Rave performance: Tom Stephenson receives Show 'E' accolade
“We have always tried to be as constructive a part of this great industry as we possibly could, by building good theatres, taking over some others and operating all of them well,” says Thomas W. Stephenson, Jr., president and chief executive officer of Rave Motion Pictures.
For Stephenson, receiving the prestigious Show ‘E’ Award at ShowEast 2010 “is a tribute to all our great people here at Rave and to what we as a company have accomplished over the past ten years. If you look at where we are right now in this industry…I think this is the year in which 3D really broke out in a major way.” As for Rave’s contribution, “We really did play an early and helpful, very aggressive role in the rollout of digital and 3D. That’s something I am very, very proud of.”
Indeed, Stephenson feels his biggest achievement is “the way in which Rave stepped up during those early stages,” especially after the all-stadium circuit became the largest chain to go to all-digital projection in 2007. “A lot of people were sitting on the sidelines and not wanting to take the first step, thinking: Let someone else do it.”
ShowEast’s managing director Robert Sunshine certainly concurs. “Throughout his career, Tom has achieved enormous success by being an early adopter of 3D technology and alternative content and parlaying that to make Rave Motion Pictures a leader in the world of exhibition.” After the late 2009 acquisition of certain assets from National Amusements, Inc. and concurrent formation of Rave Cinemas LLC in partnership with TowerBrook, Charley Moss of BowTie Partners and Michael Lambert (for more details, see the FJI March 2010 article), that leadership position now includes about 1,000 screens at 61 theatres. Located in 20 states and seven of the top ten DMAs (Designated Market Areas), those numbers guarantee Rave a number-five spot nationally in terms of box-office gross and number of screens.
“It’s a good basic business,” Stephenson says while recalling his first foray into theatrical exhibition, the purchase of JC (brother of Cinemark’s Lee Roy) Mitchell’s Trans-Texas Theatres without any prior exposure to the cinema industry. “I had sold another company when this theatre deal was brought to me as an investment opportunity. I liked the notion of people going out of their homes for entertainment 15 years ago, and I still believe in that today. It doesn’t matter how many iPhones and home-entertainment systems you have, how many other entertainment options. Leaving your home and going out to do something else for two or three hours, with your family, with your friends, is a fundamentally important part of who we are and what we do as people.”
Stephenson also believes in sharing credit where credit is due. “There are so many people in this business that have been so good at what they do for so long,” he says about who inspires him. “When I look around in our industry and other industries, people are just so creative and have been able to reshape their business. As I ask myself every day how can we fundamentally change it in ways that makes it more attractive to more people, I look up to the people who have built up and already changed this industry.” On a personal note, he calls his mother a most important influence and, “in a major way, our three-year daughter.” With obvious joy in his voice he adds, “Every father wants to be the person his child thinks he is.”
His daughter Cate has also impacted where he and his wife Blake sit during a movie while enjoying a favorite Diet Coke. “We are on the aisle side now because, sometimes, we may need to make a quicker exit from the theatre,” he chuckles. “But, in general, I am a guy who likes the middle of the auditorium about two-thirds of the way back.” Although Stephenson has “seen a lot of movies over the years that I loved, I think The Usual Suspects was just a great, great movie.” When it comes to raving about theatres, the North East Mall 18 in Hurst/Dallas, Texas rates on top. “Architecturally speaking, the multi-level facility is probably one of the most distinct theatres we’ve ever built.” From the past, the decidedly Streamline/Moderne Belle Meade Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee has left its mark of distinction. “It was one of those big, wonderful, 600-plus-seat balcony theatres,” he reminisces. “I remember seeing Doctor Zhivago there and thinking, ‘Wow, this is what movies are all about.’”
During his time at Rave Motion Pictures, Stephenson has counted many similar experiences. Probably his “most exciting event was the opening of our theatre in Pensacola, Florida,” the RMP Pensacola W. St. 18, Rave’s third new theatre back in May 2001. “Our marketing director at the time put together this unbelievable opening day around the movie Pearl Harbor. She had found all the survivors who lived anywhere near the area and brought these incredible American heroes to the theatre. Together with U.S. Navy and Marine Corps bands playing during the festivities, we were able to welcome the most amazing group of people to our theatre. It was certainly the most exciting opening we’ve ever had.”
Stephenson recalls another memorable but less welcome event. “In the middle of the first day at RMP Festival 16 in Montgomery, Alabama, we somehow managed to set a popcorn popper on fire, while at another end of the hall we were trying to have this nice and easygoing opening ceremony,” he laughs. “The fact that one of our concession stands was on fire didn’t seem to be very good.”
In contrast, the integration of the 35 former National Amusements locations has been progressing really well. “We obtained a lot of really good assets and had equal success with melding the two cultures. So far, all the synergies we’ve hoped for are materializing and we’ve come a long way in terms of what we want to accomplish with these buildings.” Most importantly, “on the people side, we are really blending the two cultures nicely. I think we’ve done pretty well so far.”
What’s next at Rave? “We have a couple of new locations that we are very close to announcing,” he promises. “The next couple of months will be very exciting for us.” On the acquisitions side, however, Rave “isn’t close to any further announcements,” he notes.
The recent announcement by cable operators to trial a current theatrical title as premium video-on-demand is certainly on everybody’s mind. “Both exhibition and distribution have to really try to work together,” Stephenson suggests. “From my point of view, there is also a much bigger issue out there. We all live in a world where growth cannot be taken for granted anymore. Going through this very difficult economic period, [I am] worried about attendance overall in our industry—not just at our theatres. Ten years ago, people in the United States were going to the movies five to five-and-a-half times a year, and now, we’re down to four times.” While he thinks “that is ultimately product-related,” it is also a function of how theatrical exhibition needs to evolve. “We are continuing to search for what is the best model in terms of pricing, amenities and how we integrate real-time 3D sports, concerts and the like into our offerings. How can we make sure that our buildings evolve in such a way that people continue to frequent them at least at the same rate they have in the past, if not higher?”
Unquestionably, he knows, “the way that movies get value, the way in which they become hits across all other platforms and, in fact, the way they are really introduced to the world is through the American exhibition business. We are the engine that creates value downstream in all these other formats.” At the same time, “we also understand it is expensive to make movies and we certainly need everybody to do well in that process,” Stephenson assures. “But if we are the engine and the first place to really determine whether something is working or not, I think one has to be rational about protecting this theatrical window and about giving theatres a chance to really make a film. I understand premium VOD, but as we’ve seen over the last year or two, there are certainly times where you can fiddle with windows a little bit. The way Disney did with Alice in Wonderland worked out to everyone’s benefit. Alice certainly played well in theatres, but we all have to be very, very careful not to do anything that undermines the basic engine that creates all the downstream value. And that’s theatrical exhibition.”
It sounds like Stephenson keeps an optimistic view of the future of our industry. “I do,” he emphatically confirms. “I completely, 100-percent do, and not just because I am in this business. I’m telling you this as the father of a three-year-old. I took Cate to see The Princess and the Frog and she still talks about seeing that movie. It’s not that we don’t watch movies at home, she sees plenty, but it is a different experience for her—as it is for me—to go and watch something on the big screen. At home, there’s always something going on, from dogs to phones, the iPad and everything else… So I think people will continue to attend theatres because of the quality of the experience and because the communal nature of watching movies is so much better in a theatre. To further assure that they do, however, we need to keep on offering them a series of compelling reasons to get them out of home and into the theatre.”