West Coast Ambassador: Sonny Gourley is Marcus’ Hollywood connection

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Cinemas Features

In December 2012, Marcus Theatres made news with the appointment of 37-year AMC Entertainment veteran Sonny Gourley as its VP of film, tasked with establishing a West Coast office in Los Angeles for the Milwaukee-based circuit. Gourley had been president of programming at the giant AMC chain.

“Rolando [Rodriguez] wanted to have a presence in L.A.,” Gourley explains. “If there’s ever an issue with a studio, I’m just a drive away, as opposed to a train ride away. I do come back to Milwaukee quite often, every two to three weeks. But he prefers me to be stationed there—it’s the company town, so to speak, and if there’s some information to be gleaned of a demonstration to go to, I’m there.”

Gourley notes that “Marcus is a more regional circuit. AMC had theatres all over the country, so if there were weather problems in one part of the country or a genre that didn’t work in one section of the country, another section of the country made up for it. Here, there are certain movies that do really well in the Midwest, and there may be weeks when certain content doesn’t do as well in the Midwest.

“We do very well with female-oriented movies, and family product is very good in the Midwest,” he elaborates. “We still do well with Hispanic and urban movies, but probably not as well as they do on the coasts.”

Booking today is a very different game than when Gourley first started. “The digital world is a different world,” he reflects. “It gives you a lot more flexibility…

Now it’s very seldom you have sellouts. We don’t encourage sellouts—we want the customer to be able to see the movie when they want to see it. So we provide seats by utilizing advance ticket sales and reserved seating.”

Along with the studio blockbusters, Gourley believes in the box-office potential of independent and award-season prestige films. “We try to widen indie films to as many theatres as we think possible. We’re constantly trying to update that list of theatres… Baby boomers are very interested in the independent product. And they are avid moviegoers.”

He is also seeing healthy growth for alternative content on his screens. Along with attractions from Fathom Events, Marcus programs its own alternatives, like a recent series of gangster film and kids’ series several times a year. The Met Opera is big, and Gourley reports a rising audience for Turner Classic Movies programs on the big screen. A recent Japanese anime series also did surprisingly well. “We really don’t know if it’s going to do business until we try it. We’re really in the experimental stages with alternative content,” he observes.

Gourley is bullish about the future of cinemas. “There’s always this doom and gloom, but then you get product like you had this summer and spring—and the studios did a great job of spreading it out. When there’s product that people want to see, the old argument that all the young kids want to do is play videos and be on their handhelds all day…for good movies they come out. And the seniors come out too when there are movies they want to see. It’s all product-driven. I complement the studios on making movies people want to see, but I also complement the exhibition industry for providing updated buildings with great amenities that have made moviegoing a fun experience. The advent of great sound and the big screens has really enhanced these summer movies. Jurassic World on a big ultra-screen is an enhanced experience. The presentation of these movies is getting better and better, and the movies are backing it up.”

Gourley, who names The Shawshank Redemption as his favorite film (“though I could name a thousand that I love”), previously worked with Marcus Theatres CEO Rolando Rodriguez at AMC. “He’s a great CEO with a great vision who really knows where he wants to take the circuit and knows the steps to get there. We’ve put some great amenities in the theatres in the last year and a half, and the customers are responding. I think we’ll grow exponentially over the next few years. There’s no doubt he has a vision and is working very hard to make sure that vision comes to fruition.”