Georgia on his mind: ShoWester Bill Stembler creates family feeling at leading regional circuit

“We don’t change much,” muses William Jenkins Stembler, chairman and chief executive officer of Georgia Theatre Company (GTC) and 2010 ShoWester honoree. And indeed, in terms of numbers, his circuit of 272 screens at 27 locations in Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and, of course, Georgia, doesn’t seem much different from the last time Film Journal International checked in with him.

Back in November 2005, when Bill Stembler received another prestigious industry honor—the Show ‘E’ Award at ShowEast in Orlando, Florida—GTC was operating 267 screens at 28 locations. As we all know, however, company development and growth are not just about theatre and screen counts. “Over those years,” Stembler adds, “debt was reduced and cash flow increased—those are the really important numbers!”

Equally important to Stembler are the way he conducts his business and the people with whom he works. “We don’t really change personnel a lot. We have very low turnover in theatre managers and here at the home office.” As for the reasons why, “mainly, we pick good people,” he attests. Hearing Stembler speak, however, one cannot help but think it also has something to do with the familial atmosphere at the circuit. (See our sidebar conversation with GTC team members for more.)

Bill and his brother, John Stembler, Jr., both came to work for the family business in the early ’70s. Bill joined GTC as house counsel and he recently filled that very same position with his son-in-law, Bo Chambliss. “This business has served my family well,” Stembler declares. “With now four generations of active employment in exhibition, we have been very fortunate. My family and all of us at GTC believe that there is a lasting business proposition in people going to the movies here in the United States and around the world.”

And lasted it has. “My grandfather first entered the business around 1920,” Stembler says, recalling the days of his namesake, William K. Jenkins. “After attending Georgia Tech, he worked for the telephone company. With a brief stint in film distribution behind him, he then became an exhibitor himself by remodeling what was an old stable,” he laughs. “Our family’s first movie house was not far from where Atlanta’s Turner Stadium is today.”

Jenkins, whose motto of “Work smarter, not harder” Bill aspires to as well, soon “had numerous neighborhood theatres around Atlanta, and by the 1930s had begun expanding around the state in partnership with ABC Paramount.” That came to an end in 1951, of course, with the Consent Decrees. “At this point, we became the original Georgia Theatre Company, without being part of a larger entity like Paramount.”

It was around that time, too, that Jenkins’ son-in-law, John Stembler, was named GTC’s president. “My father had been a U.S. attorney in South Florida and after World War II came to join the company in Atlanta. He told me about attending some of the hearings in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which were settled before the Court ruled.”
Though it had nothing to do with fair trade and other kinds of justice, Bill recalls his father “dressing me down once, about something that seemed very unfair to me.” John’s response, however, was an important word of advice that Bill lives by even today. “Son, my father said, life is not fair and you should be very happy about it.”

Just as Bill Stembler can look at two generations before him and the next one following, other key executives have family ties too. As president of GTC, company operations are in the capable hands of Aubrey Stone, son of Herman Stone of Stone Theatres. Film buying duties at GTC passed from father to son too. C.F. “Kip” Smiley, Jr. took over at the beginning of 1994, “after he came back from working for Sony in Los Angeles,” Stembler recounts. “Kip Sr. had worked at the original Georgia Theatre Company until we sold in December 1986 to UA [United Artists Theatre Circuit]. He came back to work with us when we founded Georgia Theatre Company II in 1991.”

Even with the sale to United Artists, Stembler didn’t leave his theatres, as he became VP for the Southeast at UATC. In the fall of 1988, however, “I left to go and develop my own theatres in Florida and in South and North Carolina with Jack Fuller, Jr., another exhibition son.” Eventually, Stembler re-entered his home state by acquiring “50 screens from United Artists, including roughly one-fourth of the 100-plus locations that had been sold originally.” Talk about knowing a good thing when you see one.

“The others came from Litchfield Theatres, which had also been acquired. The last group were theatres that I had developed while working for United Artists. “Interestingly enough,” he points out, “less than 20 of those original 50 screens are still in operation today,” and they are “very much modified with many converted to stadium seating. You tend to miss how much the business changes.”

Over the past four years, “we’ve closed over 20 screens, primarily located in older discount theatres.” But Stembler “also developed a new one in Moultrie, Georgia with six screens. I am proud to say that was the last one we opened in May of 2007. The reason I am proud is because I stopped spending on new construction pretty much in line with the change in economic conditions later that year.”

Responding appropriately again, and as the “conservative Southern businessman” that Stembler says he is, GTC now has digital 3D capabilities everywhere, “except in two small first-run locations.” With technology coming from both Dolby and RealD, “I see some advantages in each system.”

After completing “our contract with Cinedigm in September of this past year and using Christie equipment, we are now on a three-year conversion schedule for all of our first-run screens. Prior to the opening of Avatar, we converted almost 70 screens to digital. At the same time, we rolled out an additional eight to an already existing 17 3D-capable screens—thereby giving us 3D back-up at certain prime locations.” Looking at the slew of new stereoscopic films on the release schedule, Stembler says there are some more 3D screens coming at GTC.

Also always “coming at ya’’ are more complex challenges. “They are not a great mystery to exhibitors.” Specific to our industry, he mentions “shortening windows and piracy” and “for all businesses, it is the ever-present difficulty of finding financing.” On a positive note, Stembler mentions, “We were blessed to have had Royal Bank of Canada approach us. They have taken over all of our financing as of last fall and have been a wonderful partner to us.”

Stembler calls RBC “a great believer in exhibition,” unlike “a lot of experts in the financial world and elsewhere that have been predicting the demise of the motion picture exhibition business since the advent of television after World War II… Although there have been massive changes and reduced admission levels, the business has survived not only TV and cable, but every other method of delivering movies and entertainment to the home.” Stembler recalls one 1977 study in particular. “According to Arthur D. Little, by 1987 the theatre business would have fewer screens, with lower attendance. What really happened was that attendance had increased and the industry had gone up 25% in the number of screens. Nothing’s new there: A lot of people have made the mistake of betting against exhibition over the years.”

Hedging his bets about becoming ShoWester of the Year in Las Vegas, Stembler feels “very much honored and thrilled.” To him, “it is the highest accolade that an exhibitor can receive and a wonderful thing to have as I am winding down the amount of time I intend to spend in exhibition.” This does not quite mean retirement, he assures. “I will remain active. With Aubrey having proven himself as a capable leader over the last seven years, and my son-in-law coming on board now, I feel that many of the areas that I had to devote time to are well-handled by younger and more vigorous leaders. But…I still enjoy site selection and am very much involved with construction. I will be passing my focus on the legal side of the business to Bo.”

As further benefit, Stembler looks forward to “spending more time with my wonderful wife, Anne, and our daughters Katie, Bess and Merritt and their families. I could not have done any of this without their love and encouragement. And, of course, I am grateful to them and my other directors for their support over the past 19 years of building this business.”

Exhibition “has rewarded me in many ways,” he concludes. “Primarily with the relationships and the friendships that you develop around the country over the course of a career. I feel blessed to have been a part of this industry and to work in what is a business that really everyone is excited by. We are out to entertain people and to make them happy. This is not a more mundane manufacturing-type industry, but one that tries to bring joy to the world.”

Past recipients of the “ShoWester of the Year” award include Tony and Dean Kerasotes, Ellis Jacob, MaryAnn and J. Wayne Anderson, Peter Brown, Stephen Marcus, T.G. “Teddy” Solomon, Phil Harris, Michael Campbell, Kurt Hall, Bruce Corwin and Lee Roy Mitchell.