Our Concession Spotlight returns to the operator side of the business this month with a profile of Chris Johnson, CEO ofhttp://classiccinemas.com/http://classiccinemas.com/. Chris oversees all aspects of the chain’s business, including food and beverage. His family has a long history in the industry and Chris is carrying that forward. He recently took over the CEO position from his father and mentor, Willis Johnson. But let’s start at the beginning of Chris’ career—as an usher, where so many of our executives have begun.
Classic Cinemas is based in Downers Grove, Illinois, and is operated by Chris and his parents, Willis and Shirley Johnson. Willis established the company in 1978 with the purchase of the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. Chris started working as an usher 35 years ago. In 1985, he began working in the office, helping with purchasing and bookkeeping, while still managing theatres at night and commuting to college.
In 1990, after graduating with a B.S. degree in Management from the University of Illinois at Chicago, with highest honors, Chris expanded his role with the company. He began overseeing human resources, finance and operations, becoming VP in 1992. In an effort to further understand the finance component of expanding Classic Cinemas, he entered the University of Chicago’s M.B.A program in 1995 and graduated with honors in 1998.
The chain now owns 13 theatres, which comprise 104 screens in the northern Illinois area. Each auditorium is equipped with state-of-the-art 4K digital projection and sound technology. Chris has been an integral part of the company’s history and is eager to further integrate technology into the company, including selling tickets on all platforms and utilizing integrated marketing strategies to communicate with Classic Cinemas guests.
Chris helped manage the company and avoid bankruptcy through the turbulent years of the early 2000s and guided it through the digital conversion, which was completed in March 2012. Chris also earned the certification of Executive Concession Manager through the National Association of Concessionaires and participates in NATO’s Technology Committee and was on the Laser Task Force. He is now the current president of NATO of Illinois. He is very involved in the industry and very passionate about its future.
Chris believes in the power of the moviegoing experience: the content, the food and beverage offerings, and the overall escape that it allows for patrons. “Classic Cinemas’ main focus is on giving our guests an escape from the realities of life,” he declares. “Much like sleep and meditation, moviegoing is about letting go, it’s therapeutic. No distractions, just total immersion into another reality. In five years, most of the industry will be in a post-VPF world, which will allow better programming and give exhibitors opportunities to broaden the selection of content. Since content is king, that should keeptheatres going strong for many years to come.”
In Chris’ view, the food and beverage offering is “important to the overall experience of the guest, but it is critically important to the success of the theatre. From a guest perspective, you want everything that is offered to look and taste fantastic. Any product that isn't up to the highest standard reflects poorly on the entire operation. A simple, well-executed menu is much better than trying to do too much. With increased film costs, F&B allows exhibitors to increase the profit potential per person.”
Classic Cinemas is trending towards simple but impressive. “Simple is king, making the ingredients pure and the process frictionless: sugar vs. corn syrup, butter vs. topping, ‘Yes, we can’ rather than ‘No, we can't.’ Self-serve ordering for everything from your mobile device with express pick-up lines, delivery, with simple access to favorite recipes. Alcohol and light foodservice are important, but so are the staples. Personal customization is crucial: Starbucks is the perfect example. Guests feel special when they can ‘make it their own.’
“We’re run by our guests,” Johnson notes, adding that enhancing the moviegoing experience is Classic Cinemas’ principal goal. “I want our guests to leave the theatre saying, ‘We should do this more often.’”
Johnson’s father, Willis, is continuing as president of Classic Cinemas and serves as a key adviser to his son. “My dad believes ‘good enough’ rarely ever is. He has a relentless, get-it-done attitude which helped him succeed with very limited resources.” But Chris adds, “I also admire and appreciate all those in the industry who treated Classic Cinemas like somebody even though we were/are small and they didn't have to.”
Chris is a native of Downers Grove, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is a cycling enthusiast and enjoys seeing movies at Classic Cinemas’ theatres. He is involved in his community and serves on the board of District 58 Education Foundation in Downers Grove. Classic Cinemas has remained a constant success in the industry over many years and Chris is a big part of the reason. He plans to be along for the ride for many years to come and to see the company continue to thrive and grow.