Encompassing Vue: Final thoughts on theatrical exhibition
“I have always had a lot of respect for companies that are not afraid to try something completely new, no matter how ridiculous it might sound.” Beginning our closing conversations with the Vue team about the general state of theatrical exhibition, chief executive officer Tim Richards takes an all-encompassing approach. “We don’t look at our competitors as competitors in a normal business sense. We look at them as other players in the same industry and that we will all benefit as an industry from sharing best practices. As a company, Vue has always been open with others sharing those best practices and what has worked for us, both with our competitors and other exhibitors.”
Chief operating officer Steve Knibbs and other team members have not only been sharing best practices—one only needs to think of the many insightful presentations that Vue’s marketing maven Mark de Quervain, now of Action Marketing Works, has provided during our industry conventions over the years. They also share a past in revolutionizing the U.K. exhibition business. So it seems appropriate to get the historic perspective about what they’ve learned over the years and how we can apply that expertise in assuring the future of this business. Director of property Geoff Moore worked on the second multiplex that AMC Theatres built in Gateshead, for example, and Knibbs’ first cinema job after operating restaurants and hotels was at the first purpose-built multiplex in the U.K.
“I had gone to an interview at The Point, Milton Keynes for a restaurant position,” Knibbs recalls about 1986. “Walking around the AMC cinema which had just opened a couple of months before and was doing very well, I bumped into Millard Ochs, a name that I am sure you are familiar with. He asked me what I was doing and said: You should come and have an interview with us. Millard toured me around the cinema and showed me everything. I thought this was so great and it looked very, very interesting. After he told me about the places that AMC was going to open, I went back for an interview, got the job and haven’t looked back since, really. Millard had just enthused me.” (Millard Ochs, of course, is the president of Warner Bros. International Cinemas and was instrumental in selling their Warner Village assets in the U.K. in the transaction that became the founding moment for Vue Entertainment.)
Moving from theatre to general to area manager, to operations manager, Knibbs was part of the following transition from AMC Theatres to UCI Cinemas, ultimately becoming the circuit’s managing director of the U.K. When the UCI business was growing into Germany and Austria, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Knibbs took on that challenge as senior VP, his last position before joining Vue Entertainment. Knibbs remembers a taxi ride to a site meeting in Warrington, the U.K.’s third multiplex, when the driver wanted to know what the building was going to be and what that word actually meant. “When I told him a multiplex has at least ten screens in one building, he asked, ‘Well, how do you watch ten movies all at the same time?’ I had to explain to him how it works,” Knibbs laughs. “When I think back to that starting point and where the business is now, it’s quite a huge arc. It’s part of everyday life now and people’s leisure time, but I will always remember where we came from, if you like, and the journey that we have been on.”
When he recently journeyed to Poland, “it was great to go back and see a country that I was involved in right back at the start. It’s just terrific how the market has been developed.” Knibbs remembers the first multiplex opening in Poznan in 1998. “It was a repeat of what we had seen in the U.K. in terms of the start of a revolution in their cinema-going habits. I remember seeing people’s faces on that opening night when they came in, after not having had the opportunity of going to a nice cinema for all their lives, probably.”
Similarly, while at UCI Moore had worked on ten of the 28 sites that Vue recently purchased in Poland. “They have been well-maintained and were improved upon, in fact,” he says, giving due credit. “There are good cinemas all around the world now.” Going back, “I took a lot of inspiration from the things that were being done by the operators in America and Canada some 15 to 20 years ago.” He mentions the “whole concept of stadium seating” in particular, with risered auditoriums first arriving on the U.K. scene in 1996.
“People forget that pre-1985, cinema nearly disappeared from this country,” adds Knibbs. “They were on the verge of closure with admissions of one visit per head of population of 54 million in 1984,” likely to go the way of stage theatre for limited audiences “had it not been for the multiplexes coming in and reinventing the business model,” he says. “While, yes, the films got better as well, it was the condition of the old cinemas which were run for cash and not with the customer in mind. We should never ever forget that.”
“Global exhibition ran into problems, because it became complacent over the years.” Richards concurs with Knibbs about “not investing, not innovating and not focusing on the customer experience.” What he is seeing now, however, “is a whole new generation of exhibitors globally who are business people first but are also passionate film people. Whenever I travel, I love stopping in at local cinemas and seeing what other operators are doing. The more you travel, the more you realize how many talented and creative exhibitors there are who are constantly reinventing themselves and their cinemas.”
For Richards, that is the very essence of innovation. “When you have a large circuit, you can really throw an idea or a concept or something completely off-the-wall at a number of sites. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least you tried. Every once in a while, you end up with something that really delivers.” He provides one example at Vue: “We started a six-month test on our luxurious VIP seats a couple of years ago… After two months, it became so clear that we were onto something that we started a circuit-wide conversion right away.”
All the while, “what we have fundamentally works and operates,” Knibbs reassures about the multiplex. “We are dealing with a mass audience that we have to get in on time. So the physical space will change not so much, but style and design will change along with changing taste. Services that we offer will change as well.” He envisions having pre-ordered drinks and snacks waiting at the reserved seat for a premium customer “who will pay a little extra for that,” of course. “We are looking at ways of improving the customer experience all the time because we really have to give our customers a compelling reason that they want to pop out tonight along to the cinema, instead of sitting at home in front of their widescreen telly after a busy day.”
Any last thoughts on how to assure success for another ten (anniversary) years and many more to come? “As cinema operators, we all have to work harder at what it is that makes that person continue to go to the cinema and to come back more often,” Knibbs offers. “People have so many choices now about what to do with their time.” Calling the options “just incredible,” he lists “being on the Internet, shopping, attending sports, concerts, live venues…a thousand other things. Competing with all that is keeping us on our toes all of the time.”
And working together, we can all reach higher on those toes, adds Tim Richards. “As an industry, if we can all pick up our game a little and learn from each other, we will be that much stronger and ensure the long-term viability of the exhibition sector.”
The author thanks Mark de Quervain and Charlotte Driessen for their help in putting these stories together.