Michigan Movie Veteran Opts for Quality Theaters

“It’s not that I make it personal,” says Bob Goodrich, president and secretary of Goodrich Quality Theaters, Inc. (GQTI), about the choice of his circuit’s name. For this latest entry in Film Journal International’s series of exclusive exhibitor profiles—and with all due respect to those already introduced who market the cinema experience and all those to follow—we are introducing the notion that there’s probably no better name than that of one’s family. Unless you add “quality” to boot.

“I am merely reflecting what the norm was,” Goodrich amends. “If you think back over the last 80 years, from the Foxes to the Skourases, Balaban & Katz, Marcus Loew, the Butterfields…putting the family name in there just was traditional. If you asked me in 1969 about a city, I could tell you the family that owned the theatres in that city. It was a very personal and generational business.”

Bob himself is the son of William “Emmett” Goodrich, who took on his first theatre in 1930 and, after immediately installing a sound system, opened with All Quiet on the Western Front. The Savoy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had been built in the 1880s and went by the prior names of Columbia and Temple. While all seven downtown palaces closed during the 1970s, having been twinned and showing an interesting mix of ethnic and adult fare, the Savoy actually held out until 1980 when “downtown redevelopment” caught up with it too.

Not one of those “family members who thought they would honor their predecessors by maintaining the status quo,” Goodrich developed the theatrical family business into what today encompasses 269 screens at 31 locations in 14 DMA markets, with 500,000 pounds of corn popped, 900,000 gallons of soda poured and some nine million moviegoers served annually. “Thanks to Stan Durwood in large part,” he continues, “we have moved from a business of nephews and grandchildren to one of MBAs. It’s no longer the family farm that is run just like granddad did it. And the industry is far better for it.”

In the ’70s and even through the mid-’80s, Goodrich says, the exhibition business was regionalized and more of an even playing field, with “probably double the number of exhibitors with 50 to 100 screens than there are today. Just like in radio, where maximum ownership was limited to about 20 stations, there was a ceiling of reality. When the largest circuits were having 300 to 400 screens, a guy with 80 or 100 was still in the game. I was a quarter of the size of the biggest then,” he laughs, “and now I am four times the size I used to be, but only about one-twentieth of the largest circuit.” With all that consolidation, “the gap has gotten humongous.” Goodrich says he “always wanted to wear a button declaring that I am now ‘One Percent’ of the industry. I was about eight or almost nine-tenths of one percent of the national gross at my highpoint in 1999 when I bought some theatres from Dickinson and General Cinema. Sadly, we have actually fallen backwards, even though my company has grown since.”

Goodrich’s growing concern about this industry is that few know the owners of the big circuits, “be it somebody at JPMorgan, Carlyle or Apollo, Madison Dearborn, Providence Equity. Today, the ownership of our industry is determined by private-equity firms and investment bankers. Their incredibly deep pockets are pretty intimidating…$15 million is a ton of money for Bob Goodrich, but for some of these $20 billion investment houses, it isn’t such a big deal.” Competing for new locations and maintaining market share, then, “is like going into a poker game with $50 in your pocket when everyone else has $50,000. How many times can you bet?”

On the other hand, “as an entrepreneurial, small operator,” he contends, “I have no board of directors, incredible flexibility, and can change things on a dime.” However, even that advantage is somewhat limited. In spite of the fact that the giants are “pretty big companies indeed,” he observes, “they have key executives who are smart, attentive and also very responsive. Whereas I may make a decision on Monday and implement it by Friday, they can probably implement it two Fridays out… They adjust quickly too and they have the advantage of strength that I can only envy.”

So what is one exhibitor to do? “I’m trying to take a deep breath and try harder,” Goodrich replies. And despite of this “reality of the world,” GQTI has worked hard indeed. “We were able to grow because I invested all the money that the theatres made back into building new theatres, remodeling existing ones and buying others from local operators.” The proceeds from the radio business that Goodrich built throughout the 1980s (“Thank goodness I was able to make a pretty good amount of money”) also went right back “into my movie theatres, every penny of it,” he assures. “I’m not holding much of a reserve and am not trying to accumulate wealth. If I make a buck, I plow it right back into my business.”

Fortunately, he has recently connected with a real estate investment trust (REIT) out of Phoenix, Arizona, “to continue to grow the business. Spirit Financial, whose history has been to work with restaurateurs, is very entrepreneur-focused and support-oriented,” Goodrich gives credit to his new partners. “I sold one of my key properties to them and then leased it back. Spirit also funded my first ‘grand’ theatre, which opened in January in Portage, Indiana. I owned a nine-plex there, closed it and sold the real estate. Although I am now a mere tenant instead, I have a spectacular new theatre. I went from 30,000 square feet [2,800 sq. meters] with 1,400 seats to a 70,000 square-foot 16-plex with 3,200 seats” of 23-inch width [58 cm]. The largest 35mm screen spans 58 feet [18 m] in addition to “one of the largest commercial IMAX theatres in the country with 451 seats.”

The experience has been such that “we are building the same theatre in Hamilton, Northeastern Indianapolis, where the walls are going up within a few weeks.” According to GQTI’s 2006 Newsletter, the Savoy 16 in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois, is “undergoing a complete renovation including the demolition and rebuilding of two theatres.” The concept created by Paradigm Design architects will further be the basis for three 12-plexes replacing existing theatres in Jackson, Saginaw and Lansing, as well as new eight-screeners for Bay City and Cadillac, all located in the state of Michigan. Landlords too have been responsive to the rebuilding strategy, not to mention the “fortuitous situation of buying a couple of drive-ins in the late 1960s and using their 12 acres as a guide for land purchases. I now have enough space to build a 60 to 70,000-square-foot building [6,500 sq. m] and demolish the existing ones.”

Other than such economy of means and encouraging openness from everybody in his company (“I abhor the term need-to-know”), Goodrich finds his qualifications as a marketer to be his biggest asset. “I think in terms of selling and promotions,” he says quite appropriately for FJI’s special focus this month on cinema advertising. “When the guys dropped a couple of $15 million boxes near us in several of my markets, I had to respond by marketing and price adjustments to stay in the game. Only by being observant and responsive, we can keep on improving.” A friend of radio advertising—GQTI still owns one of originally nine stations today—Goodrich likes to barter exposure and hopes to make all media more interesting that way. “We are working with our vendors to reduce media billings by trading longform ‘mini movies’ to our lobby screens.” Goodrich plans to create content for those plasmas with newspaper columnists, sport reporters, radio and television talent.

Having instituted its own screen-ad firm, Talking Screen Media, several years ago, GQTI has now joined National CineMedia for pre-show and Fathom’s alternative programming. “I am very excited about having the Metropolitan Opera up on my screens and hope there will be many more offerings.” But, Goodrich also says, there is a “lot of naiveté about this other digital income fantasy.” Reminding everyone that traditional movie theatres had a stage as “alternative income to films,” he says that “stage income never happened.” To him, d-cinema is “essentially computer cinema” with all the technological upgrades to be expected. “We are transitioning from an exclusive product, film, which meant projection booth and movie theatres, to a ubiquitous product, digital, which means cell-phones, iPods, DVDs. We’re losing our uniqueness, our franchise of film. What is there to be enthusiastic about leaving our little pond, where we are the only fish, to become a minnow in the ocean of digital?”

Regardless of such feelings, Goodrich realizes that “digital is coming. The costs dictate it, the filmmakers want it.” On that latter good note, “zillions of digital movies will be made around the world,” he believes. “I keep hoping some of them will even be good” and will break down the “unbelievable disconnect that’s got to change between exhibitors and filmmakers.” In other words, “if we do not reconnect with today’s filmmakers, who never went to a downtown theatre or kiddie show but grew up in the 1970s and ’80s watching Yogi Bear on television, we’ll be like yesterday’s newspapers. Exhibitors who think that there is some kind of inevitable inherency that digital filmmakers are going to want to be in movie theatres are deluding themselves.”

For his part, “as camcorders get better and the sound technology improves,” Goodrich believes “we will have local filmmakers everywhere creating new digital content. National entertainment will not go away, but individual digital films will be shown locally and, with them, the audience will change. There already is an enormous enthusiasm to see your local area and neighborhoods.” Looking both back to the 1970s, when theatrical rights to the original Gone in 60 Seconds and The Hills Have Eyes could be bought state-wide, and further ahead at things to come, Goodrich predicts history will come full circle. “Those days will repeat themselves, when digital filmmakers walk in and sell you their movies directly.”

Good to know that Goodrich Quality Theaters will be there for them.

Fast Facts

4417 Broadmoor, SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
(616) 698-7733,
Fax: (616) 698-7220
Year Founded: 1930
Total Theatres: 31
Total Screens: 269
States of Operation: MI, IN, IL, MO

President/Secretary: Robert E. Goodrich
CFO/Treasurer: Ross Pettinga
COO: Martin Betz
Film Buyer: Wanda Holst
Ass’t. COO: Matt Johnson
Concession Manager: Brian Nuffer
Film Booker: Jill Ashton
Marketing/Creative Director: Kelly Owens
IMAX Sales Director: Dan Lavengood

Big Sky film projectors; Christie video/digital (in-theatre/lobby; NCM pre-show advertising; Big Sky automation systems and platters; Schneider/ISCO lenses; QSC/Crown/Ashley amplifiers; JBL/SLS/BS/Klipsch speakers; DTS and Dolby Digital sound.
Chairs by Greystone Seating/Track Seating; acoustical walls, curtains and drapes by Cloud; Milliken carpeting; Armstrong flooring; MDI screens; Mallone/Cloud masking; Tempo aisle lighting.
Artwork/design elements by Paradigm Design; Schult poster cases; Proctor concession cabinets; concession equipment, front and back by Cretors/Gold Medal/Server Products/Cornelius; Titan concession software; concession supplies by CSI/Vistar/Regal/Indusco; Weaver popcorn supplies; Pepsi soft drinks and beverages; International Paper/Packaging Concepts cups and bags.
Titan ticketing software; Graphic Control ticket stock and gift certificates.
Architecture and design by Paradigm Design; construction by CD Barnes/Roncelli/Wolgast; stadium construction by Stadium Savers.