Taiwan's Cinema Ambassador: Joe Chang guides circuit's growth from one to 108 screens

Cinemas Features

Few people in the world have had as much influence in fundamentally transforming the cinematic exhibition landscape of their respective home country as Joe Chang, the current chairman and president of Taiwan’s second-largest circuit, Ambassador Theatres. But he almost certainly didn’t expect to rise to such a pivotal role when he graduated from California State University Dominguez Hills with a BSc in computer science in the early 1980s. Chang subsequently worked for the Health & Tennis Corporation of America as a programming and systems analyst, honing his business and management skills. But eventually he decided to return to his native Taiwan, joining Ambassador Theatres in 1988 as operations manager.

Founded in 1965, the company back then still was a venture like countless others in Taiwan even today: a standalone single-screen theatre in Ximending, a neighborhood and shopping district in Taipei’s Wanhua district. As operations manager, Chang’s job duties were numerous. He devised business goals and implemented measures to ensure the theatre’s day-to-day operations ran smoothly for both customers and employees. He also was responsible for film selection and scheduling, trained employees and set up their work schedules. Customer service was yet another area entrusted to Chang, who responded to customer inquiries, resolved their complaints and created outreach programs to better understand their wants and needs. On the marketing side, Chang built close relationships with studios and distributors to market current and upcoming films and created campaigns to promote Ambassador Theatres.

But perhaps his most important task—the one that eventually would elevate his company to the leading position it enjoys today—was the implementation of new technology, services and programs, both internally and externally.”I have always been a big believer in providing customers with the best movie-watching experience possible, and that necessarily included better sound, better lighting, better seating, better projection and so on,” this year’s CineAsia “Exhibitor of the Year” honoree tells FJI. “During my time as operations manager, my greatest achievement would thus probably have been the installation of new systems that significantly improved the quality of the movie experience along with our revenues.” These upgrades, Chang says, included the installation of the first Dolby SRD and DTS sound system in Taiwan in 1993.

Chang’s diligence and dedication soon caught attention, and in the same year—1993—he was promoted to vice president. That appointment didn’t mean that he could relax in a comfy executive chair, of course. Instead, Chang was tasked with additional job functions on top of what he had already been doing all along. These included further optimization of business operations and screening systems, conducting negotiations with business partners and suppliers, and overseeing the remodeling and rebranding of the theatre.

His tireless efforts must have left a further impression, because in 1998 Chang was made general manager—another step up the career ladder that once again came with a number of additional job tasks. For instance, Chang got involved in talks with government officials, industry leaders and studios regarding the growth and regulation of Taiwan’s movie industry, and deliberated on changes to the country’s film-rating system as well as the formulation of regulations for movie theatres to make their venues accessible for disabled people. Furthermore, he engaged in the planning and financing of Ambassador Theatres’ expansion, including the identification of suitable new locations and the implementation of new products and services—for instance, the circuit’s A+ Loyalty Program, which today has more than 400,000 active members. But it would turn out to be a few years before all these plans could actually be put into action. Yet in 1998, the still single-location cinema under Chang’s initiative introduced Taiwan’s very first online movie ticket-booking services. “Nowadays, in addition to online booking, we of course also have an app for mobile booking and paperless ticketing,” Chang elaborates.

In 2001, Chang reached the pinnacle of his career so far, as he was promoted to company president. He makes no secret that it had been his ultimate aim since the day he had joined Ambassador Theatres: “Becoming company president was always my goal, because it is a position that allows me almost unrestricted freedom to improve Taiwan’s exhibition industry, as well as our own company’s standards for a quality movie-watching experience.” Chang didn’t dawdle, as he immediately embarked on the expansion drive that had been plotted out a few years prior. In 2001, Ambassador Theatres added two new locations in Taipei comprising six new screens to the three screens already in existence at the original Ximending venue. The year 2010 saw the largest expansion to date with 52 new screens in Taipei, New Taipei City but also other locations around the country, such as in the cities of Tainan, Kaohsiung and Pingtung.

While since 2001 all Ambassador Theatres venues had been converted to multiplexes, the company in2003 also started implementing 2K digital projection across the entire circuit, a process that was concluded in 2010. The theatres’ auditoriums also were gradually upgraded to the latest international standards, includingD-Box seats and Dolby Atmos sound systems. Chang’s direction effectively brought Ambassador Theatre’s into a new era, eventually also catapulting it to become Taiwan’s second-largest circuit. “But we expanded organically [rather than aggressively], from only one location in 2000 to 12 locations in 2018, comprising a total of 108 screens nationwide,” Chang notes. “Between 2010 and 2014 we launched five new locations. Four of these are part of large shopping centers, malls or plazas,” he adds. But Taiwan has since experienced a shift away from mega malls to smaller regional city shopping developments targeting mid-size markets, which explains the further expansion of Ambassador Theatres to Jinmen County in 2015.

“Competition in Taipei City [which has the highest movie theatre saturation in the country with about 220 screens] will always remain strong,” Chang elaborates. “However, there are many markets outside of Taipei with populations greater than 100,000 to 200,000 that can support a continued expansion of cinemas, as those markets currently either have no theatres at all or only have older independent single-screen venues.” But Chang also concedes that finding developers or suitable locations is more difficult in these locations. “We nevertheless continue actively looking for opportunities in these markets so that film fans there also can enjoy movies in the best viewing format possible: at the movie theatre.”

In the end, Chang asserts, it was for him personally and his company in general always a matter of “staying one step ahead,” both with regards to the competition and new screening technology. “Technology, the economy, social activities…they all are changing fast, and we need to keep abreast on the newest developments to better serve our customer base.” Improvements in technology and data systems allowed Ambassador Theatres to thoroughly understand customer behavior including acquisition rates and conversions, he insists. “Understanding these figures is a large part of my job and using the data to take actionable steps is crucial in my role.”

Ever the visionary, Joe Chang concludes: “At Ambassador Theatres we consistently strive to provide the best movie-watching experience through our products, services, state-of-the-art technology and film selection. We also are going to reinforce our national presence with five new locations scheduled to open through 2023.”

Taiwan by the Numbers

Taiwan (officially: Republic of China, or R.O.C.) occupies the island of Formosa just off the southeastern coast of Mainland China. It has a total area of 13,976 square miles and a total population of about 23.6 million (2018 estimate), making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world at roughly 1,683 people per square mile. The capital of Taipei together with its satellite town New Taipei City has about seven million inhabitants, accounting for around 30% of the entire population. There are currently a total of 800 cinema screens across Taiwan, many of them single-screen venues run by independent operators. Taipei alone has approximately 220 screens, or 27.5% of the total. Audience admissions have considerably increased in the current decade. In 2010, just three million movie tickets were sold across the nation. For 2018, sales are projected to reach up to 10 million tickets, clearly showing that Taiwan still harbors great potential for further development.