19 Years and Counting: Fox’s Spencer Klein collects Show ‘E’ honors

Movies Features

“Fox has always been very respectful of our partners in exhibition.” Spencer Klein, executive VP and general sales manager at Twentieth Century Fox, believes that to be one of the reasons why he and the company were chosen as recipients of this year’s Dan Fellman Show ‘E’ Award. “We have been well-known as a company that prides itself on fairness in the marketplace. And yes, having and delivering a consistent amount of good product for exhibition year after year is definitely another reason why Fox is being honored.”

“It feels amazing, it’s flattering,” he says about the honor. “I receive this award, but it is truly a tribute to all the people that I have worked for and that have worked with me. I think that no one person can get anything done on their own and I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot of really great people.” In fact, he continues, “the greatest gift that executives can receive is someone who believes in them. And to have a mentor that you believe in as well. I say this all the time to younger people that ask me for advice.”

Klein speaks from his own experience as he gives thanks for a 19-year career that took him from New Line Cinema to Loews Cineplex Entertainment, to The Weinstein Company, to The Film Group and more. “I had the good fortune of encountering many great mentors along the way,” he declares. Working at Loews, in particular, “It was really an eye-opening experience for me when Travis [Reid] was CEO, Bob [Lenihan] oversaw marketing, film and real estate. Steve Bunnell, who ran the film department, has definitely been a great mentor to me and a colleague in two different companies as well.” (The other one being The Weinstein Company.) “We’ve had the good fortune of being really close and being in the same business.

“Charley and Ben Moss were great influences as well [at The Film Group/Bow Tie Cinemas]. Working with them, I learned a lot about exhibition from the perspective of privately owned and longstanding business.”

Last but not least, Klein acknowledges that Chris Aronson, president, domestic distribution, at Fox “taught me the studio system and about navigating my way through a big studio release slate and all the important aspects that come with it.” Reiterating his appreciation for the guidance he received in the past, “in the current phase of my career Chris has certainly been, and remains, a huge influence on me.”

In his personal life, “I strive to create and provide a happy home and positive environment for my family,” he adds. “That’s first and foremost for my wife, Lisa, and our three sons. Work-wise, I strive to lead our team. That is probably my favorite thing about the job. We have a great team of sales and marketing people, operations and content-services people. I take a lot of pride in that management role and it is also what I like the most about the job: to keep them motivated and to make sure that they know that I have their back as well.”

Back to business in general, “by far the biggest challenges that we have involve reversing the attendance decline and getting younger people to go to theatres more consistently and more frequently,” Klein believes. “There was a time not that long ago, 2002, when we had the highest recorded attendance. And we should be working on getting back to those heights rather than just staying off the decline. We have a very compelling product—both onscreen and in the auditoriums—as long as we keep focused on the price-value relationship. We should be talking about how do we grow the pie and not about how to stay off the shrinking.”

One way is “to figure out how to get young people back.” By that, he does not necessarily mean the very youngest, of course. “Family films are doing an unprecedented amount of business. They are really, really working.” On another positive note, “the older-skewing films, those find a very reliable audience for us now. As an industry, we are making good product for the older demographics, which is great. And they do come and attend theatres frequently and consistently.”

Likewise, the product for younger people is good and plentiful, Klein asserts. “They have just fallen out of the habit of going for various reasons, and mostly because of alternate areas where they can find their entertainment.” Speaking of those areas, cinema venues are certainly not to blame, he insists. “Movie theatres are becoming better and better; and different in many good ways. They are evolving with the times, have become more comfortable and offer more amenities than ever before.”

What is the problem then? Klein suggests a reason. “In order to make movie-theatregoing relevant to all kinds of audiences, we need to really figure out how to utilize social media and understand the way people consume media now. I think Atom ticketing has found a very creative and practical way to utilize social media to galvanize people to go to the movies,” he notes as an example. “They are rapidly expanding and I look forward to seeing how they can help grow attendance.”

In finding ways to gather more moviegoers and guests in general, the industry needs to count on data more, Klein advises. “All of us need to learn how to utilize the information that we are now collecting about consumers. With that, both distribution and exhibition, collectively, have to find ways to mobilize people to go the movies.” In his view, that includes those who do not attend on a regular basis, as well as increasing the frequency of our core audience. “Information and data are one of the tools we have at our disposal that has not yet been tapped properly.”

As someone who has worked on both sides of the industry fence, Klein concurs that he knows both distribution and exhibition intimately and that he enjoys each. “In any type of business, understanding what the other side expects in negotiations is helpful in getting to a resolution. So, knowing as in my case what distribution and exhibition are looking for is half the battle to get to a mutually beneficial resolution.”

Not picking a battle is the other half. At least not with this writer, when I asked Klein which side of the industry fence he likes better. “Well, I certainly can tell you what I like about both of them,” he replies with a counteroffer. “On the distribution side, it is a cradle-to-grave process where you read a script, the company makes a movie, you have test screenings. You see the evolution of the storytelling process and then the movie is completed. We sell it to movie theatres and the public decides whether they deem the movie worth seeing. I love that experience of going from something you are visualizing in your head to something that is a real product that gets made and then seeing what the public decides. I really like that.”

On the exhibition side, Klein continues, he has “always loved having involvement in a piece of every movie in the marketplace. And I talk about this a lot. I was fortunate that the exhibition companies that I worked for operated both commercial theatres and art-film venues. So I absolutely had my hands in every kind of movie that was released, and that I loved. And obviously, as a film buyer, you see a lot of movies. That’s why we are all in this business, right? For the movies.”

Speaking of the moviemaking business, Klein calls the process at Fox very collaborative. “When we make decisions, there is input from most of our departments, and Chris [Aronson] has an important voice, more so than I from a production standpoint,” he gives due credit. “I try to read all of our scripts, so that I know what the movies entail. When we look to date a film, we have a better sense of what feels right. Having a more intimate understanding of what the story is and who the characters are gives another layer that we can add into our analysis.”

While movies are marvelous on either side—Klein’s favorites amongst “a lot of favorite movies” are The Godfather, GoodFellas, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Braveheart—there is one aspect that makes exhibition different. “Movie theatres are more in line with a regular retail business,” he opines. “You have a physical plant and people come to that plant, buy a ticket, popcorn and more. This is all very customer service-oriented. In distribution, our end customers are obviously the same moviegoers, but it is another universe, an entirely different ecosystem that you are working in. It’s Hollywood, whereas on the exhibition side you are dealing with real estate and with consumers.”

Finding the right date with and for consumers—Taken on Super Bowl weekend 2009, Kung Fu Panda 3 in February this year, followed by Deadpool—Fox certainly has shown flexibility and a decided willingness to fill in weaker spots on the schedule. With all of us reaping the rewards big-time. Is that a policy that Klein foresees continuing? “Definitely, and I think we have done that for a long time, as far as spacing out and utilizing the full release schedule.”

Returning to the rewards of receiving an industry honor, Klein closes our conversation by paying tribute to Dan Fellman, the long-tenured Warner Bros. distribution executive for whom the Show ‘E’ service award was renamed last year. “He is the ultimate professional,” Klein contends. “He has got an unbelievable reputation for professionalism and wisdom and, in short, Dan is a legend... I am honored to get an award in his name.” Dan Fellman retired after 38 years; Spencer Klein has another 19 ahead of him to meet that milestone. Where does he see himself in that timeframe? “I’d be very happy if I was still at Fox and doing the same thing that we have been doing, but who knows? I think of one day at a time, as I am really enjoying what I am doing right now.”