Miami Herald, The (FL) - March 18, 1984

Author: BILL COSFORD Herald Columnist

Headline: WOMETCO TO SELL ITS THEATERS.Item: There's an usher who works the early shift at Wometco's Miracle Theater in Coral Gables, and has for as long as I can remember. When you give him your ticket he says, "Enjoy the show." On the way out, if there's not a crowd he asks, "How did you like the show?"

Sometimes it is the little things.

With Wometco Theaters, the little things have mostly been done right. Several years ago, The Herald did a three-county survey on movie theaters. We visited all of them, not checking on the movies but investigating everything else: cleanliness, comfort, crowd control, food quality, price. Before the survey was half done, we had confirmed what had been only a suspicion, that the Wometco insignia was that rare thing in American business, a guarantee of quality.

There are other well-run theaters, of course. The Riviera, across the street from the University of Miami, is one; it attracts a young crowd, and with it an excuse to be dirty and loud, but the Riviera is neither. Fort Lauderdale's Galleria is well maintained. And in north Dade, the Marina complex remains the best-run "tube theater" -- eight screens under one roof -- in the area. There are a few others scattered about South Florida.

The difference with Wometco has been, for years, that virtually all their theaters were well run. At a Wometco Theater, if you had a complaint, you were likely to get an answer. For a long time, it has been company policy that if you didn't like the movie, and you left early, you could get a free pass to another. The ushers actually tell loud people to be quiet, the concession stands are clean, even the restrooms are clean. An attempt is made to sweep the aisles between shows.

With all that, we found another thing about Wometco theaters: Their prices were lower -- in most cases on tickets, in all cases on popcorn, candy bars and drinks.

Wometco, in other words, has been a nice place for a long time.

We were never sure why, exactly. The late Jack Mitchell, who died not long ago after a fight with cancer was one of the reasons. He ranthe Florida theaters (Wometco also has theaters in Alaska and the Caribbean), and when you talked to him about putting on a show, he would always start his speech about the employes, and how to get kids working for little money to treat moviegoers who weren't spending much money themselves as important people. He loved to talk about that, though he had better themes from his days as a minor-league P.T. Barnum, putting on outlandish film promotions. I think it was Jack who staged the chariot race down Biscayne Boulevard, and I know it was he who put the live sharks in the Dadeland lobby for Jaws II, and who challenged Sylvester Stallone to a fistfight between Rocky's.

Another factor was that Wometco, unlike General Cinema or AMC or Plitt or the other chains, was locally based. The company regarded the Dadeland theater as its flagship, but since executives could drop in anywhere here, they were all flagships after a fashion.

What was sure was that people who went to the movies a lot often tended to regard the entire Wometco chain warmly. And in all the time that I have been going to movies, I have never encountered an entire theater chain about which people felt good.

That not only sounds nice, it sounds like good business as well. But the movies are not such good business as you might think.

Contractual relations between movie distributors and movie exhibitors are complex and fraught with quirks of accounting, but the basic terms of a contract for a big movie usually come down to this formula: Allowing for a certain deduction for movie-theater overhead -- an amount that is often arrived at arbitrarily, and may bear little resemblance to the theater's actual cost of doing business -- the initial week's take for a film such as Return of theJedi or Superman III, the ones you would think make everyone rich, is divided according to the "90/10"split. The "10" -- 10 per cent -- goes to the theaters. The "90" goes back to Hollywood. After a few weeks, the split drops to, say, "80/20."

In any case, the split is arrayed against a large advance guarantee, and advance guarantees are not ordinarily refundable even if your blockbuster goes, as they say on the West Coast, into the toilet.

This is why, and it has become a cliche of the business, theater owners will tell you that the profit is all at the concession stand. That is not quite true, but it's close.

It is also why the trend to large numbers of small theaters under one roof -- "tube" theaters, the worst kind of place to see a movie -- is probably irreversible. If you can show eight movies with the overhead of a single large theater -- one big rent, one ticket seller, one projectionist, one large concession stand -- you have a better chance to make some money.

This is why even Wometco, which cared for its theaters and their place in the community, first broke the Miracle, at 1,600 seats a genuine movie palace, into a twin, and more recently, into a "four- plex" (yes, even the names are ugly). The Dadeland was similarly altered. And when Wometco built new theaters -- Campbell Square, Miller Square -- they, too, were tubes. Handsome, well-run tubes, but tubes nonetheless.

Wometco might have stayed with its theaters and their fine reputation for years, but Wometco ownership recently changed hands. Van Myers, who began with the chain 40 years ago, when theaters were essentially its only business, and who is now chief executive officer, speaks with the delicacy of a man
auctioning off his family's antiques: "On the part of the new owners, there is good reason to divest those properties which they feel do not have the long-range potential of some of the other properties."

In other words, a forward-looking Wometco does not want to be in the popcorn-and-hot-dog business any longer. To a businessman taking a cold look at that 90/10 split, they haven't been in the movie business for years.

Myers says that the sale of the Florida theaters, when it comes, is likely to be to another chain. And he is optimistic that such theaters as the Miracle, a Coral Gables landmark, will not go the way of the old Coral and Gables theaters, sold and torn down to be replaced by office buildings.

Nonetheless, as Myers says, "Times change, industries change." Wometco is keeping its cable-TV operations, and the lesson there is Business 101. Cable makes a good return selling us movies that have already proven themselves in theaters. The trick, for theater owners, is to get people into the theaters first. Wometco knew how to do that, but even at its best theirs was not exactly a growth industry.

"It's just one of those things," Myers says, and of course he's right. I can find no villain in the piece, so I look for just a twinge of nostalgia for those years of a job well done. We'll miss Wometco theaters when they're gone, I tell Myers.

"Well," he says, "I'm not so sure that we won't, either."

1 comment:

Larry Schwarz said...

While certainly saddened to learn of the death of Jack Mitchell (Don't wish death on anyone) Wometco was a place where corporate backstabbing was common.I don't blame Jack for this.The Problem was that Jack listened to closely to others and believed what he was told.Bill Copley was a backstabber as I was fired only a few weeks after joining them as was my predecessor.Bill worked deceitfully and under handedly with another ASST Manager who he liked and managed to get rid of 2 managers.When it happened to me (Number 2) one would think Jack Mitchell would have wondered maybe there is a deeper problem.