After more than twenty years with Cinemark Theatres, the company his father founded, Kevin Mitchell set out in 2007 to make his own mark in the movie theater industry. Although his business plan has evolved from its original form—including the turnaround of existing theaters in addition to new construction—ShowBiz Cinemas has more than forty-five screens across Texas with per-screen attendance nearly 30 percent higher than the industry average. Mitchell has plans to double the company’s size in the coming year.
One of Mitchell’s reasons for starting ShowBiz Cinemas was his belief that larger theater chains were missing opportunities, particularly in smaller markets. “We’re more agile and creative when it comes to serving communities that usually wouldn’t get a big development,” he says. “We can work with a variety of partners to make the numbers work to everyone’s advantage.”
Cities often provide tax abatements for projects developed with a theater as the anchor tenant, because it helps create jobs and spur economic development. For example, 72 percent of ShowBiz Cinemas customers come from outside cities where theaters are located. In turn, the company can offer attractive deals to a real estate investment trust (REIT) or other developers and investors who may purchase the project with a leaseback provision. Landowners may also sell at lower prices since the finished project can increase the value of their surrounding properties 500 to 600 percent.
Mitchell’s resourceful approach doesn’t stop once a new theater is up and running. He is always looking for new ways to connect with his customers. In several ShowBiz Cinemas locations, digital multimedia, interactive lobbies, boutique bowling alleys, expanded food menus, 3-D immersive sound systems, and oversized reclining chairs are part of the experience.
Not all the innovations have been successful. For instance, chili pies were too hard to eat in a dark theater.
The most effective strategy focuses on building relationships with local communities. ShowBiz Cinemas gives free tickets to all first responders, as well as students with straight As or perfect attendance. Mitchell is also exploring special events for churches, corporate and athletic groups, and schools.
“It is great to see how a small movie chain is leveraging its size—what could be seen as its disadvantage—and turning it into an advantage. ShowBiz Cinemas, under the guidance of Kevin Mitchell, is connecting with communities in more direct ways than its large-chain competitors could ever do. It is also impressive that Kevin Mitchell is focusing on the long-term view and looking at his business from the customer perspective as a way to guide his decisions.” —Guest Editor Ed Wise
Some successful promotions have been special events at the theaters. For example, the Snack Bar Challenge: if you can finish a large tub of popcorn topped with an assortment of candy, nachos, and other concession items, you get a free T-shirt.
At the Mom’s Night Out event, movies are shown in a child-friendly environment for mothers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. Caretakers for special-needs adults are also welcome.
Staff at one theater developed a honeymoon promotion for a wedding-themed movie that included prizes and a mock wedding party. “This was a great example of how everyone working for us should be having fun,” Mitchell says. “Our employees are the public face of our company, and if they’re enjoying themselves our customers will be, too.”
More Than Just Movies
ShowBiz Cinemas is also developing alternative entertainment that goes beyond the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Programming such as sporting events, live concerts, and red carpet events are under consideration, Mitchell says.
“Customers might not want to see a movie, but what if they could go behind the scenes of NASCAR’s pit row or even see a full-scale opera production?” Mitchell says. “That kind of entertainment would open up lots of new opportunities for us and the communities we serve.”
Returning to His Roots
Mitchell grew up “in the business.” He started working in his father’s theaters at a very young age and recalls working midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show when he was in fifth grade. While on vacations, the family would stop at every theater on the way to their destination, making “undercover” stops at Cinemark locations and checking out competitors.
The summer after his high school graduation and before he went to work for Cinemark, Mitchell worked construction. But he missed the excitement of the theater business, especially interacting with customers. He’s carried that enthusiasm with him as ShowBiz Cinemas continues to grow.
“Whenever I walk into one of our theaters, I put myself in the customer’s position,” he says. Mitchell has worked every conceivable position in theater operations, from popcorn popper to management. Because of his experience at every level in the company, Mitchell asks questions not everyone might think of: “Are the parking lots and the restrooms clean? Is the staff friendly? Is the food fresh?” Mitchell and his staff focus on the experience and the long-term view, not just the numbers and the short-term, he says. “There’s still nothing better than getting ready for show time, grand openings, and the excitement of entertaining people,” Mitchell says.
In spite of the competition from online, on-demand, and other digital entertainment as well as predictions about the demise of the big-screen movie experience, ShowBiz Cinemas keeps breaking annual attendance records all over Texas. When asked his secret, Mitchell answers: “If we do everything we can to make sure our customers leave happy, we’re pretty certain they’ll keep coming back.”