Speaking Out for Independents: NATO honors Foothills Entertainment’s Byron Berkley

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The community of independent theatre owners is getting its due at CinemaCon 2017 with the selection of Byron Berkley, president and CEO of Foothills Entertainment, as the National Association of Theatre Owners’ “NATO Marquee Award” winner. The annual honor, which acknowledges dedication and service to the motion picture theatre industry, will be presented as part of CinemaCon’s “State of the Industry: Past, Present and Future” program on March 28.

“A longtime successful independent theatre operator and Texas gentleman, Byron is the mouse that roared within the exhibition community,” observes John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO. “From his strategic leadership among his fellow exhibitors, to his board and officer service at our national and regional associations, to his endless energy as a volunteer, Byron has helped to preserve and enhance independent exhibition even in a time of accelerating industry consolidation. Few people in the history of the theatre business have given back more to this industry than Byron Berkley.”

Berkley formed Foothills Entertainment in 1985 when he had the opportunity to buy the Plaza Cinema in Henderson, Texas, while still working as VP of foodservice sales for General Cinema Corporation’s Sunkist Division in Atlanta, Georgia. He left Sunkist when it was sold to Del Monte Foods a few years later, and subsequently acquired the 4 Star Cinema in Kilgore, Texas, and later some General Cinemas venues in Beaumont, Texas, in partnership with legendary Texas exhibitor Lee Roy Mitchell. Today, his circuit consists of four Texas locations totaling 13 screens: the Plaza; the 4-Star; the Jackson Cinema in Jacksonville (a former Carmike theatre) and the Brazos Cinema in Mineral Wells (once a UA theatre).

Berkley is also president of Theatre Owners of Mid-America (TOMA), the two-year-old regional exhibitor association which represents Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

A native Californian, Berkley began his career in exhibition. “I’ve always had a fascination with movie theatres,” he declares. “When I was in high school, like a lot of kids I worked in a movie theatre. I did everything from cleaning the theatre to tearing tickets to changing the marquee. I started off working for the Naify family [the United California Theatres circuit] out in California as a theatre manager and did that for a number of years. Then I was made a very nice offer by the Dr. Pepper Company to join them as a theatre representative. That was when I got out of the theatre business, though I still continued to deal with theatre people as a supplier.

“I think it’s one of those childhood things that you love and always want to be associated with,” he reflects. “The foodservice business was kind of a diversion, but it still didn’t get me out of the business—I remained in it indirectly.”

Berkley served as Dr. Pepper’s national account manager responsible for brand development in the theatre concession arena before relocating to Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. as brand manager for Schlitz Light and Old Milwaukee beers. Then Sunkist beckoned.

But the movie exhibition business was still in his blood. In addition to acquiring the Plaza and operating it remotely from Atlanta while at Sunkist, Berkley also had a side venture running the Garden Hills art house in downtown Atlanta; that venue was later sold to George Lefont.

Berkley’s Texas circuit is a low-key operation; his staff consists of himself, his wife of 38 years, Rene, who has the title of VP and handles financial matters, and general manager Sierra Lee, who oversees day-to-day operations.

“We have competition about half an hour away from two of our theatres, but other than that they’re pretty isolated,” Berkley notes. “These are small towns—the population is about 15,000 average, so they only support one theatre and you don’t have anybody breathing down your neck.

“They’re all digital, as everybody is,” he continues. “We were one of the earlier independent theatres to move into digital with the VPF program. We’ve reseated all of our theatres, we’ve done physical improvements, sound and so forth. We’ve tried to make as many improvements as were financially feasible that would in some way return revenue to us. With a small-town theatre, you have to be very careful about what you spend money on, because you could end up overspending and never get it back. In small towns like this, the public doesn’t demand as much as they do in a more competitive market. Things like [upscale] food and alcohol and luxury recliners haven’t really become a factor in small towns at this point. We hold off on making those kinds of improvements—we just try to make the experience in the theatre as comfortable as possible, staying within prudent financial constraints… Folks around here are just basically good country folks, and as long as you give them a good, comfortable seat and a clean, well-maintained theatre with a friendly staff and a good presentation, that’s for the most part what they expect, and if you deliver that, they’re happy.”

Berkley’s very active role in NATO includes representing independent exhibitors on the executive board. His biggest concern? “Where is this business going in the next couple of years? If the windows situation evolves in the direction it appears it might, I don’t like to sound negative but I have some very serious concerns about the impact that’s going to have, particularly on smaller, more traditional theatres, and independent theatres specifically. If we have a window of seven to 14 days or day-and-date, which is talked about, if any of that occurs it’s going to put theatres in a very precarious position as far as their ability to survive. You know, the public today is a whole different animal than it was 15 years ago. The public has an insatiable appetite for entertainment of one kind or another and they want it now, they don’t want it 90 days later. Once the cat is out of the bag and they see film being released as a PVOD experience in their home the same day it enters the theatre or shortly thereafter, that’s going to remove a lot of incentive to patronize the theatre. The people in the business that have gotten into the FEC [Family Entertainment Center] concept I think have put themselves, whether intentional or not, in a much better position to deal with this than some of us who run traditional theatres with no other entertainment elements connected with them. I think the FEC types will be in a very strong position in the future. I think the larger complexes in the major markets will probably be able to deal with this issue pretty well, particularly if they can begin to bring in a lot of alternative content—I think that will help to fill in some of the gaps. But the more traditional operators like myself who are running everyday theatres really stand to get hurt by this if it happens.”

Some of those theatres are being championed by Berkley’s other group, TOMA. “Todd Halstead [the executive director] has been a tremendous asset to us... He’s been very effective legislatively on a couple of issues that have popped up since we formed TOMA. I think we have created a very substantial organization under his leadership... I’m very happy with it.”

Berkley has no plans to grow his circuit, but it does continue to evolve. He’s exploring alternative-content programming, and he just introduced beer and wine options at his Kilgore location. And, harking back to his Atlanta art house, for 19 years that theatre in Kilgore has hosted “what we call a film festival. Twice a year, for three weeks at a time, we bring in independent and foreign films, and we’ve done quite well with that. We’ve established a clientele for that type of product which doesn’t play this part of the country at all.”

Overall, Berkley is modest about his NATO Marquee honor. “I was very surprised to get it—I would not have expected anything like that. It’s something I’m very honored to receive, but it’s the work of a lot of other people, not one person. It’s a lot of people who help with efforts on NATO’s behalf, so I need to share that with everybody else—which I will do.”