Geneva summit: Wisconsin NATO gathering looks at digital opportunities


While the movie industry continues to navigate the conversion to digital projection, there’s never been a better time for small, independent theatre owners to attend gatherings like the Geneva Convention in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The majority of the estimated 600+ attendees convening at the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa this year will have already made a decision regarding conversion, or realize they need to do so quickly. The programming for the Sept. 18-20 convention reflects where co-chairmen John Scaletta and George Rouman think most people are in the digital conversion process.

Last year, the convention held an incredibly successful series of presentations on virtual print fees that led to an uptick in attendance through the final day. This year, the focus is more on teaching those that have converted to digital about using all the features now available to them, like adding alternative content. Box Office magazine will hold a panel discussion on alternative content on Wednesday, and on Thursday alternative-content providers will chime in on the subject. “It’s a great opportunity for different alternative-content providers to talk about the programs that they have and the successes that they’ve experienced and then open it up to the floor for questions,” Scaletta, who is also VP of F&F Management, says of the Thursday presentation.

George Rouman, VP of Rouman Amusement Company, Inc., acknowledges that digital conversion is “a life-altering event for a lot of smaller exhibitors. It is going to seriously affect whether or not these smaller communities can still maintain a theatre in their community.” He notes that a lot of people who don’t normally attend conventions have made the trip to CinemaCon in recent years because it’s “an important transition time in our industry." Rouman and Scaletta estimate that only about one out of four of their attendees also attend CinemaCon, so the Geneva show, the third-largest industry convention in the United States, helps bridge the gap for theatre owners in the region.

Cinema operators who are interested in training opportunities for their managers have plenty of reasons to bring their staff to the event. Seminars from the Disney Institute have been extremely popular in recent years. This year’s seminar, “Selection, Training & Engagement” will talk about hiring the right people, developing a company culture, and training a team to provide a memorable experience for customers. Disney’s “cast members” (the company term for theme-park employees) are legendary. With most theatres employing a young staff with not a lot of job experience, this seminar will offer plenty of solutions for managers. “If you’re a middle-sized or a larger-sized chain and you bring a bunch of your managers or staff, you know you’re going to get a world-class seminar. The cost of the registration for the entire convention would be about the same, if not less, than a single seminar by the Disney Institute in general,” Rouman emphasizes.

The convention also provides an opportunity to talk about issues specific to the region. Scaletta reveals that “family content soars” in the region, noting that “silly comedies” like Paul Blart: Mall Cop outperform the rest of the nation in the area the convention covers, which includes Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and the North Central states like Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. “If you are a smaller theatre owner, isolated in a rural market, or even in a big market, you may not interact with your fellow exhibitors,” Rouman says, hailing the convention as a rare chance to speak with fellow theatre owners as colleagues. “As independents, we have a lot of hurdles,” Scaletta acknowledges. “Things are a lot easier for the large chains when it comes to acquiring prints for first-run play, being able to make deals that are beneficial to the individual theatre.”

In just one example of creative promotion, Scaletta has had great success running Facebook giveaways of items. Sending a photo of a successful promotion to an exhibitor-relations representative can build a relationship and make sure standees and other promotional items are sent to “make that movie a success at your theatre,” and he sees a comeback in using showmanship—giveaways, gimmicks, and special events—to win customers. That’s exactly the kind of information people trade at the Geneva Convention. “People share experiences of what has worked for you and what hasn’t,” Scaletta recounts. “Maybe you go back home and try something you already did, but with a twist.”

This year’s tradeshow will once again be packed with almost a hundred booths. The opening day of the tradeshow will feature a cocktail hour on the floor. Occasionally, celebrities with ties to the area show up at the convention, such as character actor Richard Riehle, who signed autographs and entertained guests during last year’s tradeshow. In the laid-back environment, theatres of every size get special attention they might not get at a larger event. Attendees “find they can talk to every tradeshow vendor, and the distributors are friendly and willing to sit down and talk,” Scaletta says.

At the Wednesday awards luncheon, Sony Pictures’ vice chairman Jeff Blake will be honored with the Ben Marcus Philanthropic Award, which salutes a well-respected industry member who advocates for independent theatre owners in the tradition of the award’s namesake. “Jeff is just an extraordinary person,” Scaletta notes. “He’s really made an impact with his position at Sony Pictures. He’s been involved in so many charitable organizations that it makes him perfect candidate for this award.” Rouman adds that Blake and Sony Pictures have been “strong supporters of our convention over the years.”

John D. Loeks of Celebration! Cinema will also be honored at the luncheon with the Larry D. Hanson Showmanship Award. “Larry Hanson, my mentor, spoke fondly of Loeks,” Scaletta remembers. “He admired John’s showmanship and their friendship. Larry would say to me, ‘He is a big guy in the industry, but an independent at heart.’ I think Larry would be pleased with the selection this year.”

Social events will fill out the schedule of the three-day gathering. The convention kicks off with the Variety Children’s Charity Golf Classic. The proceeds of the tournament benefit the organization’s children’s charity, which provides kids with disabilities custom-made sports equipment to play everything from basketball to hockey. For the first time ever, there will also be a 5k walk around the resort’s grounds. The Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, whose current mission is “staying active and promoting a healthy lifestyle,” as Rouman explains, is hosting the event. Proceeds from the convention also go towards the Foundation.

That evening, “Geneva Idol” will return for its third year. The play on “American Idol” has been a “huge hit,” Rouman says appreciatively. “It’s an intimate atmosphere where you play off of the crowd and everybody loves it. It’s another example of what makes our show special—that interactiveness that we can do, I don’t think you can do that at a gigantic national show.”

New theatre owners from each NATO area will be inducted into the Midwest Hall of Fame during Thursday’s closing luncheon, and attendees will return to their theatres with fresh ideas and a stack of new business cards. The hardest workers will reap the most rewards, Scaletta underscores. “Going to Geneva Convention is a lot like getting a health-club membership: You get out of it what you put into it. People are the greatest resource, and if you’re involved, out there talking to people, you’re going learn a lot of information that you can take back with you.”