Southern Hospitality: Seventh-largest theatre circuit welcomes a new leader

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Cinemas Features

“This is an exciting opportunity to lead an organization that is driving innovation in the industry.” At his appointment back in February, John P. Caparella set the tone for his tenure as chief executive officer of Southern Theatres. Taking the reins at this company that is part of the investment portfolio of private-equity firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson, Caparella followed Southern Theatres founder and industry legend George Solomon.

Since 2002, Solomon had built a chain of 44 locations with 499 screens in 14 states operating under the brands of The Grand Theatre, AmStar Cinemas, The Theatres at Canal Place (FJI August 2010) and Movie Tavern. “I look forward to building upon George Solomon’s vision,” he added, “providing our guests with an outstanding entertainment and dining experience.”

For his part, Solomon noted about the change, “We feel very fortunate to have attracted a chief executive officer of John’s caliber to lead the company going forward. Since entering the dine-in segment of our industry with the acquisition of Movie Tavern [in September 2013], it became clear to me we needed someone with a strong background in food and beverage, as well as experience in entertainment and venue management, to take the company to the next level.” Although Solomon is retiring after over 40 years in our industry, he will continue as an investor in Southern Theatres and serve as chairman of its board of directors.

“We have developed a good rapport as well as a friendship,” Caparella gratefully acknowledges. “I will be more than happy to leverage that relationship with George every chance that I can. While I bring skills to the table that include business development and culture, food and beverage, training and more, all I can really hope to do is to enhance what George has already laid down as a foundation. He really thought boldly about how to enhance the service proposition and has done things that are really innovative.”

Caparella, who draws on an equally tenured 30 years of executive experience, most recently worked at the Madison Square Garden Company as executive VP, venue management. Previously, he served as president and chief operating officer at The Venetian, The Palazzo and Sands Expo Center, where he led 8,500 associates and all related operations, including entertainment, casino and retail. Earlier in his career, he spent many years with ITT Sheraton, serving as director of food and beverage at several Sheraton locations prior to becoming general manager of the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel.

Looking at such highly developed—and high-end, high-rolling—hospitality, what made Caparella decide to move into the world of popping corn? “Well, I think it is more sophisticated than popcorn,” he contends. “Yes, I have a hospitality base and I worked in amazing hotels of four companies. But, during the initial excitement around the Internet, I was also in charge of launching PlanetHollywood.com.” During those times he had the opportunity to work with and for such “great entrepreneurs” as Planet Hollywood’s Robert Earl and Sheldon Adelson of The Sands Corporation, and he adds George Solomon to that list. “So, there are some links” to the reasons why he joined Southern Theatres. He also believes that managing venues, training, hospitality and food and beverage “is not that far off given the skill sets required… The opportunity to grow the business and to further optimize the experience on both the traditional side and the cinema-eatery side is exciting to me.”

Lauding the foundation and groundwork in place already, he says, “We’ve got the bars, we’ve got the restaurants, we’ve got kitchens. Now it is about taking this to another level while growing the business.”

Film Journal International had the opportunity to speak with Caparella a mere four weeks into his new job—thank you, on behalf of our readers, for making the time—and we wondered if anything has caught him by surprise about the exhibition business. “To be honest, there were no big surprises in that I did my due diligence for quite some time.” In fact, both sides worked hard to assure this relationship represented a good fit. “It was an honest exchange throughout.” Since then, he has been on a “listening tour and meeting with all the folks at corporate and in theatre management.” Having reached about seven locations and talking to no less than 80 people already, “I am really pleased about how excited the teams are. They are all huge fans of the movies, as you would expect. There is a real enthusiasm and a real appreciation for the magic that the movies provide. And, in fact, our obligation is to give great service and to understand how this is a magical time for everyone coming into our theatres.”

That said, Caparella still marvels at “the level of enthusiasm and the passion, if you will, for both the industry as well as for serving guests well,” and he gives credit where he believes credit is due. The feeling of teamwork and a sense of family at Southern Theatres is “a function of George and his style.”

Getting together with the team in his first weeks on the job speaks well about Caparella’s style. “They all are excited to hear what the growth plan is,” he says of those meetings. “Many people are interested in what opportunities are ahead for them and the best opportunities present themselves when a company is expanding. And so, to hear that is why I came to Southern Theatres was reassuring for them and resonated well.” Asked about growth in a very mature industry, with few opportunities remaining, Caparella points out that since August 2015 Movie Tavern has opened seven locations and 72 screens from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Camillus near Syracuse, New York. On March 9, the team celebrated the renovation of Movie Tavern Denton, Texas. One of the original Movie Tavern locations, dating back to a May 1970 single-screen Interstate ABC Cinema turned Plitt/Carmike Cinema 5, before housing four screens, kitchen and all, Denton received a complete overhaul, inside and out, with all nine recliner-seated auditoriums built from the ground up. Slated through the end of 2017 are three additional Movie Taverns, with several more for 2018 to be announced later this year.

The mix of renovations and new locations will continue, Caparella foresees. “There are opportunities for a remodel, certainly, but the new ones have demonstrated that the market has not been saturated. They have been very successful. This is the point I want to make. With only some seven percent of all theatres being cinema eateries, there’s still room there. With plenty of growing communities in the U.S. that are underserved. We need to be first in those markets.”

What about Southern Theatres’ ongoing involvement with industry trade associations? While “there will be time for me to learn,” Caparella assures that being a member of other trade groups and lending his expertise on their boards, he understands how associations work. “And, frankly, in the hotel business we hosted a lot of associations. I understand their business model, what they advocate and how. I also understand the need for specific industry and/or regional associations beyond just the type of national, general associations if you will. We have great involvement within the company already.” He reminds our readers that George Solomon and Ron Krueger, Southern Theatres’ president and chief operating office have been involved with Theatre Owners of Mid-America and the TOMA board since its formation. “So, for the time being, I lean on them to tell me where to get involved. But, between George and Ron, we are not losing a single step with our relationships.”

In line with this month’s special section, we asked Caparella his views on alternative content. He humbly admits that “again, during week four, I do not have all the answers. I want to understand what our customers want, but I do appreciate the different niche opportunities that our theatre brands have already embraced.” He mentions that most Southern Theatres have the capability to host Fathom Events. “In the cinema eatery segment, Movie Tavern offers some unique experiences, such as ‘Breakfast and a Flick’ on Saturday and Sunday mornings with a special menu offering. “That’s a special time. People love breakfast and it is a real treat to enjoy that in the theatres. We host ‘Retro Cinema’ as well… Every other Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, we showcase classic movies,” such as the 30th anniversary of Raising Arizona in March, and one of Caparella’s personal favorites, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

“I like so many movies,” he admits. “I could name 20 more and I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s one of my favorites. Yeah, that one’s a great one.’ But Star Wars is a special favorite. “When I was young, we would go with the same group of people. Fifteen or so of us went on the days that the films came out, with great anticipation to have that experience.” When Caparella’s son, who is 29 now, “came of age and the next wave of Star Wars movies arrived, I did take him to see them. One of the best times I had was when he was a senior in high school. I was out of town and, going with a bunch of his friends, he had bought an extra ticket. ‘If you could come,’ he said, ‘I would love for you to sit here with my friends so we could see another movie together.’ What a special night I shared with all of them! That this is exactly what I had done 20 to 25 years earlier, now sharing the experience all over again with my son and his friends.”

Living in Florida at the time, they went to Universal Studios, but the tradition continues in other places too. “He lives in Chicago, I had just moved to New York, but we still see all the Star Wars movies together when they first come out. I flew to Chicago one time, and he came to New York recently for Rogue One.”

Equally fondly, Caparella remembers his parents taking the family to the drive-in. “I grew up on Long Island, New York, and while we did not go often, I remember that was very special.” Further driving down memory lane, “I started going to the movies a lot when I was in high school because I had money in my pocket. I was working and that is what we did. You know, Jaws, Carrie… Given my age, those big blockbusters are the ones that we went to see, with a bunch of people and having a ball.”

In closing, we asked Caparella his views on the health of our century-old business. “I do not know that I can see another 100 years ahead, but it is going to be around for quite a while. I will make sure of that.” Being an experienced executive, he also follows up with a plan. “I have been in the experience business and service industry my entire career. Particularly, the kinds of hotels that I worked in have all been destinations where people come to have great experiences. I am very excited about leveraging some of that hospitality background and the way in which we focused on customer service and delivered on really high expectations. Dovetailing this back into the cinema business, that is an opportunity I am excited about.”

Would that include bringing the high-roller, VIP casino experience and the sky-box reach of entertainment to the movie house? “That is a fascinating thought and I have wondered: What is that premium experience? Do you sky-box, if you will, a portion of the theatre? I do not know yet, but there are not going to be high rollers because we are, of course, not going to have gambling in these theatres. But having an elevated experience is something to think about and talk with my team about.”