Return engagement: Rave's Rolando Rodriguez reflects on retail and exhibition


At the end of March 2011, Dallas, Texas-based Rave Cinemas LLC announced the appointment of Rolando B. Rodriguez as chief executive officer of the all-digital chain with 65 locations and some 1,000 screens. “We are very excited to welcome Rolando into the Rave family,” company chairman of the board Charles B. Moss, Jr. noted at the time. (Please refer to our March 2010 edition for an exclusive background interview.) “Rolando’s deep experience in the exhibition industry, combined with his recent roles overseeing some of Walmart’s key regions of the United States, make him the clear choice to lead the company going forward.”

“Starting at age 15, I have grown up within the industry and made many great friends,” Rodriguez says about his return to theatrical exhibition. “I’m very, very excited to be back… This industry is certainly facing its challenges this year, but I am also very bullish about the opportunities.”

Calling his exhibition experience prior to big-box retailing at Walmart “absolutely wonderful…both on a personal and on a professional basis,” Rodriguez speaks fondly about the 30 years he spent at AMC Theatres. Beginning “a great career with a great company” at the Embassy 2 Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, Rodriguez “held a multitude of really progressive roles” with the circuit that culminated in the position of executive VP, North America operations services. “I had reached a point within AMC where additional growth was probably going to be limited—given that the senior management at the time was fairly young and the company was recapitalizing and taking itself private.”

Instead, joining Walmart in 2006 represented an opportunity for him “to really re-evaluate the potential of a different career and to try something new.” Most recently, Rodriguez served as a VP and regional general manager at the retail giant, responsible for four key growth states, $10 billion in annual sales and approximately 45,000 employees, his bio notes.

That’s a long way from his first day on the job at the Embassy 2 tearing tickets for Shampoo. “This lasted about all of 15 minutes before the manager asked me to jump behind the concession stand because it was getting awfully busy. So I had to learn on the fly how to sell popcorn, drinks and candy very quickly. I definitely was on fire,” he chuckles. “And, no,” he refutes the obvious follow-up, “I did not burn the popcorn. But we had to add the prices in our heads and then look up the tax in a table. Thank goodness I was fairly good with mathematics and got through it all.”

Being good with numbers helped him going forward. “Walmart happened to be an organization that I had spent about a year studying during my MBA,” he continues. “So, when I was approached by the recruitment firm, I found that to be very intriguing. Being part of a very dynamic organization and the largest retailer in the world—really, the largest company in the world—was truly an education that in my mind just cannot be replaced… To be quite frank, I wasn’t really planning on coming back to the industry.”

But being approached by the Rave ownership group, “which came about through some friends who knew me in the industry,” made him see the potential for a good match. “We seemed to share a lot of philosophy and approaches to the business, but also, more importantly, how we wanted to take this great company to the next level.” The dialogue continued for about four months, he says. “We were making sure that there was an understanding on multiple topics and a clear fit from their end and mine. I’m happy to say that we all aligned. That brought me back to this great industry, which I would really call my first love.”

Having enjoyed success in both segments, Rodriguez is the best person to explain, once and for all, why movie theatres are considered part of retail operations. “Whether you’re retail or whether you’re entertainment, we are in the same business. Whatever industry you are in, and particularly in these two, you are in the people business.” In both instances, “you are worried about traffic coming through your doors.”

Walmart and the theatre industry also share a concern with repeat business, Rodriguez notes. For him, creating loyalty is all about observing what “draws the consumer into the store so that we can make sure that they keep coming back.” At Walmart, he readily admits, business “is heavily based on their mission statement of saving people money so that they can live better. Beyond that, during the bulk of my years there, we dealt with how we can service the customer a lot faster and better…when we’re selling a product to them. Guess what? That’s exactly what we are doing within the exhibition industry. Whether it is The IMAX Experience, 3D, digital… On top of that, if you look at every exhibitor in the U.S., the business is heavily focused on customer service, no matter what.”

What do the products for sale have in common? “The theatre industry is selling limited SKUs [Stock Keeping Units], anywhere from 60 to 100. A Walmart store will sell 140,000-plus. There is a clear difference in the product lines that are being sold. But I will also tell you that within those SKUs, whether at Walmart or in the theatre industry, there is clearly the dominating product.”

Rodriguez cites food as an example. “Walmart is looking at maybe ten major SKUs of what they call the bread-and-butter items,” quite literally. “At all times, the consumer expects these products at a great price. When you think about the moviegoing experience—even though we have widened our net in the food and beverage category—popcorn and drinks are our two staple items.”

Personally, Rodriguez sticks with those staples too. “I’m getting a little older, so I have to switch from a regular to Diet Coke, but I am still a loyal popcorn eater and go for Snickers every chance I get.”

At the concession counter and across grocery aisles, “there is a lot of similarity in how we all focus on those key product lines, making sure that we engage the consumer better than our competitors to win market share. It all comes back to the customer. In both retail and entertainment, if you forget that you are about the customer, you are going to lose.”

Don’t we lose with the films that we show too? “Our business is all about the movie, absolutely,” he agrees. “If you have a lousy movie, you are not going to get the consumers to come to your store.” Once you have them there, that’s when the work really starts. “How do you engage them to keep coming back to see the multitude of films that you have to offer? The theatre has to engage them well beyond that one movie and have them say, ‘You know what? Moviegoing is fun.’” For Rodriguez, that means creating an experience so that “they leave the auditorium with a ‘wow’ feeling that they cannot get on their TV screen in the bedroom at home.” Bringing that consumer back “over and over and over again” is something that “Walmart and, to my mind, our industry are very focused on.”

More efficient operations are also essential. Rodriguez compares the future of ticketing and concession purchases to airport check-ins. Storage of movie and popcorn pre-sales on one’s mobile phone, he feels, “makes that move from the home to the theatre much easier and everything a lot faster. That’s where consumers are going.”

Consumers 21 and under are especially attuned to this, Rodriguez observes. “These are individuals that communicate through technology a lot faster and expect to do so [in retail and entertainment as well.] My two daughters could be sitting together and, instead of speaking, they are texting each other.” Simply put, exhibition has to make sure that “we evolve our technology to make it even more convenient to that individual who will be our loyal moviegoer for years to come.”

Retail stores and movie theatres face similar challenges, Rodriguez believes. “Success breeds success,” he says, citing Target’s current remodeling of its stores to expand their grocery business, thereby honing in on Walmart’s leadership position in the segment. “Sometimes that brings a somewhat cluttered marketplace,” he puts it politely. “So the questions become once again: How do you continue to differentiate your business and how to do you continue to speak to that consumer?”

On the exhibition front, “the industry is going to face some rationalization,” Rodriguez observes. “There are some circuits out there—with very successful companies and tenured, respected leaders included—that are evaluating whether this is the proper timing and right opportunity for them to exit the business or not. We plan our growth…by looking at purchase and merger type of positioning, [rather than] building from the ground up [alone].” For new venues, “just like in the highly saturated retail space, there are always opportunities in the right locations.” He contemplates either replacing older assets, as in the exemplary case of the completely redone Rave Crenshaw Plaza in Baldwin Hills, Calif., that we are featuring on the next page. “Or, frankly, to take advantage of real estate that may not have been available years ago when the retail environment was still very robust… The marketplace is opening up the dynamics for retailers that offer a definite growth positioning.” He names “places in urban markets where you couldn’t put a movie theatre in the past just because of the density of the surrounding retail” as having great potential. “So there are still limited opportunities for ground-up builds and we will certainly look at those in the right projects as well.”

The future of theatrical moviegoing remains without limit, however. “Regardless of what people say, if you make a great movie people are going to come,” Rodriguez attests. “We all need that entertainment. Consumers need to get out and enjoy themselves with their friends and families. We offer tremendous value for them to enjoy it. That’s what I’m banking on.”