Maximizing Marcus: Rolando Rodriguez reintroduces a venerable theatre brand


“Marcus Theatres continuously invests in making the moviegoing experience more enjoyable and more memorable for our customers,” says Rolando Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Marcus Theatres. It has been two-and-a-half years since Film Journal International reviewed his “Return Engagement,” when Rodriguez took the helm at Rave Cinemas. After five years of what he calls a “side trip” to Walmart, the 30-year AMC Theatres veteran—who began his career at 15 as an usher at the Embassy 2 Theater in Kansas City, Missouri—was “very, very excited to be back.” And excited he still is.

“On a personal basis, I am just elated with The Marcus Corporation and to be part of the Marcus family. That also means that I remain in a business that I love. Those three coming together is just wonderful for me.”

Appointed last August after Bruce J. Olson, a 39-year veteran of Marcus and then president of its theatres, announced his retirement, Rodriguez also became executive VP of The Marcus Corporation. “Bruce did a wonderful job of creating an incredible foundation for this organization,” Rodriguez attests. “He is a true industry veteran and amazing leader who did so many wonderful things over the course of his career. Not only for The Marcus Corporation but also for this industry and, even more so, for so many of the charitable endeavors he always supported.”

Asked about the excitement of moving from what was then the fifth-largest chain in North America to the fifth-largest today, he chuckles: “You don’t have to change that around too much. With the dissolution of Rave and the sale of its theatres to different companies, Marcus stepped up to take that spot.”

But there are some differences that go beyond the Marcus tally of 685 screens at 55 locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio. “At Rave, we spent a lot of time with acquisitions and managing theatres for other owners,” Rodriguez explains. “In the case of Marcus Theatres, we own the majority of our properties and we are well-vested in the business. What really attracted me to come here is the very strong interest of the organization and the family to see this side of their business continue to blossom.” Expansion and growth, Rodriguez says, will happen “both organically and through some acquisitions that we’ll probably be doing as well.”

Although The Marcus Corporation is a publicly traded company, he reminds us that, “of course, its family leadership has 78-plus years of experience in running this organization, which is a combination of the hotel and theatre business, as we all know. I have the great fortune of leading the exhibition side.”

Rodriguez’s path to Marcus was partly guided by his experience working on the NATO executive board of directors with Steven Marcus, chairman of The Marcus Corporation, as well as the pleasure of meeting with his son, Gregory Marcus, the Corporation’s president and chief executive officer. “They were looking for a new leader to take inventory of the inherent opportunities of their theatrical business. [Someone] to really change the dynamics of what they intend to do with that business.”

The Marcus family has plans to grow the exhibition share of the corporate pie. “They still love the theatre business,” Rodriguez happily assures, “and it is a great time to expand that side of their business.” In his view, “Marcus Theatres has developed some great amenities and equally good concepts whose deployment is somewhat in the infancy stage still. We have just started to expand them into the rest of our locations along with refurbishing many of our buildings.”

An exemplary case in point is the upcoming renovation of the Marcus Twin Creek Cinema in Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of Omaha, as it features five of the signature amenities to be rolled out across several more “carefully selected locations,” Rodriguez promises. Among the additions are three “Big Screen Bistros” for full service in-theatre dining (also see Marcus “Cine Dine” in Omaha, Nebraska, in our January 2010 issue), one “Take Five Lounge” in the lobby, and a variety of “Zaffiro’s Express” offerings at the concession stand. Also to be included is a Dolby Atmos-enhanced and newly “UltraScreen DLX”-branded auditorium that offers oversized, electric “DreamLounger” recliners that fully adjust at the push of a button. (In last month’s “Class of 2013” report, FJI just highlighted the Marcus Majestic in Omaha, Nebraska, as another example of enriching amenities.)

With UltraScreen DLX, Marcus Theatres launched an expansion to the original premium format that was the first circuit-branded of its kind in 1999. “Now we are covering the three key elements that are enhancing the moviegoer experience. Obviously, a 70-foot-wide screen is highly competitive and with ultra-realistic Dolby Atmos sound that envelops audiences like never before as part of the package, we are creating the ultimate entertainment experience.” On the subject of seating to match, he adds, “If you think about it, our industry always addressed sight and sound. But, where the consumer typically spends two, two-and-a-half hours of their movie time, we have not really taken a major step towards change. Our DreamLoungers are doing just that and they represent a very nice addition that makes the experience of sight and sound even fuller.”

To fully support that insightful change, Marcus is taking the additional step of offering those opportunities for dreamy lounging in all the auditoriums of the remodeled complex—including the Big Screen Bistros where they are fitted with swivel tables.

“You’re probably wondering how this is different from what some of the other exhibitors out there are doing.” Rodriguez notes. “Our company also has a very rich tradition in the food and beverage and lodging business.” Admitting to “going through a great learning process” personally, he refers to the ownership and/or management of 20 Marcus Hotels & Resorts and other properties in 11 states. “I am just amazed about the rich experience and creativity and new ideas that we can draw on for the theatrical side. Connecting those two dots together will make our theatres even better.”

Offering a place for a “hand-crafted cocktail or locally brewed beer” alongside “delectable food items” before or after the movie, the Take Five Lounge is another feature that is “doing very, very well for us,” Rodriguez reports. “Again, this doesn’t mean other folks haven’t done this type of concept already, but the rich history that Marcus is drawing from has certainly given us an advantage.” Inviting our readers to look at some of the pictures, Rodriguez points to the 20-foot high-definition flat panel gracing the Lounge. “In markets across the Midwest, it is a phenomenal experience to watch your favorite football teams play in one of the finest-looking lounges that I have seen in the movie theatre space.”

Rodriguez credits past developments for creating such fine-looking spaces. “The fact that, in some places, it has been a while since we reinvested into the business gives us the greatest opportunity to really roll out these amenities now that we have fine-tuned them, all the while we are refurbishing some of our great properties.” Marcus is taking “a very fast approach because we are getting great feedback from the consumers and some wonderful reactions. Even more importantly, we are enjoying a lot of great traffic coming through our doors.”

Marcus Theatres is not only renovating existing properties, they are also building new venues. The Marcus Palace Cinema, scheduled for a groundbreaking this month in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, “will boast dramatic modern lines and a sweeping entrance canopy,” with DreamLoungers in all auditoriums, two UltraScreen DLX auditoriums, four Big Screen Bistros, a Take Five Lounge and Zaffiro’s Express.

Again, Rodriguez acknowledges how “many circuits have tried the same or a similar concept in many different ways.” He mentions iPic Theaters and AMC Entertainment in particular. “What we have done differently is to not only introduce the DreamLoungers throughout the entire complex but also to install them into the large-screen format auditorium. We are really trying to elevate what ‘large format’ really means. This is our event house. This is where all of the major productions and event-type pictures should play. From the moment that consumers open the door, we want the overall impression and the look and feel of the auditorium to touch all of their senses.”

Yet the biggest difference, perhaps, is that moviegoers do not need to touch their wallets yet again. “As an industry, we need to continue to look at what that price-value relationship really means to the consumer,” Rodriguez opines. “Movie theatres had another record year on top of another record year. And that’s great. I am ecstatic about that, but at the same time attendance has remained flat or gone up only slightly. Our population base continuing to grow in this country should also energize us to say, ‘How do we continue to remain as competitive as all of the other entertainment components that we are up against?’ By offering two-and-a-half hours of entertainment experiences, moviegoing continues to be one of the great price-value propositions that nobody else can give you. And at a price that is really unmatched by any of the other out-of-home options.” In fact, “although our ticketing and concession prices are often said to be fairly high,” Rodriguez observes, “the reality is that on a comparative basis, movie theatres are much more value-oriented than the rest. And our new loyalty program will further enhance our customers’ value proposition.”

It all depends on the target demographic, doesn’t it? “Most people would probably agree with that, then fast-forward and say, ‘This kind of concept will only work in an upper-scale bracket.’ I, however, do not believe that is actually the case. You have to remember that these Marcus theatres remain with the existing price structure. So, with our DreamLongers we are providing the consumers much more value for their money. This is working very well in lower to middle-income areas too. Again, this is not something that can be done at every theatre in the marketplace. It all depends on the level of density around any particular location,” he cautions. “We need to have enough density of population to make sure that there will be enough capacity utilization with that price-value relationship to make the concept successful.”

Other concepts poised to lead to more utilization are the “Theatre Entertainment Network” and “Indie Focus.” Launched in September 2013, the Theatre Entertainment Network is an initiative to offer a wide variety of alternative options including concerts, opera, comedy performances and classic movies. Indie Focus, dedicated to movies with an independent spirit, debuted in mid-January at 11 theatre locations in six states. “The opportunity to watch the best art and independent films,” the launch release noted, “will appeal to a discerning audience interested in experiencing cutting-edge entertainment in auditoriums using the finest digital projection and sound technology.” Admits Rodriguez, “While we did show some independent films before, we were never fully committed to it.” Giving Indie Focus its own brand identity is necessary for “the consumer to understand that we are fully committed to playing independent films on an ongoing basis. And you have to market this to the target audience on that same consistent basis. We are trying to give Indie Focus a look and feel at the theatre level,” he says, “because we believe there is a tremendous audience out there in many of our markets that we have not yet fully tapped over the years.”

All this new and renewed focus seems to be part of an overall strategy that elsewhere was referred to as elevating the brand. Rodriguez sees it somewhat differently. “The Marcus name has always been well-known and respected within the industry. As a company with a rich tradition, Marcus Theatres has been one of the building blocks and leaders within our industry. With that, we’ve had, and continue to receive, strong shareholder support.” The current approach is more about repositioning, he maintains. “And about reintroducing the Marcus brand, because at times people have forgotten what a great organization this is. We have many amenities underway and a lot of innovative and creative ideas that can not only benefit Marcus Theatres, but can hopefully be shared within the industry as well, to make us all better.” For Rodriguez, “this is not about elevating the brand but more about reintroducing a great brand. It is probably more like the touch of a ‘new’ Marcus moving well into the future.”

What does that future hold in store? “Marcus Theatres has been focused primarily in seven states of the Upper Midwest. As a very well-financed and capitalized company, we are also perfectly positioned to pursue cautiously smart acquisitions that make sense to the organization. They will not be limited to the seven states that we are currently operating in,” he adds. “There are many markets that we have an interest in across the South, and the East and West Coasts. Speaking very frankly, the timing is just right for us to look for those proper acquisitions… The state of our industry is good,” he concludes our conversation. “And that of Marcus Theatres is very good. It is time to recognize that and to expand upon that success."