Statesman of the Year: ShowSouth honors Phil Zacheretti of Phoenix Theatres Entertainment

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Of the many awards that this industry bestows upon its respected members, the National Association of Theatre Owners of Georgia has dedicated one to their “Statesman of the Year.” During ShowSouth 2017 at Château Élan Winery & Resort in Atlanta, Phil Zacheretti will be receiving that mark of decidedly Southern distinction. The president and chief executive officer of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Phoenix Theatres Entertainment certainly deserves to be called a Statesman. Especially with the addition of “elder” to the title.

“Well,” he chuckles in agreement, “I have joked with people that if you hang around long enough and keep your reputation intact, someone will finally get around to you… Truth be told, I consider this a very nice honor. We have been attending ShowSouth since the early to mid-1990s. It’s just a great group of people and it’s a great convention. I am truly humbled that they chose to spend some of their time and honor me. While I joke about it, I do appreciate this very much.”

The publisher and executive editor ofFilm Journal International, along with this author, equally appreciate the opportunity to catch up with Phil Zacheretti, a true friend to this industry and to the publication. Since we last connected, Phoenix Theatres dropped BIG and added Entertainment to the company name, but his enthusiasm for our business has certainly remained unchanged. Equally intact is Phoenix Theatres’ commitment to operating all types of movie theatres, be it as owners or as managers. “Our one-time partners from India had a stronger focus on leasing and managing properties,” Zacheretti says of the former Phoenix BIG Theatre Management. “When they left a couple of years ago, we bought them out. Being limited to management-only of theatres before that time, we could not necessarily determine our own growth path and strategy for expansion,” he explains. As of the end of July, Phoenix Theatres Entertainment operates 13 theatre locations overall—ranging from value-oriented theatres to those in the high-end food and adult beverage segment, and several others in between. “I personally own two of them and the company owns another two. With the remaining balance going to sites that we manage on behalf of their owners.” And there are two trampoline parks in the portfolio as well.

How did he get into trampolines? After taking on two closing sites in the greater Pittsburgh, PA area in 2012, he found their respective 20- and 22-screen counts were just too large. “With their conversion to digital, we immediately took them down to 18 auditoriums,” he recalls. When Chartiers Valley in Bridgeville and North Versailles in Versailles were built in 1999, they were the only theatres in those markets. But since then, the market had filled up. “You know how that goes. We would not need that many, 18 would be plenty,” Zacheretti told the property owner. “So, for a couple of years, four screens sat empty in Versailles. Ultimately, the owners came up with the idea to tear down walls and convert the space into a trampoline park.” Called “Altimate Air” and destined to become “Pittsburgh’s premier trampoline park and entertainment complex,” the concept had Zacheretti jumping at the opportunity. “After doing our research, we were confident about operating it. The owners gave us a management deal to operate within the theatre.”

Then another opportunity arose to build the “Atomic Trampoline Fun Center” from the ground up in “beautiful” Leesburg, Virginia. Since Cobb Theatres operates a 12-plex just around the corner, Phoenix Theatres did not need to get involved on the film front. Flash forward to July 28 in Hampton, Virginia, and Phoenix is in the Theatres business again—one that is related to Cobb as well.

“Normally when we take over theatres for management, it is from bankruptcy proceedings or someone not paying rent. That is not the case for the CinéBistro in Hampton at all,” Zacheretti assures. After the shopping center where it is located went into receivership, Cobb Theatres had an opportunity to exit their lease. “Honestly, I did not want to know the details,” but it certainly was an amicable changeover to Phoenix, he says. Frank and Bobby Cobb with their team have been “most gracious and helpful,” he confirms. “There are a lot of moving parts to a full-on kitchen” at this eight-screen now-“Movie Bistro” and nine-lane bowling center. “I may know a lot about the movie business for 42 years, but if you do not know the kitchen business, you better have good people that do. The kitchen is the driver. And I can tell you, we are learning. I have learned as much in the last six weeks as I have in a long, long time. It’s just tremendous. While we have managed a bowling alley in the past, it is not quite as interesting as the kitchen,” he admits.

The day after Zacheretti spoke with Film Journal International, he was headed back to Hampton on a Monday. “They close Tuesday and we open on Friday.” If that appears stressful, not so much for Phil. “We are really looking forward to this and to making a few changes. We are lowering the initial price point, as Hampton is a very competitive market… It is a beautiful building, one of the most beautiful theatres I have ever been in. So, I am proud to be able to carry on the tradition that began there with Cobb. Oh, it’s just a great thing.” And there will be even greater things coming, including a recliner retrofit program for select auditoriums. “We pride ourselves on being flexible and smart enough to try not to make too many mistakes.”

The new owner, who purchased Peninsula Town Center out of bankruptcy, searched out Phoenix Theatres on that very account, Zacheretti explains. “We worked with them and agreed on a good deal to open it back up.” Whereas the Peninsula Movie Bistro is part of a standard operating and management agreement that Phoenix Theatres offers to its landlord clients, their Ironhorse Movie Bistro in Scranton, PA, is a somewhat different—though not entirely unfamiliar—story. “We renovated the place inside and out. It was stripped down to the bare floors and metal beams.” Zacheretti goes on to relay the history of “an old eight-screen downtown venue that was built by United Artists, became part of Regal during the consolidation of circuits, then turned into a Marquee Cinema and, after that, just got lost in the bigger marketplace.” Five miles away, he explains, Cinemark built a giant 20-plex that just finished its conversion to recliners; 14 miles up, Regal took over the one-time Great Escape Theatre. After all this, the downtown theatre did not convert to digital and eventually closed. So why do the all-out redo now? “The entire downtown is being redeveloped,” he enthuses. The Steamtown District and Railway Museum is a National Historic Site and the corresponding Marketplace shopping mall has been picking up steam as well.

As someone who works with property owners and mall developers on managing their theatre locations, Zacheretti can also shed light on their thoughts about the exhibition business. Not so long ago, taking on a shuttered movie theatre was mainly about bringing in high-back rockers, digital projection and good sound, and cleaning the place up. What is the general feeling nowadays? Is it all about getting recliners and offering food and alcohol? “The answer is yes.” He can confirm that owners and developers do indeed believe that those amenities are the way to go. In his meetings with them, recliners and more food are top topics—but they’re also the buzz when Zacheretti attends the annual convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas. And although “what the owners want may not be what is viable,” Zacheretti is “pretty well going to push recliner seating on any project going forward, or with any renovation. It is not always a necessity, however.” One recent example involved a market for which Phoenix Theatres recommended $5 value pricing “with nice seats, but not recliners,” he recalls. “Obviously, volume is needed when you are working at that price point… We will tell the owners in our best opinion what we think would work. But almost everybody initially starts out wanting the luxury theatre, and just not every market needs one.”

Discount operations, though Zacheretti prefers to call it “lower pricing,” have remained a valid option. In fact, Phoenix Theatres Entertainment is currently operating several with that policy. “We have shifted a couple of the managed sites to $5 all seats, all the time, and they’ll make you more money than they have ever made.” In Temple Hills, Maryland, the Marlow 6 began as a single-screen in 1963. Zacheretti uses this example of bringing back a long-established neighborhood theatre in an equally established shopping center just outside of Washington, DC. While “it did not make much money, the owners wanted to keep it open for the community.” After cleaning it up and bringing in new seats, Phoenix Theatres reopened at regular prices. Not much changed, for better or worse, until AMC refurbished a shuttered 12-plex, located no more than five minutes away, with recliners throughout. “Numbers went through the roof there and we lost a lot of clients. Hey, and why would someone want to pay $8 for us when they can enjoy recliners for $9 down the road? So, I told the owners of the Marlow 6 that it will no longer work, even though we completely cleaned up their theatre, put in new seats, new carpeting. We just really did a lot. I proposed to take a chance on $5 and, indeed, our numbers quadrupled. Guests came back from that recliner theatre, and families were coming too. Some people are taking the bus from miles away in the D.C. market. For the last two and a half years that theatre has just made a lot of money for the owners and they just couldn’t be happier—and we could not be happier. It is the market that deserves lower pricing and that needs it. Many people could not afford to go to the movies before we changed policy. So this is good for the industry and good for us.”

Spoken like a true statesman.