Loews chain pairs Loekses as co-chairs

Sony Pictures Entertainment named Jim and Barrie Loeks co-chairs of its 885 -screen Loews Theatres yesterday, giving the husband-and-wife team the reins of the oldest exhibition company in the United States.

The Loekses will take over Loews in January, after current chairman A. Alan Friedberg retires Dec. 31. At the ShowEast convention, Friedberg announced his plan to retire to focus on regulatory issues facing SPE (Daily Variety, Oct. 19 ).

The Loekses’ appointment has both historic and strategic significance. In accepting the Loews job, Barrie Loeks becomes the highest-ranking woman executive in the exhibition industry and the top-ranking woman in SPE’s operating ranks.

Strategically, the Loekses are expected to use their hands-on management style to expand and transform the 88-year-old Loews chain into SPE’s consumer beachhead for such “software-driven entertainment technologies” as simulation rides, virtual-reality theaters and 360-degree video nightclubs.

“Because we are affiliated with Sony, we have great advantages in terms of technology,” Barrie Loeks said. “It is their hope, and ours, that Loews can be at the forefront of advances in technology.”

While newfangled technologies are in their future, it was the Loekses’ past that landed them the Loews gig.

Over the last four years, the two shepherded the SPE joint venture Loeks-Star Partners, an eight-theater, 74-screen circuit concentrated in the Detroit area. The Loekses and SPE are equal partners in the Loeks-Star Partners start-up circuit.

Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Peter Guber said, “We believe the theatrical exhibition business requires incentives to motivate people to leave their homes and go to theaters–the product, the way it is exhibited, concessions and service. The Loekses have proven themselves successful in all those areas.”

“The Loekses are hands-on operators, focused on bringing people back to the movies,” said 20th Century Fox distribution topper Tom Sherak. “They run a very good theater chain, concentrating on presentation and customer service.”

The Loekses are expected to bring a service-oriented management style to Loews. Their tack at Loeks-Star Partners has included such service innovations as commission sales for employees, glow-in-the-dark usher warning cards for talkative audience members, candy mints for exiting moviegoers and “next-in-line service,” which guards against waits longer than three minutes at the box office , concession stands and seating.

“We think American moviegoers are hungry for great service,” Jim Loeks said. “Unlike a restaurant or a large retailer, you have very little time one-on-one with the customer.”

He added that “fast and friendly service” pays off over the long haul–Loeks-Star Partners has contributed to a 25% increase in box office revenues in the Detroit market since 1988.

Despite that success, the Loekses were considered surprise picks within exhibition ranks.

Several questioned their ability to handle the vast operations of Loews Theatres–a costly and key SPE asset that ranks No. 7 among U.S. and Canadian exhibition chains.

Assembled at exorbitant cash-flow multiples in the go-go ’80s, Loews has roughly 12 times the number of screens and 10 times the sales volume of the Loeks-Star Partners circuit.

“Certainly this is larger than anything we have ever done,” said Barrie Loeks. “But we believe the systems we have come up with (at Loeks-Star Partners) are easily translated to a larger scale.”

If the Loekses are successful, they could have a dramatic impact on the exhibition industry.

Loews already has significant clout in such markets as New Jersey, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Texas and the key market of Manhattan, where it operates such venues as the 86th Street Theatre, the seven-screen Village Theatre, the 19th Street Theatre and the newly opened Orpheum. A blip in Loews’ Manhattan box office revenues could spur exhibitors to step up service efforts and operations, distributors said.

The Loekses’ success has been carved over more than a decade of working together.

An attorney, the 39-year-old Barrie Loeks handles budgets, legal, financial and real-estate development, while the 38-year-old Jim Loeks draws on his previous experience as chairman of John Ball Concessions Inc. to spearhead theater operations.

Under the Loekses, film buying for Loews is expected to remain status quo. Because SPE maintained an ownership position in Loeks-Star Partners, film buying for the Michigan circuit was farmed out to Loews’ film buyers in New Jersey. As a result, current circuit prez Bob Smerling and Loews film buyers are expected to remain in place under the Loekses’ stewardship.

Addressing the historic import of her appointment, Barrie Loeks said the exhibition industry “has been surprisingly male-dominated” through the years, “particularly in contrast to other segments” of the entertainment industry. She expressed hope that her appointment will be a sign to other women in the exhibition industry ranks that the glass ceiling can be broken.

The Loekses will relocate from Michigan to New York City to take their new jobs.

They will maintain their 50% ownership in the Loeks-Star Partners venture, while turning over day-to-day operations to established staff. No major management changes are expected at the smaller 78-screen circuit, Jim Loeks said.

The Loekses accepted the SPE offer to run Loews late Tuesday night and will be attending the National Assn. of Theatre Owners board meetings in Century City this week.

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