Premiere Engagement: Joel Davis brings avid work ethic to Texas-based circuit

Cinemas Features

Joel Davis, who serves as VP and chief operating officer for Texas-based Premiere Cinemas, has had a remarkable climb from theatre usher to the leader of a sizeable regional circuit known for its development of new concepts and innovations. His rise in the business could be the result of his early “farmhand” work ethic, as he cultivated a “Make it happen” attitude. He enjoyed multiple experiences in the work force prior to settling into his true love, the exhibition industry, where he has earned a reputation as a mentor, friend and advisor.

Born in Brenham, Texas, with a twin brother, Joel spent his early life being that “everyday teenager.” He was active in various extracurricular activities throughout school, including baseball, football and playing trumpet in the marching band—and giving up the football aspirations when he realized there are a lot of big guys trying to take your head off. “Broken arms weren’t my favorite thing,” he jokes. He began devoting more time to music, learning to play every brass instrument except the trombone (“I didn’t get that whole sliding thing!”). He attended community college, winning a music scholarship, and after earning his credentials there he attended Sam Houston State University, where he got his BS degree in Criminal Justice. His love of music carried forth, though, as he studied and learned to play classical guitar along the way as well. If you toss him some strings today, however, he’s more likely to sit down and knock back with some sweet rhythm-and-blues tunes.

It might have been destiny that Joel got into show business, as his mother shared the same name as Hollywood movie star Bette Davis. Joel was always amused that somehow they managed to get the best tables in the restaurant when they made reservations under her name!

But his first real introduction to the movie industry came while still in high school, when he was hired as an usher at the local Cinemark, tearing tickets and cleaning theatres. During his off-hours, he was busy back home doing what he calls “real work” on his stepfather’s farm. His stepfather was a self-made mechanical/electrical and agricultural engineer who grew soybeans, potatoes and hay, all on the family farm. “I’d go to work at the theatre and the other kids would ask what I’d been doing, and I’d say I’d spent eight hours cutting and bailing hay, and they’d be like, ‘Yeah right!’ I worked a lot doing both jobs, but I think farming really teaches you to develop a work ethic at an early age, that stuff doesn’t get done by itself.”

While at Cinemark, Joel earned a spot on the district team, where he and a select few would open new theatres, including a new freestanding unit Cinemark launched in Brownsville, Texas. “I was 19 and sent to help open a new theatre—what a thrill! I remember Lee Roy and Tandy Mitchell being there every day, they’d invite us each morning to breakfast and were always so gracious to their staff.” Davis says he still cherishes meeting Lee Roy Mitchell, already a legend in the industry, back then.

Soon after graduating from college, Davis began his professional career in law enforcement, serving as a juvenile probation officer in Houston. But those plans quickly got hijacked. As Joel tells it, “About six months into that job, my stepfather, who was running a family dredging business that built beaches in Belize, became ill and I was asked by the family if I would go to Belize and help oversee the day-to-day operations until he recovered. I was in my early 20s then and fresh out of college, but pulled up roots and headed off with my wife, Kristi, to Belize, where we spent the next year and a half. In some ways it was like living in paradise. I’d sit on the beach with a cooler, supervising workers piling up sand, then head out for an afternoon of scuba diving, flying Cessnas and just living the island life.”

After his stepfather recovered and was able to step back in, Joel, Kristi and their baby daughter Christian, headed back to Tomball, Texas to resume life closer to their roots. “We really needed to get Christian into kindergarten and this seemed to be the right timing. I figured I’d probably go back to law enforcement or teach.”

As fate would have it, those plans changed again when on a fortuitous summer day in 1998, a mutual friend introduced Joel to Gary Moore, owner of the Premiere Cinema circuit, which was also based in Texas. “I’d worked for Bill Herting, who owned the local theatre in Tomball where I’d been an usher during high school,” Davis recalls fondly. “Bill and I had stayed in touch, and when he found out I was back from Belize, he said his friend Gary was expanding Premiere and might be looking for some talent, so he suggested we meet. Gary flew into Houston and we met for lunch at Ninfa’s, and he told me if I stick with it I could be running the company one day!” Within two years, Joel had been promoted to director of operations, then executive VP. Since then, he’s worked with Moore and led the operations team as Premiere grew to over 300 screens in six states, with more under construction.

“It’s been a great and rewarding ride. Everyone should be so lucky to be able to work in an industry and in a company they love and where their input matters,” says Davis. “We’re like a family at Premiere.”

Joel is the epitome of a diversified career, with roles ranging from husband, father, musician, inventor and beachcomber to law enforcement and dedicated cinema exhibitor. His love for the guitar makes Crossroads one of his favorite movies of all time. He credits Steven Spielberg and E.T. with making Reese’s Pieces his favorite movie snack and admits that outside of the theatre business his obsession is travel, having been on more cruises across the globe than he count. “Just put me on a cruise ship going anywhere and we’re there!” He’s managed to merge that love of travel in his theatre work also, routinely taking his theatre managers on all-expense-paid cruises to the Bahamas or the Caribbean as part of Premiere’s corporate culture.