Declaration of Independents: Exhibitor Alliance aims to preserve the cinema experience

As the exhibition industry becomes ever more global—as evidenced in this month’s CinemaCon 2018 coverage—we must not forget that all business is local. And that there is probably no other segment of this industry that knows their respective moviegoing markets better than the independent theatre owner and operator.

Randy Hester, president and chief executive officer of Hometown Cinemas, is one of those exhibitors, and he’s joined the Independent Cinema Alliance (ICA), a new advocacy group. “We give independents a voice they otherwise lack on industry issues,” Hester says of the mission, also naming “developments that threaten the survival of independents and the overall health of the motion picture industry,” such as PVOD and otherwise shrinking windows. “We are all about representing the independent and small-town theatre owner. All of us have our unique points of view and we never had a voice. Hundreds of companies on their own are much less likely to get the attention of studios and other industry stakeholders. The ICA gives a voice to independents they otherwise would not have. And it is a much more efficient way for them to get their concerns actually heard.”

Film Journal Internationalis pleased to present this exclusive conversation during the early days and weeks of the Independent Cinema Alliance, ahead of meetings and further announcements scheduled at CinemaCon. The organization is still refining its goals and structure. “We are in the process of forming our board, going through the actual corporate formation,” Hester explains, pointing out a unique opportunity to help shape a new organization. The Alliance is currently managed by a task force of likeminded exhibitors including Bill Campbell (Orpheum Theatre, Sheldon, Wyoming), Byron BerkleyJeff BensonGina DiSanto and Joe Paletta, all of whom volunteer their time and expertise. In addition, the ICA also counts on the support of a steering committee, Hester says, comprised of ten independent exhibitors “who provide the task force with direction and guidance on issues of concern.”

“Independent theatre owners know one another very well,” Hester notes, giving credit to Bill Campbell as their leader. “He has a lot of experience in general industry issues and helping to get things done. Bill realized that there was a need for this kind of group. Small theatre owners like myself looked at this and agreed, ‘You’re absolutely right, we need a voice, and this is a terrific way to have one.’”

How is this approach different from committees that are already part of our industry organization, such as NATO? “Those are important and effective voices,” Hester acknowledges. “NATO does great, great work, and we do exist alongside their advocacy on behalf of our industry. ICA is not part of NATO. Our purpose is a little bit different, and we only represent a small segment of the industry, whereas NATO’s combined membership represents over 90 percent of box-office market share,” he estimates. “So, they cast a vastly wider net than we do in terms of membership. We are more of a niche, and we can focus on just the issues that our members feel to be important. The issues that independents face can sometimes be different from the bigger companies. Like availability of prints, for example. Because of our size, smaller theatres can get overlooked. So, we needed a voice that could talk about those kinds of specific issues. In addition, unlike NATO, the ICA will not conduct any lobbying efforts.”

At press time, ICA had about 110 companies onboard, operating some 1,200 screens—from single auditoriums in small towns to multiplexes in larger cities, with some members operating just one theatre and others managing multiple locations. They are located across 35 of the United States and in two Canadian provinces and represent a domestic box-office market share of roughly 20 percent. “The point of ICA is to show that combined, this is a significant part of the industry,” Hester adds. “We need to speak with one voice rather than be fragmented among hundreds of companies that represent thousands of screens. This is a much more efficient way to communicate going in both directions.”

Heading into Las Vegas, “We are going to have a presence at CinemaCon to answer questions and listen to what our members want,” Hester assures. “We want to hear from them about what is important to them. Owning theatres is their livelihood, and it takes on a much higher level of importance. Sometimes they do not have access to the studios, or they feel uncomfortable calling them on their own with questions or suggestions or complaints. That is why the Independent Cinema Alliance is here. If we do not hear from our members, then we are not of much good.”

With an anticipated not-for-profit status and a membership that is free at this time, the Independent Cinema Alliance will be doing much good, for sure. “We are asking for and have received financial contributions to help offset costs. We are really pleased with the response,” Hester gratefully acknowledges, “and with the progress that the Alliance has made so far.” Hester encourages everyone to sign up and become a member, bringing their indie best to the exhibition-distribution table. “Nobody knows their market better than the local theatre owner. I absolutely believe we can bring forward good ideas, because all of us are on the front line with the customers. At the end of the day, our customers matter the most. We know which movies people want to see and when they want to see them. We need to be able to respond accordingly. And in getting that information and that message to the decision-makers at the studios, it is surely easier to have the Alliance than it is to have five-hundred different exhibitors calling to express it individually.”

In his closing remarks, Randy Hester concurs that the moviegoing experience begins right in one’s hometown. “While our industry has obviously changed, evolved and grown, movie theatres still remain the primary place where people want to watch films. At the heart of that are the independent theatre owners, because they operate in the heartland of America. These people, myself included, are so passionate about the movie theatre experience. That’s what we bring to the table as a group—a passionate group of business owners that care greatly about their customers and about preserving the cinema experience.”

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