Guarding the Association: Chuck Winans charts NAC’s growth
“I cannot tell you how many times I had calls from trade and consumer press, television stations… They were always complaining and yapping about how theatres and stadiums could possibly charge so much for concessions?” Chuck Winans still sounds exasperated. “It is one of the biggest pet peeves that you had to deal with all the time. It is difficult for people to understand if they do not know what our business is all about.”
As the former executive director of the National Association of Concessionaires (NAC), Winans certainly knows the business. “It was always like the concession people were the bad guys out there. And I had to explain over and over again how, without concessions, movie ticket prices would have to be so much higher. Exhibitors have to pay for the films, just as concessionaires pay the owners of the ballpark for their foodservice contract. If they could sell cheaper and still make the profit that they need to make, surely they would do so. But they cannot.”
Film Journal International is pleased to present a conversation with the man who has spent 38.5 years at the NAC—of the 70 years that we are celebrating with our special anniversary tribute—and guided the organization as its executive director for every single year except his first. He graciously shares with our readers some of the key changes that the association and the industry have gone through over the years and what has remained the same.
How Winans got his start in 1973 “is not as romantic as you may think. At that stage in my professional game, I really didn’t have a grip on what a trade association may be,” he admits. Working in marketing and conducting research for a publisher in Chicago, he had concerns about changes at the company, and was looking for a new position. “If you were smart, you got the Sunday edition of The Chicago Tribune on Saturday to look through the job listings. I read this three-line ad about this National Association of Concessionaires looking for someone with a background in marketing and business. I told my wife, ‘I have strange feeling about this,’ and that I wanted to find out more. The ad really didn’t say much.”
During the ensuing interview with the executive director, “I saw a stack of resumes on top of this filing case. It looked like 150 of them,” he says with an audible sigh. “Even though I had degrees in marketing and business, I had no formal training in terms of what association management was all about. I had no idea, basically, what an association did. There were no courses in school for that.”
So did they end up hiring him because he was cheap to get? “Probably so,” Winans chuckles at the suggestion before giving credit where credit is due. “I was very fortunate that the director was a gentleman named Lou Abramson, who had been part of the film industry for an extended period of time. After six or seven years at NAC, he was retiring but had agreed to remain in place. Thankfully, during that final year he was such a great mentor to me. We had hit it off during the interview and after meeting with the search committee, I was soon speaking in front of 35 board members, being asked about what I intended to be doing… I guess you could say I winged it. And boy, did I get my feet wet real quick!”
Then and now, the board of directors consisted of about the same number of individuals. “They came from all areas of the U.S. as well as Canada. If I recall correctly, there was not one female director on the board. It was very much a men’s world at that particular point. As the years came about, that changed, of course.”
The association with the National Association of Theatre Owners was an already established relationship, as was putting on a joint convention with the equipment manufacturers that were represented by the same group that has become the International Cinema Technology Association today. “Led by executive vice president Joe Alterman, NATO was still headquartered in New York City and their convention and tradeshow was moving annually from one city to another across the United States. Bob Sunshine’s brother Jerry was executive director for the technology manufacturers.”
Already in 1974, Winans recalls, the 13 Western states of NATO were holding a joint convention, which was the precursor of ShoWest/CinemaCon and moved to San Diego the next year. As NAC executive director, Winans was part of the discussions about possibly relocating the convention from San Diego to Las Vegas. “Everything I had read and heard was that Vegas was not the place to put on a convention. People went out to gamble, to see shows; they would not get up in the morning to attend the business sessions and so on. Many associations that I knew were saying just that. They would never go back to Las Vegas. It’s the wrong place to be. I voiced that opinion, but the decision was made to go there anyway.” Attendance doubled, he deadpans. “I was totally off base. The delegates got up in the morning, attended to their business affairs, went to the tradeshow and to all the social functions too. Everybody enjoyed it. That goes to show you that I certainly didn’t have my head screwed on right at the time. They, of course, did the right thing.”
During these earlier days, membership was more orientated towards theatres. “Soft drink companies, cup suppliers and the like, popcorn equipment manufacturers and the candy folks have always been an integral part of NAC,” Winans explains. “In terms of the concession operations, although we had some members from the diversified side, our membership was predominantly based in movie theatres.” Unlike the concentration of more and more screens at fewer circuits that we see today, “you still had many different family operations back then,” he elaborates. “Our membership included lots of individuals and medium-sized operators throughout the country. As the years went by, they were either consolidated or otherwise gobbled up.” Parallel to this industrywide change, NAC adapted its profile as well. Winans assures that the diversified membership has certainly increased in its importance to the association.
The ranges of available products that are so important to the bottom line have also increased. Back in the old days, “popcorn, candy and soft drinks basically were the only items sold in theatres,” Winans reminds us. “Over time, the serving sizes have increased, the variety of different candies grew larger as new products came in, starting with nachos, pretzels and so on. Graphics and menu-board designs have changed, as has the overall computerization from ordering food to payments and inventory. We used to have ‘belly-up’ stands and now you find circular ones, self-serve and all other different types of designs. Also, customers are really enjoying the in-theatre dining experience. I think those are all wonderful changes to the industry. Patrons enjoy them, and having the opportunity to try out different types of food.”
But, he cautions, “Your main profit-makers still are popcorn, candy and soft drinks, despite all the changes and the wider menu selection.” Personally, Winans is “an old traditionalist” himself. “When my wife and I go to the movies, we get a soft drink and buttered popcorn, not just plain. And during a ballgame, I always like a beer and a hot dog. I’m pretty simple.”
Not so simple was keeping up with ideas for the conventions, he assures us. “We always wanted to create interesting business programming—something that would be really creative and innovative, yet a good learning experience for the delegates as well.” Norm Chesler, who was president at that time (“Coincidentally, his father Harold was president when I started at NAC”) had a great idea, Winans says, in suggesting Siskel and Ebert. “So we gave them a call and were able to go to their studio, sit down and talk with them. Both knew all about ShoWest, of course, as they had been there. They immediately said, ‘We’d love to do this.’ The give-and-take that Siskel and Ebert had going right then and there, when we were speaking with them, they could do the whole program without even trying. We had to pay an honorarium, but we thought it would be very entertaining and well worth it. As it turned out, we had a standing-room-only session of about 1,700 to 2,000 people who came in to watch and then gave them a round of ovation. We had a sequel the year following, and again it was just a hugely entertaining success. There was national media coverage about the event; they talked about it on the Johnny Carson show. There was just a lot of good PR that came of this for ShoWest and for the movie industry. And Siskel and Ebert enjoyed themselves too. So it was a win-win situation all around.”
Does Winans have any winning advice for theatre owners? “I don’t know if I should say this or not, because it is going to be perceived as negative.” Well, advice is always good, this author promises to point out. (Besides, he agrees 100% with Winans.) “I know theatres have to watch their overhead and labor costs and they try and judge it as best as they can. However, when I have gone to the movies, sometimes there are just not enough employees behind the concession stand to take care of the patrons. I think by having short labor staff at the concession stand, they are missing out on sales and profits. I am not saying this happens all the time, but if there is a line that is a little bit longer than normal, some guests will just avoid the stand and go straight to the movie… I just hate to see that happen because I know it’s money out of the theatre owner’s pocket. It’s just not a good thing.”
This sounds like he misses the business and representing NAC right along with it. “Yes, I honestly do, and I can tell your readers a few reasons why,” Winans proceeds. “Retirement is good, but at the same time you do miss things. I can’t deny that. Am I sorry I retired? No. I think it was time for a change, time for new blood”—which has been injected with current executive director Daniel Borschke, of course. “Maybe I should’ve stayed just one more year.” We detect a hint of regret, perhaps. “John Evans from Gold Medal was almost like a brother to me. I knew him from the first day he joined the board of directors and he was the incoming new president. I knew his dad J.C., who is such a great mentor to the entire industry and who has given just so much to the association as well.”
Another reason he misses NAC is the diverse makeup of the group. “All types of companies are part of the organization, which is very unique. In most other professional associations—be it lawyers or accountants, theme-park operators—the president always rises from within that same industry. At NAC, we have had very different presidents that were equipment manufacturers and jobber-distributors, as well as those working for a soft drink company, consultants. What makes it even more unique is that all these individuals really love our industry and want to give back and all help guide it.”
In the end, the National Association of Concessionaires is all about the people, as confirmed by the industry representatives who spoke to FJI for this anniversary tribute. “I was able to make a lot of friends and acquaintances. I loved the opportunity that NAC provided not just for me but for our industry. I would not have been there this long if I didn’t enjoy it. I felt very, very fortunate. The organization is made up of people and they are whom I enjoyed. I enjoyed the friendships, the people that I dealt with, the variety of work… There was never a dull day."