The ’90s were a more than interesting decade for the exhibition. In the 1990s for the most part, movie attendance was up, mostly at multi-screen cineplex complexes throughout the USA. Although the average movie budget had climbed $53 million by 1998, many movies were costing more than $100 million to produce. In the early 1990s, box-office revenues had dipped considerably, due in part to the American economic recession of 1991, but then started to pick up again by 1993 and continued to increase. The average ticket price for a film varied from about $4.25 at the start of the decade to around $5 by the close of the decade. Indoor multiplexes theaters exploded multiplying from almost 23,000 in 1990 to 35,600 by the year 2000, the number of drive-ins had continued their more than sad decline (from 910 in 1990 to 667 in 2000…it is now 435).
In 1997, an audit manager doing work for a smaller theater circuit was bitten hard by the movie theater bug. This classically trained CPA, who emerged out of the one of big four accounting firms, saw that something different could be done, that movies theaters could lay the foundation for other forms of entertainment and wider economic activity. Within this heart that held a penchant for numbers and balance sheets was a small flame of innovation and showmanship. That flame would soon ignite into a bonfire and if you reflect on it changed modern exhibition forever. This classically trained CPA would soon lure his wife into his plans, who by the way was also a CPA.
Jamie and Jeff Benson, Texas natives, plunged deep into the movie exhibition business by constructing two theaters, the first one opening in 1999. Never ones to let the grass grow under their feet, they decided to advance a revolutionary idea, The Movie Tavern.
In 2001, Jamie and Jeff founded Movie Tavern along with Lee Roy Mitchell Chairman of Cinemark. The Movie Tavern was one of the earliest movie theaters to embrace the concept of offering dine-in service while a movie played and grew the company to 14 complexes in five states before selling his stake to Cinemark in 2008. At the time, the idea of serving dinner at a cinema was more than novel. The Benson’s knew that something needed to change, the studios were demanding a greater share of box office, and as well attendance was becoming stagnant.
At that time dine-in movies theaters were a new conception. It could be argued that Ted Bulthaup’s, Hollywood Bar and Filmworks pioneered cinema-bar-restaurant operations in the U.S. when it opened in in a former warehouse in downtown Indianapolis. Hollywood Bar and Filmworks was also the first theater open in downtown Indianapolis in over fifty years when it began operations in 1991. It sadly closed in 2006 but re-opened variations of that theater in Chicago.
Movie Tavern grew to 12 locations and was later sold to Cinemark who later sold it to Southern Cinemas in 2013 who then sold it to Marcus in 2018.
At all times the Bensons knew that while they fell in love with the movie business, they also knew that it was a business that must by necessity evolve. The pair saw theaters fall by the wayside time and time again when their operators did not realize the nature of the movie exhibitionbusiness is changing and changing fast.
Given the conservative nature of accountants, the innovations put forward by the Benson’s were more than surprising. The fact that they led the industry in putting forward revolutionary ideas and concepts in order to create the 21st-century theater. They knew that in order to truly sustain itself the multiplex had to evolve from a venue to see movies, to a community-centric entertainment destination.
I think from my perspective both Jamie and Jeff were always fully aware of the need to focus on the bottom line of this sometimes-cantankerous business and as a result of the decreasing margins being forced by the Hollywood studios, the pair sought a remedy.
I am sure that with some regret the Bensons saw the need to remove the sole reliance on revenue derived from movie screenings and moved forward with plans to diversify.
In 2009 Cinergy Entertainment Group was born. Today with locations now in Amarillo Texas, Copperas Cove Texas, Midland Texas, Odessa Texas and Tulsa Oklahoma Cinergy is re-imagining what a multiplex can be. All these communities had one thing in common, the residents of those communities are subjected to a huge void in entertainment and Cinergy saw this and subsequently filled that void.
The Benson’s decided long ago not to rely on the vagaries of the movie exhibition business. In each one of these theaters were positioned large game rooms that contained arcade games, escape rooms, virtual reality arenas, rope courses, and much more. They were coupled with amenities drawn from The Movie Tavern Days, solid community-based menu design and fully stocked bars. The Bensons soon saw the revenues of the game room rival box office revenue.
The Benson’s have coined the term Cinema Entertainment Centers or CEC’s. In reality, what they have done is to evolve the movie theater multiplex into a multi-faceted internal 12 month out the year amusement park.
Their record of innovation is kind of amazing. Many other circuits are now taking a solid look at what the Bensons have originated in west Texas and I am sure seeking to emulate their success.
I am also positive the President of Cineplex Odeon in Canada and current Chairman of NATO Ellis Jacob has taken a peek at the innovation and success created by the Bensons in the execution of their plans to shift their circuit away from movies into Family Entertainment Centers.
It is a point of pride that all 19 theaters that the Bensons have built remain in business. A solid foundation with a firm eye on the future. I believe that the Bensons have struck the model for success in diversifying within a multiplex complex. It was amazing what passion and discipline have created.
Jamie and Jeff thank you.