The disruptive age of Netflix has turned the content industry on its head. So much so that, at first glance, running a cinema business may appear to be an unattractive proposition. However, Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob has been steadfastly and successfully navigating the company through the increasingly challenging entertainment landscape.
Born in Calcutta and moving to Canada at the age of 15, Jacob has experienced disruption in his own life. He came to Montreal with only $10, his only connection to the country being his recently married sister. He eventually earned his title as a chartered accountant. His transition into the entertainment industry only came through following his mentor into the industry – though his passion for film had existed since he was young.
The cinema experience has evolved drastically over the past 30 years. As many of us can, Jacob recalls lining up outside a Montreal theatre in the cold. Thankfully, today’s movie theatres have large lobbies, with entertainment options and a variety of food offerings.
But perhaps the greatest change — digitalization — has come in the past 10 years. Movies no longer display in film, sound systems are superior and experiences have been upgraded with new effects. The most recent addition: 4DX, which adds the dimension of smell to the viewing experience.
Jacob has applied some of his own experiences to upgrade and diversify the Cineplex offering. Many theatres offer alternative programming, including opera and sporting events. Diversified content brings new customers; Cineplex, for example, introduced Bollywood films in Punjabi, Hindi and Tamil. Jacobs found that appealing to Canada’s demographic diversity was imperative both culturally and financially. The most recent diversification: the addition of Rec Rooms, which offer dining, bowling and gaming services for guests of all ages.
Canada has been a natural hotbed for these innovative transitions. When looking for fresh ideas in the industry, Jacobs says it “might be (surprising) to hear that most of the other exhibitors and peers come to Toronto to learn from us.”
Cineplex did not become successful without overcoming a few hurdles. The introduction of child-minding services during movie showings was not well accepted; the company found that Canadians were less trusting than they had hoped. And their initial attempt to bring bowling to cinemas did not work – only when they reworked the idea into their Rec Rooms did they find success.
As a leader, it is important to make mistakes, Jacobs says, because you must “keep trying to succeed.” His leadership style is hallmarked by his passion to keep moving forward. Even indecision, he says, is more harmful to an organization than attempting something and making a mistake. And just as the company must change, his leadership style does, too: He recently appeared on a TV show in which CEOs go undercover in their own organizations. It reinforced his pride in the business and the hard work his employees put forth every day.
So, what will the next innovation in the cinema industry look like? The viewer experience continues to evolve into a more sophisticated outing, Jacobs says. For example, D-BOX seats move in conjunction with the movie frame, allowing viewers to be fully immersed in the production.
Wherever the industry goes, it seems that people will continue to want to go to the movies. “Regardless of how the business has evolved and all its changes,” he says, “(people) always look at a movie theatre as a real experience.”
This interview has been condensed and edited from The CEO Series on CJAD, hosted by McGill University Associate Professor Karl Moore. This article was written with Pauline Sels, BCom student at McGill. The full interview is available on the CEO Series iTunes podcast.