NEW YORK — Unlike many people working in theatrical exhibition, Barrie Lawson Loeks did not grow up serving popcorn and tearing ticket stubs. She got into the business 21 years ago when she married Jim Loeks, whose family owns Jack Loeks Theatres Inc., a regional circuit based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In the early days of the marriage, Lawson Loeks practiced law after graduating magna cum laude from the U. of Michigan Law School while her husband worked for his family. “We never saw each other,” she recalls. Then in 1982 Jim Loeks asked her to join him at Jack Loeks Theatres as vice president and general counsel. Thus was born a mom-and-pop team that would soon ascend into the upper echelons of corporate America.

Today, Barrie and Jim Loeks are the co-chairmen of Loews Theatres, a division of Sony Retail Entertainment and the seventh-largest circuit in the country with 900 screens. They are also the co-owners with Sony of Loeks-Star Theatres, which they founded in 1985 and expanded to 82 screens in partnership with Sony and its predecessor company Columbia Pictures Entertainment.

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At this year’s ShoWest, Lawson Loeks will become the first woman honored with the prestigious Robert W. Selig ShoWester of the Year Award.

While mom-and-pop operations are quite common in the exhibition business, the Loeks’ partnership was initially puzzling to the Columbia Pictures legal team that drafted their first contract. “We were the first husband-and-wife team to be running a chain,” says Lawson Loeks. “The lawyers were really stumped. They wanted to know what would happen if we didn’t get along. Finally, they put in a divorce clause that basically says all bets are off if we get separated or divorced.”

The likelihood of this happening is next to nil, says Lawson Loeks, because the pair has been together since college and function as a team. “Between the two of us, we make one good person,” says Lawson Loeks. “We have different skill sets. If we were more similar in our talents, it would be harder.” At Loews, Lawson Loeks oversees legal and financial issues and handles the circuit’s internal dealings with Sony as well as public relations.

Jim Loeks is more involved in Loews’ day-to-day operations and film buying. He works together with Lawson Loeks on developing new sites, although he takes on more responsibility for design. Lawson Loeks calls her husband, who majored in business at the U. of Michigan, a “frustrated architect.”

So far, the divorce clause has been moot, as the Loeks’ marriage has proved a lot more stable than the management of its corporate partner. When the Loeks first went into business with Loews in 1989, the circuit was a division of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, which was then owned by Coca Cola. Columbia was subsequently sold to Sony Corp., which hired Peter Guber to be the studio’s chairman and CEO. Guber left five years later. His boss, Sony Corp. president and CEO Michael Schulhof, was ousted in December 1995 after the company’s Japanese owners grew impatient with losses and lavish spending in the filmed entertainment operations.

The initial contact between the Loeks and their future partners at Loews was not exactly friendly. Shortly after the couple formed Loeks-Star Theatres to build hardtops in the Detroit market, they kept running into Loews execs, who would outbid on sites. The couple called their local Coca-Cola fountain sales representative and warned that Jack Loeks and Loeks-Star Theaters would no longer buy Coke if Loews continued to compete against them in Michigan.

“This was the same argument that Coke was using against Pepsi with the fast food companies,” says Lawson Loeks. “By selling Pepsi, the fast food chains were helping Pepsi to build more Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, which were competing with them.”

Ultimately, the Loeks’ complaint got kicked upstairs to Victor Kaufman and Lew Korman, who were assuming the reins at Columbia Pictures. The Loeks’ November 1988 meeting with chairman-CEO Kaufman and president-COO Korman began with some verbal jousting but ended with an agreement for a 50/50 joint venture between Loeks-Star Theatres and Loews. Under the pact, the Loeks put their existing Detroit theaters into the joint venture and received cash to match the value of the theaters as well as financing for future development.

The deal also called for the Loeks to buy out their investors in Loeks-Star Theatres, many of whom were former colleagues of Lawson Loeks at the Grand Rapids law firm Warner, Norcross & Judd, where she worked as an associate after clerking for U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Albert J. Engle. The couple formed their own company because Jack Loeks did not want to expand his company into Detroit, about 100 miles from Grand Rapids.

After the Loeks inked their contract with Columbia in 1989, Loeks-Star Theatres expanded from a handful of screens to 76 three years later by ringing the city of Detroit with multiplexes and megaplexes. During this time, theater attendance in the Detroit market increased between 30% and 40%. “Loews was a great partner because they supported everything we did,” says Lawson Loeks. “They looked at us like a laboratory.”

Not long after the Loeks went into business with Columbia Pictures, the company was sold to Sony, which became their new partner in Loeks-Star Theatres. After the sale to Sony, management of Loews passed from longtime chairman Bernie Myerson to Alan Friedberg. A year later, Sony Pictures executive vice president Larry Ruisi pitched the Loeks on the idea of coming to New York and taking the reins of the Sony-owned circuit. By this time, the couple had ended their involvement with Jack Loeks Theatres.

In December 1992, the Loeks became co-chairmen of Loews and moved from Grand Rapids to Rye, N.Y., with their daughter Jamie. The couple commutes from the Westchester town to Loews headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Although she had spent her adult life in Michigan, the shift to New York suited Lawson Loeks. “I was rather an odd duck in Michigan,” she says. “I was the first woman in my law firm. Here, I feel much more at home.”

But the Loeks did not leave behind a Midwestern emphasis on friendliness and service. One of their first dictates was to require all Loews employees to greet customers. This requirement struck some of the circuit’s more cynical, urban employees as corny. “There were people who couldn’t cope with the changes we were making in corporate culture and they left,” says Lawson Loeks. “But if you can’t welcome a guest, you shouldn’t work for us.”