CUSTOMER COMES FIRST

Sony goes extra mile

When Paramount distribution head honcho Wayne Lewellen moved to New York City 12 years ago from his native Texas, he loved the town but wasn’t so crazy about the movie theaters.

“Most of them were awful,” he recalls. “They were doing tremendous business but they were basically a customer’s nightmare.” Surly box office staff, theater floors caked with hours-old soda, movies that rarely started on time and less than state-of-the-art sound and pictures were often the order of the day. Then, four years ago, Barrie Lawson Loeks and her husband, Jim Loeks, arrived in town to take the helm as co-chairmen of Sony Theatres with a “revolutionary” idea: Take better care of ticket buyers and they’re more likely to come back.

“When people run a business, they sometimes neglect their most important asset, which is their customers,” says Tom Sherak, chairman of the 20th Century Fox domestic film group. “That was a problem as recently as five years ago.” In fact, Sherak adds, it was the only major complaint distribution execs had about the exhibition biz in general.

But all that began to change when the Loeks took on Manhattan and the rest of the Sony and Loews chain. “From the very beginning, Barrie made it clear that she knew that patrons needed to come first and she dedicated herself to figuring out how best to accomplish that.”

The results, apparently, have been impressive. “Barrie and Jim have taken Loews to new heights in the past few years. They’ve transformed Loews/Sony into a dynamic force in the industry,” says Bruce Snyder, president of domestic distribution, 20th Century Fox.

“People not only want great films, they want great theaters,” says Nikki Rocco, distribution president at Universal Pictures. And every exec contacted by Daily Variety seems to agree that Lawson Loeks has played a major role in transforming Loews/Sony into the Northeast’s premier circuit.

“Build great, well-run theaters and people won’t just wait for the next blockbuster to go to the movies,” Rocco continues. “It’ll put them in a twice-a-week movie-going mode.”

In other words, says Phil Barlowe, Buena Vista president of distribution, build it right and they will come more often. “I have a 70-inch television at home with THX sound. So do lots of other people. That’s why theaters have to stay ahead of the curve.” The exhibition biz in general is managing to do that, Barlowe says, in large part because of the leadership of the Loeks. “Because of the kind of theaters she and Jim are creating, people are saying that it’s fun to go to the movies again.”

Barrie and Jim Loeks assumed command of Loews/Sony in January 1993 after four years of helming the Michigan-based, eight theater, 82-screen Loeks-Star chain. A joint venture between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Loeks Michigan Theatres, Inc., Loeks-Star has become one of the nation’s leading niche circuits. Under the Loeks leadership, the company grew to a point in 1992 when it accounted for 25% of the box office take in the metropolitan Detroit area alone. That got the attention of their Sony partners in Los Angeles and the Loeks were in at Loews, making Barrie Loeks the highest ranking woman in the exhibition business. At the same time, the Loeks continue to part own and operate Loeks-Star.

“They’ve done an excellent job,” says Warner Bros. distribution topper Barry Reardon, reviewing the Loeks’ tenure thus far. “Loews was a good circuit before they came. Now it’s a great one.”

As expected, the Loeks brought to Loews/Sony the service-oriented formula that served them so well in Michigan, where they ran the 82-screen Loeks-Star Theatres chain. That includes innovations such as commission sales for employees, glow-in-the-dark usher cards to warn talkative audience members, “next-in-line service” to eliminate box office waits of more than three minutes and the now-famous mints distributed to audience members as they leave the theater.

But just because Lawson Loeks has softened the image of exhibition in the Northeast, don’t make the mistake of thinking she’s a soft touch. “She’s a tough competitor,” says Sony distribution head Jeff Blake. “On the rare occasion she doesn’t get a picture she wants to play, she’ll let you know about it at lunch.”

Since the Loeks took the company reins, say industry observers, they have been focusing on the depth and not the breadth of Loews/Sony. The company has, to all intents and purposes, not expanded its screen capacity in the last four years, a period of time that has seen the explosive growth of AMC theaters domestically and internationally and the rapid growth of such regional circuits as Knoxville, Tenn.-based Regal Cinemas. In 1992 Loews/Sony had 885 screens. The Loeks took over in January 1993, and today the chain has 900 at its 140 locations in 14 states. “Partially I think that’s because Loews had limited resources and Sony has been strapped for cash,” says one film exec who asked not to be identified.

But in addition to renovating and improving existing theaters, the company has been building some impressive new facilities. The day before Thanksgiving 1996, Loews opened its 18-screen, 4,400 seat theater complex in New Brunswick, N.J., featuring a huge Art Deco-style lobby with an arched glass atrium ceiling.

“It sure isn’t like the theaters I ran in New Jersey 30 years ago,” says an admiring Al Shapiro, senior VP/general sales manager, New Line. “Movie complexes today are like department stores.” If that’s so, then the Loews New Brunswick is Nordstrom, not Mervyn’s, he adds.

“I spent a whole day there when they opened it. I had a great time just watching Barrie interact with the customers. Her personal warmth is reflected in the theaters her company’s creating.”

But putting up a fancy new building is one thing; getting people to come is another. “A lot of people can put up important structures,” Sony’s Blake says. “What makes Barrie stand out is her marketing instinct. She makes going to the movies a real event. The whole ambiance of her theaters has gone up substantially.”

And it’s the intangibles, like the overall “ambiance” of exhibition venues, that are significantly responsible for the rising box office numbers of the past three years. Those numbers have been relatively flat for the last 30 years, observes Buena Vista’s Barlowe, but have been climbing impressively since 1994. “It’s not happening because of the kind of improvements in service that Barrie has made, but it couldn’t have happened without them, either.”

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