'Change Is the Only Constant': Marcus Theatres passes down wisdom through three generations

Cinemas Features

In association with the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, Film Journal Internationallaunches a “Legacy” series saluting pioneering families in motion picture exhibition. Our first profiles are the Marcuses of Marcus Theatres and the Bagbys of B&B Theatres.

For three generations, the Marcus family has been bringing movie magic to the Midwest. Launched in 1935 as a single theatre in a former department store in Ripon, Wisconsin, over the decades Marcus Theatres has ballooned into one of the largest chains in North America. They go beyond movies, too, with hotels and foodservice both having fallen under the Marcus Corporation’s banner. (Now, The Marcus Corporation has two divisions: Marcus Theatres and Marcus Hotels and Resorts.) And the company is thriving; in 2016, Marcus purchased the Wehrenberg chain, bringing their screen count close to the 900 mark.

What has made Marcus Theatres so successful? It’ s a question that defies a simple, succinct answer. But in speaking with Greg Marcus, CEO of The Marcus Corporation and grandson of founder Ben Marcus, one word comes up that gives us a key as to how Marcus has been pleasing moviegoers for 85 years: “continuity.”

Continuity, that is, between the three generations of Marcuses who have guided their family business through the better part of a century, with all its attendant technological (like the rise of digital cinema) and social (the move towards an all-inclusive movie experience) shifts.

Marcus Theatres’ “foundation [was] laid down by my grandfather and perpetuated by my father [Steve Marcus],” Greg explains. “It’s about learning those family philosophies.” A key philosophy—perhaps the key philosophy of Marcus Theatres, and one certainly understood by Ben Marcus when he founded that first theatre in 1935—is that “change is the only constant.”

It was a big change in the way people consumed media—namely, the introduction of television—that led Ben Marcus to extend to the restaurant and hotel industries. “He felt the need to have diversity in his businesses,” Steve Marcus says of his father. “But over time, I think he became more confident that the movie business was here to stay, as long as you kept it current and stayed one step ahead of the sheriff, if you will.”

Marcus Theatres has definitely stayed one step ahead of the sheriff when it comes to dine-in. It didn’t hurt that, since the ’50s, The Marcus Corporation has had its fingers in the restaurant business. In 1958, Ben Marcus opened the first Marc’s Big Boy restaurant in Milwaukee; by 1970, there were 21 additional locations. Marcus was also an early partner with this little up-and-coming business called Kentucky Fried Chicken. Greg himself entered the family business back in 1992 from the real estate angle, with some of the properties he oversaw belonging to Marcus’ restaurant concerns.

Given The Marcus Corporation’s background in foodservice and its “change is the only constant” mentality, it’s no surprise that they made their first foray into dine-in theatres a full decade ago; Greg Marcus justly credits Rolando Rodriguez, CEO of Marcus Theatres since 2013, with much of the success there.

Marcus Theatres’ early and continued success with dine-in brings us to yet another of Ben Marcus’ philosophies that have served not just him but his son and grandson so well. “He had a handy theory, which is: ‘It’s OK to make mistakes, but keep them small,’” says Greg. Try new things, but be responsible about it. To that end, Marcus Theatres’ entire dine-in enterprise started in a single theatre. “We thought, ‘Food and beverage is going to be important. Let’s try it out,’” says Greg. “So we tried it out in one theatre. One at a time. And we went from there.” Now, Marcus Theatres boasts an entire lineup of in-theatre dining options across its dozens of locations, ranging from the ’50s diner-inspired Reel Sizzle (currently in place at Brookfield, Wisconsin’s Majestic Cinema) to the Big Screen Bistro in-theatre dining experience to the more relaxing Take Five Lounge.

Greg Marcus describes himself as “so fortunate,” both to have had Ben Marcus in his life—the founder of The Marcus Corporation passed away in 2000 at the age of 89—and to have worked so closely with Steve, who served as The Marcus Corporation’s CEO from 1988 until Greg took on the role in 2010. “I look at my dad, and I see a man who brought professional management to our business, hired smart people and let them do their job,” Greg says. “I try to do that. The idea of maintaining our balance sheet, the importance of a sound financial structure, the importance of your people—I hear that from my dad. He heard that from his dad. These things transcend generations.”

“Every meal, you talk about the business,” Greg says—a common experience for family businesses. Theatres weren’t the only facet of that business, of course, but for Greg it was the most compelling component. (If he hadn’t gone into the family business, he guesses that he would have ended up a movie producer.)

“With my own kids, it’s much easier for them to understand their involvement in the movie theatre business than the hotel business,” he explains. “When you’re really little, you to the movies and you can see, ‘OK, this is what we do. I get it.’ As opposed to going to a hotel: ‘This is what we do.’ ‘What do we do?’” As for whether we’ll be looking at a fourth generation of Marcuses in the theatre business, Greg stresses that, though working with his own father is “something I’m appreciative of every day,” his children’s career choices are entirely their own decision.

It all comes back to that one word: continuity. Marcus Theatres wouldn’t be what it is today without its founding principles, established by Ben Marcus and reinforced through decades of shared experience. “It’s been a family ethic, all the things that I’ve been telling you about the way we look at our business,” says Marcus. “Making sure we maintain a strong balance sheet. Remembering that people are our most important asset. We are a people business. It’s remembering that, again, change is the only constant.

“If you’re open to change and you’re talking about what that is, or what it’s going to be, then you’re going to be able to take advantage of it. Or make sure it doesn’t take advantage of you!”