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Big Picture: Theater Chief Doubles Down

One of the biggest questions about the end of the pandemic is: Will we ever return to “normal” again? Many leaders in politics and Big Tech are saying – and some are hoping – we won’t.

And then there are business leaders in Flyover Country like Paul Glantz who not only are saying we should and will get back to normal after all of this, but also are betting their reputations and even their livelihoods on their conviction.

Glantz, for instance, is co-founder and chairman of Emagine Entertainment, a chain of 21 movie theaters that are company-operated or licensed in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Based in Troy, Michigan, Glantz has been on the front lines of the economic lockdowns imposed by Midwestern governors during the pandemic. The damage to his company from months of zero revenues has been profound. Only fortunately, Glantz told me, he’d prudently prepared Emagine financially over the years to weather a substantial storm.

But Glantz isn’t just waiting out what are hopefully the waning gales of COVID-19, which has crowned its blow to the movie-theater industry by hanging on through the crucial Christmas season. Glantz is actually doubling down on his business by adding long-term leases for four theaters that have been idled by the bankruptcy of a rival and planning to invest $10 million to conform them to the higher standards of the Emagine experience.

It's not a bet-the-farm type of proposition because of how Glantz is keeping the transaction separate from Emagine per se and has negotiated a liability firewall if the deal doesn't all come together within a few months. But he knows how bold it is. “People will either say I’m a genius or a bumbling lunatic,” Glantz told me.

But Glantz is doing it anyway. Even as he continues to chafe under theater-lockdown orders that are continually extended by government health departments, Glantz

is negotiating with local officials in southeastern Michigan to build Emagine’s biggest property yet somewhere in central Detroit.

And even as Walt Disney Co. underscored a dedication to debuting its industry-leading movie content on streaming services and to de-emphasizing premiers in theaters, Glantz was talking about how his company is continuing to work on reinventing the movie-going experience so theater patrons will flock back to Emagine in the coming months.

“Realistically, I understand the headwinds and how pundits talk about our industry being over, but I’m a believer in people wanting experiences outside their home,” Glantz said. “Some don’t. But the world is big enough that I don’t have to conquer every element of the population to have a successful business. We need to grow our market share of movie-goers by giving them a great experience.”

So Glantz isn’t sitting still. He’s busy getting Emagine ready for reopening again and trying to wrap up his big new, risky investment in the four theaters previously owned by Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Goodrich Quality Theaters.

“This isn’t a done deal – we still have to get some financing,” he said. “But people will see this as an investment opportunity in an out-of-favor industry, essentially a value play. There’s a lot of upside relative to the downside.”

At the same time, Glantz is redoubling his efforts to make Emagine theaters a place where consumers can get something they can’t get sitting on their couches in front of big-screen smart TVs. His company was a pioneer in installing amenities such as lounge-style seating and cocktail bars in the lobby, and now Glantz has to go back at the “customer experience” formula again.

“So now we’re replacing a lot of our reclining chairs with heated reclining chairs,” perfect for Emagine’s Midwestern markets during prime fall and winter movie-going months, he said. Emagine also is improving geo-coding in its buildings so a patron can order two cocktails in the lobby bar before the movie, imbibe one there while he or she is waiting – and then have an Emagine server slink over to that customer’s theater seat during the show and deposit the second drink.

“Our servers are very discreet,” Glantz said. “And during the show they’re only going to be bringing extra liquids – not full meals.”

All the while, Glantz is betting – big, as he repeated – on the notion that vaccine-emboldened Americans soon will begin trickling, then streaming out of their homes and back into movie theaters.

“I don’t think we’ll come back with a boom,” he allowed. “But there is pent-up demand. Folks are weary of staying at home. They want to participate in congregate activities. And the vaccine should help address the fear-mongering that’s going on by government officials and the media. If folks are vaccinated, then we’re going to find baseball stadiums filling up again, too, and we’ll begin an incremental return to life as we knew it.”

“Studios aren’t being our best friends, by taking some of their best stuff to video. But I think there’s still something special about the movie-going experience.”

Many, many people are betting the opposite way from Glantz – some with their fortunes tied up equally in the outcome. Here’s hoping that, just a few months from now, Glantz’s bet proved to be the right one.


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