I last spoke with B&B Theatres executive vice president Brock Bagby in April as businesses across the country were shutting down in response to COVID-19. At that time all of their theatres were dark and the company had furloughed nearly 2,000 employees. I recently emailed Bagby to see if he would agree to a follow-up interview. His response was to say yes, adding, “But it’s been a rough seven months.” B&B Theatres, the sixth largest theatre chain in North America, is not just any independent cinema chain. For nearly a century, the company has understood better than most of their competitors that they don’t just show movies; they are in show business. They believe that movies are magic and their theatres amplify the experience like few others.
Among B&B’s 50 theatres and 419 screens are four ScreenX auditoriums and 10 Grand Screen premium large format rooms. One of the four ScreenX auditoriums is a custom-built amphitheatre with projectors that line the ceilings of the auditorium, maximizing the view of the main screen and wings by up to 50 degrees (22.5 on the left and 22.5 on the right) and projected onto B&B’s signature premium large format 40-feet by 70-feet Grand Screen. Another is the largest ScreenX system in the world, a screen that is over four stories tall and seven stories wide, offering moviegoers one of the most premium, immersive viewing experiences in history. Both feature DTS:X sound. People come from as far as a hundred miles away for those unique experiences. Or they did until COVID-19 hit. Despite all the challenges, when we spoke, Bagby made one thing clear: he believes firmly that cinemas will survive.
Digital Cinema Report: Describe the last seven months for B&B Theatres.
Brock Bagby: Rough remains a fair descriptor, although we are hopeful and pursuing several ambitious and innovation solutions to remain solvent during this challenging time. We are facing a number of challenges. Primarily, we are waiting for new content.
Our facilities are beautiful, our teams devoted, and our enthusiasm unaffected, but at the end of the day our model works when studios release great content to show on our screens. In the meantime, we have developed aggressive Retro and Classic programming to continue to offer the magic of the movies to all our guests.
Additionally, we are working diligently to inform the public that cinemas are safe. Not a single case of COVID-19 has been linked to a cinema worldwide and our unwavering commitment to the CinemaSafe protocols has created an environment that is safe, accommodating, and comfortable. Despite our best efforts, a large segment of the population is still under the assumption that theatres are simply not yet open. But we are!
Our top priority remains our B&B employee family, and we are doing all we can to keep our B&B family working and secure during this unprecedented time.
DCR: When we last spoke, you told me that no one in your family and none of your employees had tested positive for COVID-19. How, if at all, has that situation changed?
BB: While we certainly can’t discuss the specifics of our employees’ health concerns, I can confidently say that my family and I are healthy as horses and working like them.
DCR: Your theatres are some of the most sophisticated in the industry today. Digital cinema technology needs to be turned on periodically or it will stop working entirely. What, if any, technical problems did you encounter when you re-opened?
BB: Some of the technical issues were significant, and not just the projectors. Many of our locations have full kitchens, additional amenities like arcades and bowling, and then auditorium fixtures such as MX4D seats that require routine upkeep. It’s just like anything else really. If you let your lawnmower sit all winter without adequate precautions, you’ll run into trouble in the spring when you try to turn it over. Our equipment needs observation, software updates, routine maintenance. During the furlough and closure periods, we were denied those practical opportunities and came back to buildings that required investment just to reopen. This, among other reasons, is a major consideration regarding our commitment to remaining operational during these past couple of challenging months and going into the Fall and Winter.
DCR: How are your customers responding to the classic films you’re currently showing?
BB: Generally speaking, very well. We have rolled out an extraordinary rental schedule as well, given folks the chance to rent private showtimes of these classic films for up to 25 guests, starting at just $99. We’ve booked literally hundreds of these shows, proving to us that many, many people are ready to return to enjoy the magic of the movies on the big screen. Our marketing and operations teams are working round the clock to keep these wheels turning. So long as guests are interested in coming to theatres, we’ll be sure to have something entertaining onscreen.
DCR: If I read your website correctly, you’re currently operating at reduced hours. Is that to expedite cleaning in between shows?
BB: A bit of that, sure. But we are also operating as lean as possible. If a showtime doesn’t pay for itself in some of our markets, it makes sense to trim back and consolidate the business.
DCR: What impact is the decision by the major Hollywood studios to hold new feature films until 2021 having on your business?
BB: It’s important, first of all, to recognize the difficult position our studio partners are in as well. This year has been awful for so many organizations and people in so many different ways. That being said, the change to the release schedule has been devastating for us. We are doing a small fraction of the business we’d done this time last year, but our numbers for Retro and Classic content and the support we are seeing on social media and our rental programs indicates clearly to us that a huge percentage of the public is ready to watch movies in theatres. They’ll gladly watch old favorites and a handful of new films from fledgling production companies (which we are so grateful for), but they crave blockbusters. But, those choices have been made, and we are now treading water until 2021, which promises to be an absolutely stellar year at the box office.
DCR: What, if anything, can exhibitors do to get the studios to reconsider?
BB: So much of this is out of our hands. We are actively encouraging elected officials to push for Congressional support for our industry and to open major markets that are currently closed, [in particular] New York. If those markets open, the studios may be willing to dip a toe in and give the public the chance to support new films and let their dollars do the talking.
DCR: Many independent theatre chains have worked with Netflix and Amazon to provide them with quality feature films and other content. Is that something B&B Theatres has ever done? If not, is it something you would consider trying?
BB: Under normal circumstances, no way. But in this climate, we’re willing to consider exceptions in the name of preserving the experience until new content is released. We do not fear a major and permanent change in the way guests choose to consume. Streaming is wonderful and convenient and absolutely has its place. But so does the theatre. We have learned to coexist, and will continue to do so.
DCR: B&B Theatres has been in business for almost a century. While this pandemic may be the worst thing to happen to exhibition and virtually all businesses, as the saying goes, this, too, will pass. Is there any way we can end this conversation on a positive note?
BB: This too shall pass is one way to look at it. And, make no mistake, we’ll be happy when it does. But this situation has presented its share of silver linings. Our corporate team is unified in a way that only develops through trials of fire. We’ve always prided ourselves on innovation, but we’ve learned over the last few months to sharpen that instinct and pinpoint opportunities. We have strengthened relationships with local Chambers of Commerce, vendors, partners, and allies. Our routine all-company calls, while not always happy in the conventional sense, are transparent, forthright, practical, and grounded, which has helped to reinforce our core values and mission statement in the minds of our managers and employees. We have stood by our commitment to our people, choosing to do everything we can to make sure they are retaining stable livelihoods and are adequately insured. We’ve seen that commitment reciprocated as countless members of our team consistently go above and beyond to keep the home fires burning.
But beyond that, B&B Theatres enjoys a reputation in this industry as a company that is run by people (not just my family, but all of us) who believe in integrity, hard work, and the magical and irreplaceable value of the theatrical experience. That reputation has provided us with unexpected opportunities to grow and expand our circuit even during this trying time.
We wish health and safety for everyone. This situation is difficult and painful and has been, at times, a little scary. But we have believed in the magic of the movies for almost a hundred years. We aren’t stopping now.