is a good guy. Very, very smart. And the most important part is that I can get his attention when we need it for our team. We enjoy being in constant contact with the partners.”

All the team members “are perfect for the job” as well, Mayo assures. “They are very excited about trying to build this business, and the opportunities that we can all bring to the table.” As for his part in the process, Mayo is “looking at the business from 500 feet up, and toward where we are headed, with a focus on strategy and on tactics, specifically. I am more interested in where the business can go, what verticals are available to us. How do we make each show every week better than the week before? What can we introduce that will make the business even better?”

Speaking like a chairman—and the industry statesman that we have all come to know—Bud Mayo’s outlook remains optimistic. “I have great confidence in the team we have in place. They have been doing this for a long time and they know exactly how to implement the decisions that they come up with and stay on course with building a unique circuit that is also capable of growth. We can access the capital markets very effectively through our partners at Beekman. I am very excited about what the next three or four, five years could look like in this business, and how far we can reach into becoming a very important circuit in this business.”