Rave Review

Texas-based Circuit Goes From Zero to 283 In Four Years

Rave notices for motion pictures and performers can be found all over the media, but reviews of movie theatres have been few and far between since the glory days of the classic cinema palaces. But there's at least one modern theatre circuit hoping to garner some raves of its very own-the suggestion is even there in its name.

"At Rave Motion Pictures," says president and CEO Thomas W. Stephenson, Jr., "we are dedicated to offering every patron the best moviegoing experience possible. We want them to be entertained in complete comfort." The Dallas, Texas-based circuit of 283 wall-to-wall Harkness screens at 18 locations in eight of the United States is unique in several ways. The all-and-nothing-but-stadium theatre company, possibly the only one in the country, has come very far in a relatively short time. Only in 2000, Stephenson founded Rave Motion Pictures after selling Hollywood Theatres, the equally well-named and also Texas-based circuit that he and several members of his current executive team ran from 1995 to 1999.

"They were sitting in the office," Jeremy Devine, Rave's national marketing director, relays the story, "looking at how stadium-seating theatres-at the time it was primarily AMC's The Grand in Dallas-were absolutely changing the face of the industry." Stephenson "decided to build a new 100%-stadium circuit from the ground up," Devine continues. "There would be no acquisitions as a way to grow the company, no retrofitting of existing sloped-floor theatres. His vision was not how many screens the circuit might have, but that all of them would have stadium-seating and be state-of-the-art." From opening the first two Rave Motion Pictures with 16 screens each in Montgomery, Alabama, and Hickory Creek, Texas, in December of 2000, to Polaris Fashion Mall 18 in Columbus, Ohio, and Mall of Louisiana 15 in Baton Rouge, later this year, the policy remained the same.

As most megaplexes developed in larger markets and traditional theatres were rapidly rendered obsolete, this dramatic period of change became "a huge opportunity for Rave and entry point for Tom Stephenson in an environment otherwise inhospitable for lending money to theatres," Devine says. "As Chapter 11 circuits were in a mandated holding pattern and others were contending with existing theatres and seeing their expansion plans curtailed in attempts to secure financing, we had an opportunity to build new facilities in underserved markets. Rave has moved away from the traditional, more regional approach and is looking at the best opportunities with good developers that have worked with us and like us. People are seeking Rave Motion Pictures for their projects. In the days of modern booking, communications and administration, we have ways to effectively operate and market our theatres even if they are located across the country." Given the revitalized building programs as of late, Devine notes, "I have to admit that other circuits have begun to expand much more aggressively than during the first two years of our existence. The key to success remains to identify those markets or areas within markets that are not covered with modern facilities."

According to Devine, the reason for starting from the ground up is simply that "you cannot have the type of amenities that we want to offer in a retrofit theatre. From an engineering and design point of view it does not work." Cases in point are 18-inch risers (46 cm) and 48 inches of legroom between each row (122 cm). "If you were to retrofit an existing auditorium, in the last three rows or so, people's heads would be obstructing the throw of the projector or their heads would be going through the ceiling tiles and these theatres would have small capacities." Instead, Rave builds a 67,000 to 100,000-foot "big box" (9,300 square meters), with anywhere from to 14 to 18 auditoriums seating from 175 to 470 high-back recliners with cupholder armrest from Camatic, for a total capacity of 3,200 to 4,200. Concession and side stations (cabinetry by Anton) with digital menu displays, along with three separate seating areas and generally one small game arcade, are located in or near spacious lobbies where MPEG players are showing trailers. All this is under 60-foot ceilings of transparent panels highlighted from behind by colored lights and a dancing logo 'R.' The latest Rave theatres also have full-sized party rooms and dedicated customer-service windows. "These are some the bells and whistles that you certainly need to compete nowadays."

From the vertical neon blade sign and integrated Schult poster cases below, Devine notes that the aesthetic of "our dynamic design draws a lot of different people." While the design is certainly colorful and vibrant and instantly suggests "modern" to younger crowds, "Art Deco touches in our wall sconces and many other decor elements harken back to classic theatre design that appeals to a slightly older audience," Devine declares. "Those are two very different demographics, but the building is dynamic enough to excite everybody. We tend not play true art films-the definition of 'mainstream' is really changing. What is being distributed reflects the aging of the audience. We have much success with all the compelling films out there that are not really 'limited' any more, but not going 'wide' in the traditional parlance either. The crossover will no doubt continue. Without brown-nosing the studios," he laughs, "I am highly impressed at just how astute their marketing has become."

"If we tout our amenities," Devine assures in turn, then "we also want to make sure they exist even in our smallest auditorium. It's great for all the teenagers and movie fans that come on opening weekend to the large-capacity houses. How fair is it to charge the same amount six, seven weeks into the run when an older couple finally gets around to watching the film? As the business goes, chances are they are now in a 175-seat auditorium. But, guess what, they'll still find same-height risers, ample legroom, digital sound and wall-to-wall screens. We don't believe in diminishing the presentation based on the size of the auditorium. By definition, there has to be a front row, but we keep it far enough away from the screen so that people do not have a bad experience."

This attention to audience comfort could potentially cut into the operating bottom line, either by sacrificing capacity or incurring higher costs for building large enough to accommodate these generous dimensions. "As evidenced by our terrific grosses and shares, the reactions have been wonderful," counters Devine. "People respond to quality. Whether your theatres are in Pensacola, Florida, and Little Rock, Arkansas, or in Los Angeles, which we are not, you still have to offer an unequaled experience. Market after market, people are voting with their expendable income in our theatres in a big way vis-à-vis the competition. And we are very proud of that."

In terms of premium pricing, Devine fears a possible disconnect. "We do not want to charge more. If you get more for your money, that equals value. The bargain we give is that we do not charge more.

"Movies are and always will be a shared communal experience," Devine concludes. "Even if people had the wherewithal technically in their homes, they could not replicate what it means to share a comedy, drama or horror film with 400 equally excited people. No matter what gets thrown at us-television, video, Internet streaming-there will be theatres and, as an industry, we'll continue to adapt. This may not be a highly original thought, but I see it as a ringing endorsement for the future of our business." Leave it to Rave to rave about moviegoing.