Hello, fellow moviegoers!
Recently for the economics class, I am currently enrolled in, we were asked to interview the owner of a business. For obvious reasons, my first thought was to interview Mr. Bill Barstow, the owner of Main Street Theatres, the movie theater company I work for. Thankfully, Mr. Barstow agreed and let me interview him. Originally, I was just going to do this for class, but I thought that the information given during this interview was really interesting, so I decided to share it with you guys! It was kind of a long interview, so I cut out some things that I didn’t feel fit this setting. Hopefully, you guys enjoy reading through this. Thanks again to Mr. Barstow and Main Street Theatres for providing me with this opportunity!
Kruzereviews: How long has your company been in business?
Bill: Colleen and I started in December of 1988.
KR: What made you decide to open a movie theater?
B: It’s a long story. Basically, my simple story is, I had been in the Air Force for eight and a half years, and I was looking for something to do to support my family on. I wasn’t a crazy movie nut, but I would say that I loved movies, but it was more that I loved marketing. So my thinking was when I saw this little small town theater for sale that I could do that. And I could do it better than anybody else was doing it. And I had this interest in pioneering small town movie theaters and that was our goal in the early days. It was mainly that I thought there was an opportunity to make small town movie theaters work in small towns, you just had to treat them like they were big town theaters and you had to give people what they expected. You couldn’t treat it like a small town, you had to give them what they wanted. You had to pretend that you were much bigger than you were.
KR: Over time, how have you expanded the company as a whole?
B: So, we’re a capital intensive business industry, and it’s very unusual for people like us to be in our business. There aren’t a lot of mom-and-pop type guys running theater companies because it’s a very expensive business to get into. We’ve never really had money; we were always pretty good at getting projects. So for us, the growth factors came from the opportunities that presented themselves, the opportunities that other people probably weren’t going to touch, opportunities that may have been too risky for somebody, where we saw reward. For an example, in Fremont, somebody contacted us and said the mall was looking to add a movie theater inside a space. They would actually finance most of it if they could find somebody who could actually do it. So, they came down and visited our location in Nebraska City. We showed them what we were about. We were able to talk them into letting us take a chance on that. So that’s how we originally got into the Fremont Mall with four screens. We were competing with another out of town competitor there, the Cinema 3. At some point, we fought them and fought them, and competed with them, until we bought them. Then we closed them, and added the screens and consolidated into Fremont. It was very collaborative. It never would’ve if it wasn’t for lots of people getting involved. First and foremost, the landlord.
KR: So you actually bought the other theater in Fremont and just added the three screens?
B: Yeah, at that time, the hospital was very interested in expanding. They wanted to take that space. We thought it was substandard space, and we wanted out of that space. So, it was the right time for us to remove that location and add everything under one roof at the mall.
KR: Who would you consider to be your major competitors?
B: That’s interesting. Our main competitors would probably be any large metropolitan exhibitor. For us, there’s going to be some international guys in there, AMC certainly, and Marcus Theatres are our two biggest. But it goes much bigger than that. Ultimately, we’re competing for people’s time. It’s not so much money, we’re competing for peoples’ attention. How do we provide enough value that we’re a choice? If you’re considering five things to do, how do we make it into that top five? That’s basically what we want to try and do.
We’re competing against everything. We’re competing against the weather when it’s sunny and 78. We’re competing against High School Football on a Friday night. It doesn’t matter what it is, if there’s something else that you can do that’s compelling, and that’s a very key word, compelling, we’re competing for that time. We’re not competing for money so much; we’re competing for time. We’re competing to get you to come in and spend some time with us, and obviously, if you’re going to spend time with us, you’re going to spend money.
KR: So basically, you’re competing against any other way people would be wanting to spend their time?
B: Exactly. It’s a really healthy way, from a competitive standpoint, not to just say “I’m competing against Majestic on 144th and Maple for Fremont. That’s not apples-to-apples. Fremont is a different market. Every market is a little bit different. Fremont does not have 800,000 people to draw from to then provide certain amenities that somebody is going to demand. If you’re predisposed to leaving a market to go a market, you’ve got to think about this. For everyone who leaves the Fremont market to go to Omaha, there’s somebody leaving Schylur to come to Fremont, and there’s somebody leaving West Point to come to Fremont, or Cedar Bluffs to come to Fremont. We call it leakage. There is leakage into big competitors and big markets, but the reality is that we’re sucking anybody from small towns that move to the next biggest. There’s an old theory called “The Next Biggest Town Theory”, and in economics, that’s a big deal. If you think about it, people jump to the next biggest town. Whatever they perceive the better place they can get more choice, they tend to go to the next biggest town.
KR: How do you differentiate your theaters from those of other companies?
B: We care a little bit more. We’re heavily invested personally with everything. So, personally, Geof and I installed all of the projectors in Fremont. We did all the wall coverings. We literally built that with our own hands, so we’re connected to things that other people aren’t. I think we stayed small enough to where there is a connection. So, you’re sitting in an office right now, and sitting in this office there are three family members and an employee since 1995. So you’ve got people who have grown up in what we do, and I think that differentiates us.
KR: How do you determine your prices when it comes to concessions?
B: We’re kind of unique, and that is in the way we’re structured. What we pay for admissions is not normal for any other business. In other words, about 57% of every ticket sold goes back to the film company. Then you take into account the sales tax that goes to the local government, and you can see what’s left there. So, not many businesses will run on those margins. Because we have such high margins that we’re paying for the film, that’s why you see increased concessions prices.
We are a treat. We are a disposable treat. We’re not a restaurant where you’re coming in and eating all the time. An average moviegoer goes three to five times a year. Not every day. Not every week. Not every month. Three to five times a year. So if I’ve got the movie you’ve got to see, let’s say this weekend it’s Sully, so if you’ve got to see Sully this week, and you can’t see it anywhere else but me and a couple others that are fairly close, and if we do a really good job and the popcorn is popping when you come walking in, there’s a salesmanship angle to that. If a theater is being properly managed, that popcorn is popping when the longest line is standing in the lobby, and it sells itself.
KR: As you mentioned, the average moviegoer goes about three to five times a year. How do you market to those people who go only once or twice?
B: The reality is unless they’re connected on a social media network, our outreach is being driven by the studio. The reason we’re paying such high film rental is there is very little we can do to convince you to come see Secret Life of Pets in Fremont. You either know about it, and you’re going to because it’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere. You are going to know about it. What we have to do is be the place where, if I’m a family and I’m living in Fremont, is it comfortable? Is it convenient? Is it priced accordingly? Can I find convenient show times? Are people nice to me, is it good customer service? Is the popcorn good? Is the picture clean, and does it look good up on the screen? All of those things come into play, and so we don’t really go after them. We couldn’t afford to go after them. To market to somebody right now is so expensive, and everything is so fragmented. For us to even advertise in the newspaper, in Fremont alone, we were spending $30,000 a year to put a little tiny ad in the Fremont newspaper. We’ll have some customers say “Why aren’t you putting an ad in the paper?”, and we just flat out tell them that paper was charging us $30,000 a year, that’s why.
So, most of our marketing right now goes into our social media networks. We’ve got a free weekly email newsletter. I can deliver show time information directly to your inbox every week for free. If you have a smartphone and you want to download our app, I can put all of our show time information literally in the palm of your hand, 24/7. Flixster, Movietickets.com, Fandango, all of them pick up our show times. You can go literally anywhere in the world and on your phone call up the show times for Fremont, Nebraska. So that’s mainly how we’re out there now. The newspaper doesn’t work. There is no television to go to, you can’t get enough coverage, it’s too expensive. Other means just simply aren’t efficient. Just at Aksarben alone, we have 16,000 people connected to us on Facebook. That means we have 16,000 people we get to talk to every week. If we give them content, and we give them things to remain relevant and that are compelling, then we get to talk to them. Today was a great example, today we just sold out two live events faster than we’ve sold anything out, at $40 a pop. Because we had an amazing network on our social media. Facebook is very strongly female like a 34-year-old female is who you’re talking to. Guess who was right up the alley for these moms that do this comedy act? It was 34-year-old females. So, Fat Brain Toys, who is sponsoring this, is just giddy because they were taking a chance on this. But they paired up with somebody like us that talks to 16,000 people every day. It wasn’t by accident those sold out in minutes.
KR: So a lot of it is just being online and general word of mouth?
B: Yeah, going after it and building up enough good will that people pay attention to you. You know there’s a million people trying to grab your attention. Everywhere you go, somebody is trying to grab your attention. If you can have a genuine connection, and this goes back to one of your early questions about why are we different, because we have a genuine connection to our customer. We have a genuine connection. If you’re following us on Facebook, you’re actually talking to the owners nearly every day, and a lot of people are. You can see “Oh, they’re doing this tonight”, and you may not even go. You may not go to see Willy Wonka, but you see we’re doing it and you kind of think that’s cool. You’re not coming, but you may go to the next one, but you’re engaged in it. We’ll try and get something out there that says how much fun Willy Wonka was tonight, and even though you weren’t there, you feel like you participated. You got to watch and you saw a couple of pictures. The next one might appeal to you, and you might come to it.
KR: My last question is: how do you ensure a good quality in the service you provide?
B: You’re really dependent on a strong manager. You’ve got to hope that can communicate to that manager the very best you can how important the movie going experience is. You’ll go through ebbs and flows. You’ll go through good and bad. In a company like ours, we don’t have tons of money to throw at these guys to constantly train them and constantly hit them with why we’re going to do what we’re going to do, but you try to hire really good people. If you hire really good people who enjoy what they’re doing, amazingly enough, they treat people nicely, and when they treat people nice those people like it and they come back. It’s an endless cycle. You’ll see locations will trip up every now and then. For the most part, we run independent satellite units with a fairly strong central control on what you can play. Ultimately it comes down to if you’ve got the right movies, the rest of it’s fairly easy.
KR: Alright, well thank you.
B: Thanks for doing that, intelligent questions. Good stuff.
Thanks again to Mr. Barstow for agreeing to this interview. You can find Main Street Theatres show times here! Also, if you enjoyed this article, share it on Facebook and Twitter. It really helps! Don’t forget, I post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so check back then for more movie reviews and miscellaneous movie thoughts!
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