7521 – Real movie theater popcorn, ticket profits, and streaming with Skip Huston

The Avon Theater in Decatur, Illinois, has been around for 105 years, and Skip Huston has owned it since 1999. In this episode Skip and I discuss how movie theaters make money, simultaneous releases to streaming, why the Avon’s popcorn is best, and what film he’s most looking forward to seeing in his theater.


Avon Theater


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This is an automated transcript which likely contains minor errors.

Steve Holstein (00:30):
Are you nearing pre pandemic levels? Are people coming back to theaters because the blockbusters are back. When I settled back into a movie theater seat, a number of weeks back to see black widow, it felt really good where you getting that sense of giddiness from some of the people who were returning.

Skip Huston (00:48):
Oh, that’s for sure. You know, the Avon has tremendous local support because we’ve been around for 105 years, and it’s one of the, of the greatest theaters indicator history, and it’s still standing and it’s still operational. And in fact, it’s considered the most successful independent theater in downstate, Illinois. So it is, uh, people were very excited to come back and they, of course, they were getting tired of microwave popcorn too. And we’ve got incredible popcorn and, you know, believe it or not, they’re getting a little burned down the streaming.

Steve Holstein (01:22):
I could see that. I mean, there are so many options now, but it is nice to unplug from the world. Yeah. And settle in for two hours because when you’re sitting on your couch, it’s great to be able to watch a blockbuster on opening night from your couch, but you’re going to have your phone in your hand. And that’s some movies. That’s a way to watch a movie, but not a brand new film that we’ve been waiting for.

Skip Huston (01:46):
And never at the Avon. If our girls catch anybody with a cell phone on a, they are lucky to get out of the theater alive.

Steve Holstein (01:54):
And when you say our girls, you’re, you’re literally talking about your girls and your family because you’re a family run theater,

Skip Huston (02:01):
Emily and, uh, uh, close friends. Yeah. I’ve owned the place for 23 years. And our, um, lobbies, both of our lobbies are covered with big group photos of our staff. We have a, we would have a group photo taken every year that we won the best of the cater, a contest for the best theater. And of course, we’ve won that for 17 years in a row and we’d have another, a new group photo taken. And you can just, this is why a lot of our girls, who’ve gone on to law school and, uh, professions and things like that. If they come back to town to visit, they always come in and sometimes they’ll even jump behind the counter to help because they feel, they tell me it’s like going home to grandma and grandpa’s house. Cause they go in and there’s all these pictures of them all, you know, at different ages, all over the walls. And it’s a, it’s a comforting feeling for them.

Steve Holstein (02:59):
You, you mentioned

Skip Huston (02:59):
That, you know, uh, people have kind of grown tired of, uh, you know, the, all of the options on streaming. And there are certainly plenty, but, but I for 1:00 AM a movie fan and loved the experience of getting in there and shutting the phone off and just shutting out the world for a couple of hours. I saw recently that I guess Warner brothers, which owns HBO, max has sort of backed off on its plan to go straight to streaming as well as theater, uh, theatrical releases with some of its movies going forward. Um, it now realizes that there’s a benefit that fans want to see movies in theaters. That’s gotta make you happy as a theater owner. Well, it does because, uh, I’ve got friends at Warner’s and I really didn’t like hating them, but they really were. They made a commitment for one year and that year is almost up.

Skip Huston (03:53):
And that’s the HBO max thing with day and date is only was only going to be for a year. So the, if some of the press says they’re backing off on it and everything else, well, that’s really baloney because they were only going to do it for a year. And the guy that originally put that deal together got fired. It’s a tremendous catastrophe for, for Warner brothers and their, uh, their stockholders are going crazy and everything else. And this was, it was a really, wrong-headed now Disney. Uh, here’s another one that, and it’s easy to hate Desi. Let me tell you, um, but it’s, uh, at least some of theirs go on at a premium price. Like, do you want to see, uh, something like Corolla? Do you want to stay home and pay $30 to see you for a couple of days? Or do you want to go out to the theater and see it? You know, so some of those, uh, of the Disney thing to at least have got the high ticket price when they’re available day in date. Uh, one of the, one of the best studios is the universal who also have focus. They don’t let anything go out for a few weeks. And then when it does go out, it’s, it’s only at this, uh, high price for, uh,

Steve Holstein (05:16):
What about, I saw an interview where the folks behind the bond movies, I guess it’s controlled by the broccoli family. Do I have broccoli? And they said, no. Then we, we will never, he, that is a theatrical release product. James Bond, not just the one that’s coming out though. The one with Daniel Craig, that’s his final one, but all going forward, we’re never going to do the simultaneous streaming theatrical release thing.

Skip Huston (05:44):
Th th the broccoli’s know where their bread is buttered. So that’s, uh, that’s a good example for them to set

Steve Holstein (05:50):
Just the industry as a whole, as you’re talking to other theater owners, do you feel like you’re getting over the hump of this double release streaming and movie and theatrical release, and now things are going to be back to normal.

Skip Huston (06:04):
It does feel like that the studios know that the exhibitors have been given a real hard time about all this. You know, I used to say that the movie business is one of the only businesses. I know that eats at young because the studios have always treated the exhibitors terrible. One of the prime examples was this whole conversion to digital projection who actually benefited from that. Not us, not the theaters. It was the studios because they didn’t have to ship out these big, heavy reels of film anymore, you know, and it was easier to control the payables and receivables because if your bill is, is not up-to-date with them, they just, they send the dry, but they won’t send you the key. And the drive is no good without the key to open it. So it’s, uh, it was very expensive. We loved film. In fact, our 35 millimeter projectors are all still up in the booth because we can not get rid of them. We they’re sentimental to us. And so they stay up there. And, but of course they are covered with dust and cobwebs. And we really don’t like the digital stuff. It’s not reliable and it’s too expensive and there’s not enough people that know how, how to repair them around this area. Now our 30 fives, our in-house tech could fix one of those with chewing gum and above.

Steve Holstein (07:32):
So since you brought it up, how on a typical movie, how are you getting the actual film? What, how does it arrive at the Avon?

Skip Huston (07:40):
It comes on a hard drive in a little box, which, uh, it probably costs them maybe a dollar 50 to duplicate as opposed to 15 to $1,800 to make a 35 millimeter print.

Steve Holstein (07:55):
So you get a hard drive. And obviously that is very well-protected and you have to probably send it back by a certain date or otherwise you’re going to be fined or, you know, something, right. Because that is, that’s like gold, you know, if a hard drive were to be released out into the wild, somebody could duplicate it and have copies of a blockbuster movie. Yeah. Well,

Skip Huston (08:14):
Good luck. Because even though we’ve got some fantastic hackers, just ask them out there. Uh, they haven’t been able to hack these things. These things are, are, uh, Bulletproof, and you cannot unlock them unless you have the key that is emailed to you when, after they checked to make sure that you don’t owe that money or something like that, you know?

Steve Holstein (08:39):
Okay. So when you say key, it’s not a physical key, it’s like a software type key that you have to, you enter in a string of digits and that unlocks the film and it probably unlocks the film. Do you have to refresh that key? Like every weekend, cause your movies are showing Friday through Sunday, do you have to, well, it’s up

Skip Huston (08:55):
On some studios that’s every week on some others, it’s every two weeks, some of the art films and we don’t play that many of those anymore, but they used to be our bread and butter come in un-encrypted so they don’t need a key, but that’s, that’s very rare.

Steve Holstein (09:12):
Uh, you brought up earlier that, uh, you have some of the best popcorn around and I have no doubt. I’ve never been to the Avon I’m over here in Champaign. And of course we had the art theater here and I always looked forward to its popcorn until it closed. It was fantastic.

Skip Huston (09:26):
Yeah. Well, ours, ours is better. I’ll put ours up against anybody on this planet.

Steve Holstein (09:32):
Well then I’m coming. I’m going to come see something over there soon. You’re not that far from me. So we know

Skip Huston (09:36):
The secret about how to make good movies. Oh, well,

Steve Holstein (09:40):
And I’m not even, I’m not even going to make the rookie mistake of saying, can you share a little bit of that secret because I know you’re not going to, and that would be a rookie question.

Skip Huston (09:48):
The real clarified butter too.

Steve Holstein (09:50):
Oh my gosh. Do you ever have people on the weekend? They’re a, they don’t have time to see a movie today. Skip. I just came for the popcorn.

Skip Huston (09:58):
It’s constantly, it’s a, there’s a steady stream all weekend long.

Steve Holstein (10:01):
We hear that movie theaters, uh, don’t make a lot of money on the theater ticket itself.

Skip Huston (10:07):
The 5 cents of every dollar goes back to the studios. That’s why, if you’re not buying popcorn or hotdogs or pretzel bites or nachos or something like that, you are not supporting us. You know, I’d make the movies free just to sell them.

Steve Holstein (10:23):
You’re keeping 35% of each ticket sold. In other words, your, your ticket prices are very reasonable. I saw, you know, for a prime, you know, showing at 7:00 PM of a blockbuster movie, you’re charging $8, which is actually, I think cheap, cheaper than some of the big guys, probably. And especially in the bigger cities,

Skip Huston (10:41):
We were very aware of what the competition charges and we always stay below. Um, but for the, uh, year, uh, during the pandemic, we were at all shows $5

Steve Holstein (10:51):
And you decide, so you decide the theaters, get to decide the movie ticket price.

Skip Huston (10:56):
Not really. We were able to get away with all shows $5 for about a year until finally we got some calls from the studio saying, okay, time to go back to regular prices. So, you know, they can’t price fix that’s illegal, but they can, they have sneaky ways of getting around it by setting a certain minimum you can charge.

Steve Holstein (11:20):
Yeah. So if you go to the Avon theater or any other movie theater, especially the independence, uh, be sure to, to load up on the, on the refreshments and snacks, because that really does help you guys

Skip Huston (11:33):
Well, and we give great value. We give great quality and the prices are reasonable. And you know, our popcorn with locally grown corn and at popped in ADM sunflower oil, not that coconut oil like these other people use, which is a very, very unhealthy oil. And then top with that clarified butter, God himself eats that

Steve Holstein (11:56):
Are there one or two movies that, that really got the people to come back to the Avon theater and to the industry as a whole?

Skip Huston (12:03):
Well, w with us some things it’s funny because some of the things that do not do well at other theaters, uh, do well for us and vice versa that, uh, the urethra flank or movie, uh, respect, uh, since I have, you know, we’re all belonged to this database so we can see each other’s ticket sales. I happened to know that we were among, uh, one of the top theaters in the state with, uh, respect that, uh, everybody else was just kind of just piddly on it, but not us, you know, I mean, it wasn’t a barn burner, but it was certainly better than they were doing by a wide margin. It’s just, that’s the kind of movie you want to see at the Avon. You don’t want to see blood and guts and, and Freddy and Jason and these, you know, we hate it when we play have to play those kinds of movies and we only have to play them if we’re stuck and there’s nothing else to pull.

Steve Holstein (12:58):
Uh, I don’t, I mean, I don’t know, I, I’m not a big horror movie fan, but you just described blood and guts and Freddy and Jason, that sounds like the next title that Hollywood would want to make. I think they already did just blend it all together. Okay. So that’s interesting. I didn’t know you brought up the fact that you can see a database that shows ticket sales at other theaters around the state and around the country. But I guess that’s good because if I don’t know, how do you use that database?

Skip Huston (13:25):
Good to see how they’re doing and to see how we’re doing against them. You know, I’m, I’m relentless, uh, that I check this thing every day and I get again, star figures. And since we’re not open during the week, then of course I don’t care what they’re doing during the week. Although I do want to see it to make sure that we’re not leaving money on the table so far. I haven’t, I have not had a problem with it, but they can see ours too, which is kind of funny because, uh, sometimes when we, uh, completely eat AMC’s lunch, I’m sure that when they have their Monday morning regional meetings, that there’s people to get to start yelling about that, that this little mom and pop theater, that just happens to be a rare creature that can actually show first run, which is very rare that you have a Mon pod downtown theater that can show first run in a competitive market.

Skip Huston (14:23):
And the reason why is something we found out by accident. But anyway, uh, I’m sure that they really have to, that really is a lot of Crow to have to eat when they see how, how we on, on the screen for screen basis. And I’m not saying all the time, but on ones that, uh, really mattered to us, uh, we just completely beat them to death with lower ticket prices and everything. So what does that mean? What does that mean when we are, are showing higher ticket sales, but with lower prices, it means our customer count is higher and more people is more concession sales,

Steve Holstein (15:02):
But I keep hearing other podcasts interviews with people in Hollywood. How do we get people back to theaters? You know, it’s going to be, you’re going to have fewer screens, fewer buildings, fewer screens, what’s it going to take? And people want the experience you already have. You had the experience before the pandemic, you have the experience now. So the thing that they want you have, they are not going to be able to duplicate it unless they decide we’re going to start buying smaller properties and doing four screens, max or something like that. And then we bring in a chef to match the quality of the popcorn and the refreshments.

Skip Huston (15:35):
And they’d never do that because they, they need that fat profit. And I realized that are more expensive ingredients. We use for corn cut into the profit margin, but come on. Popcorn is very profitable anyway. So why worry about a few percentage points? You know, something that I learned a long time ago, because I I’ve been in, uh, the video business, uh, before I was in the theater business. And I was in the record business before that, and that when you’re in a competitive situation, in fact, I used to, I used to give speeches to, um, uh, college business classes about this. And I would say, I’m going to save you four years of business college right now by saying one sentence that when you’re in a competitive business, the secret is identify what the public doesn’t like about your competition. And then don’t do that.

Steve Holstein (16:38):
That’s perfect.

Skip Huston (16:39):
I just saved you four years of business school.

Steve Holstein (16:42):
So you you’ve owned the Avon since 1999. Do I have the year, right? That’s correct. Was it showing movies before? And what made you decide to buy?

Skip Huston (16:50):
It had been, uh, one of the top theaters of Decatur for decades. And then when they start opening up the multiplexes out at the mall and everything else, it, it, it was closed for several years and I was doing cause Decatur’s very lucky. We’ve got our two greatest old theaters still standing. And, uh, both of them, one of, one of them will soon be operational again for performing arts. And that’s the Lincoln theater and they’re friends of mine that are putting it together. And it’s, uh, it’s sat dormant for a long time, but they’re going to get it going. And, uh, the thing is, is that we’ve got both of our theaters are classical theaters and they’re both were built in 1916 and they are still vital to this community. Now, some of the other neighboring towns. And of course, I know how people love to put down Decatur. I hear these champagne and Springfield, Bloomington people making Decatur the butt of the jokes and everything. The thing is though is we’ve got our two greatest theaters still standing and all of you guys tore them all down years ago, the Springfield had some, some fabulous downtown theaters just fabulous. And they tore them down in the seventies. And man, are they sorry? They did. Now

Steve Holstein (18:11):
Our local park district does operate a wonderful old theater that has staged productions. Yes, they do. So what again, why we didn’t get back to the, we didn’t get this one answered, but 1999, what made you decide to buy a movie theater?

Skip Huston (18:24):
I had been doing, uh, some benefit shows at the Lincoln and, uh, in the mid nineties, some big rock and roll, uh, things to raise money for the Lincoln. And I got the bug and I would drive past the old closed down Avon, which I used to go to when I was a kid. And I’d see it just all dark and covered with cobwebs and just looking so for Lauren, and I would think I can do something with this. I can do something with this. And it took me about four years to convince the property owner to give us a shot. And it was funny because the property owner who is now deceased, this was 1999. He said, uh, he was real nice about it. He said, look, I know you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m going to, which I didn’t. And I still don’t really. And he said, I’m going to give you a six month lease. And if you want out of it early, I’ll let you out of it. No problem. And now almost 23 years later, what,

Steve Holstein (19:31):
Uh, what was the first movie you showed?

Skip Huston (19:34):
It was, uh, the movie Elizabeth, which, uh, was with Kate Blanchet, which, you know, we, we were, of course we’re watching the competition, which was then GKC. And we noticed that they hadn’t played this multi Oscar nominated movie. And so I grabbed it for our opening a show and it was invitation only. Uh, we had champagne and hors d’oeuvres that were catered in, and that was our very first, our first regular movie that we showed for, uh, for admission and for the general public was the Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Paxton film, a simple plan. Oh yeah, that’s a good one. Real good. Because what, what was going on is GKC was passing on a lot of this stuff, a lot of great movies. They were passing them because they were the only game in town. And so they figured they could do this. And then here comes us making a killing with these movies.

Skip Huston (20:36):
They were passing on. One of our biggest early hits was the red violin, which, you know, people to this day still don’t, don’t even know that movie is, and it’s a marvelous, magnificent movie. And we played it and packed the place and people were saying, so that’s what they’re doing here. That’s what they’re going to do at the Avon. And it worked the summer of 2002. There, we were still only open on weekends for the art films, art and indie films. And I had had my eye on a movie that was getting kind of middling reviews, kind of two-star so-so reviews. And so I told our booking agent, I want to give, give this one a try. And, uh, he said, well, it’s not getting very good reviews, are you sure? And I said, yeah, let’s just put it in for a weekend and see what it does. That was the summer of 2002. And the movie was my big fat Greek wedding and it exploded the weekend. We opened it. We had lines around the block for 13 weeks, made a hundred thousand dollars on it. And people still talk about my big fat Greek wedding at the Avon. There wasn’t a single show that we had that was under 75 people. Most of the shows are in the two and 300. And of course the, the main theater seats 700. So, you know, it was, it was a wonderful, wonderful time.

Steve Holstein (22:05):
What a, what movie that’s coming down the pike over the next few months. And there are some blockbusters coming, but maybe it’s not a blockbuster. What movie are you looking forward to seeing in your own theater there at the Avon?

Skip Huston (22:16):
I want to see the new James Bond. It’s, you know, when you think about this movie has been sitting on a shelf someplace collecting dust for almost two years, and it’s probably going to be the biggest movie of the year. And it’s so frustrating because we’ve, we’ve seen at least five different date changes because of the star and pandemic. And hopefully they’re going to stick with October, right?

Steve Holstein (22:45):
I am looking forward to seeing that one in theaters as well. Most of the movies that have come out, uh, I’ve been like, ah, you know, I don’t have to see it in a theater. I did go see black widow because it had been a while for a Marvel movie. I’m a Marvel fan when the Marvel logo and the theme came on, it was the first time I’d seen a theater or theatrical release movie in well over a year. And I did get, I got, I got tingling. So I’m looking forward to like James Bond. I bet that

Skip Huston (23:10):
Was exciting for a Marvel fan. Yeah. Well

Steve Holstein (23:13):
Skip, we don’t have an Avon theater here in champagne or anything like it anymore. Nope. I just did just did a Google maps and it’s 51 minutes to get from champagne to the front door of the Avon theater

Skip Huston (23:28):
About right. I think you ought to do it. What I tell people is our popcorn is so good. You’re going to want to throw it on the floor and roll around naked.

Steve Holstein (23:37):
That is the, that is the worst slogan or, or marketing point for popcorn I’ve ever heard. I mean, uh, I thought you were going to say our popcorn is so good that when the theater, when the movie’s over, you’re going to want to buy a, one of our jumbo bags take home. Well, they

Skip Huston (23:53):
Do that anyway. So refills

Steve Holstein (23:55):
Are free. All right. Avon theater skip Houston owners since 1999. Uh, it’s a beautiful theater. That’s been around since 1916, go to their website to Google it Decatur Avon theater. And you can find your movie times. And of course, they’ve got the, uh, the Facebook page. Skip. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.

Skip Huston (24:12):
Well, I appreciate this too. This was a, this was a lot of fun.