(This interview was published in TheatreWorld Mar – Apr 2015 issue)
Brian Hall, CEO of Embassy Diplomat Screens, tells TheatreWorld what sets this opulent all-VIP cinema destination apart from the rest…
How does it feel working for a bigger multiplex chain and owning a chain?
I always felt like I worked for the audience and for the staff that’s part of the team. My job as CEO is to make sure that the whole team is doing the job to support the audience’s expectations.
The difference when you are in a position with a big multiplex versus being the CEO and the owner of the cinema is you’ve got one extra group of people to satisfy when you’ve got the big chain. And you’ve got to make sure that they understand that the audience comes first. The team that support the audience is the most importance tool to delivering that objective. Ultimately, it’s the customer and the team that’s taking care of the customer are really the ones I’m working for and supporting.
Tell us about your experiences in the cinema exhibition industry.
Well, I have a somewhat unusual history in cinema exhibition.
I actually spent large part of my career in the cinema business working for IMAX. And in those days, going back 15 – 20 years ago, Hollywood movies were not being released in IMAX. So we had to work very different than most cinema exhibitors worked. In traditional cinema business, there is a split of responsibility between the distributor and the exhibitor; with the exhibitor basically looking after logistical and customer service responsibilities; whereas the distributor looks at the content and the marketing responsibilities. In my early days in IMAX, the content providers simply provided you documentary movies. You had to not only take care of the customer; you had to market those movies as well. So my early career was a little bit different in that I was not just an exhibitor, I was acting very much like a distributor as well in looking after the marketing and really trying to figure out what the customer wanted not just in terms of experience but in terms of content as well. In those years, I worked all over the globe in different markets but
I spent fair bit of time in North America and in Australia as well.
More recently, in the last 12 years or so, I spent 4 – 5 years working for Major Cineplex group in Thailand in a more traditional cinema exhibitor role. I will give great compliment to Major Cineplex group. I think they do more to understand consumer and market experience to the consumer than most cinema chains do. I took that same kind of attitude, together with my IMAX experience, when I went to Vietnam in establishing and growing the MegaStar Cinema chain. We followed a similar kind of approach trying to be more than just a cinema builder but somebody who was looking after customer’s needs and expectations.
What inspired you to start Embassy Diplomat?
The answer to that question goes back to eight years ago, when
Major Cineplex and I as an employee of Major Cineplex, opened Paragon Cineplex at Siam Paragon. It was a big project. We had 16 screens, and 10 of those screens were what you would call traditional screens but in a spectacular environment. But about six of those screens were really different and unique, exceptionally high quality. They were exceptional experiences for the consumer. And while there was a lot of work, I got a huge amount of enjoyment and my team really loved being a part of those cinemas. And so it always stayed with me… When I got involved in the planning of the Central Embassy Project, I thought why don’t we try and do something along similar lines and create a space that is really exceptional and unique. And that was really the inspiration for starting up Embassy Diplomat.
What business prospects and fortunes did you see in the Project?
I’m going to answer that question like a restaurant operator would. There are two reasons you open up a restaurant. Either you open restaurants all over to feed people and make a lot of money or you open a unique restaurant because it’s a passion for you. And in this case,
it is more like a passion project.
I never really started out to make a lot of money. That was not the goal. But like a good restaurant, if you operate it well and you offer a great service and great product to your customers, they become loyal and come back and reward you with a royalty and you can at least make some money. So I never came into this expecting that this is going to make a lot of money.
The idea of Embassy Diplomat is very unique, tell us something about it.
It comes from two things. It came from the desire to do something in terms of a cinema experience that is unique, never been done before –
a level of quality that’s better than anywhere in the world. But the second part came from the plan for the whole Central Embassy Project. This is a very rare piece of land in central Bangkok- very rare piece of land that big that has a long history. It was tied into British Embassy, which it was home to for many years. They wanted to create a spot in the centre of Bangkok that was an oasis for premium customers. I was inspired by the theme that they took in the original planning for the shopping mall. In working with Rockwell Group on the design, we incorporated the British legacy and the heritage of the site in the design and came up with something unique.
What exactly is your vision and mission in this business?
The vision and mission is to have the best cinema destination in the world. Going to see movies is one of the rare remaining things that people do in social groups. But one of the things that I found in the last
20 years in this business is that every year, there seems to be another alternative or excuse for people for not going to cinema – Watching it on TV, computer, cell phones… So the vision and mission for me was how do you get people who still want that social experience to be stimulated to come. And my response to that was “you have to be the best”. And we are the best place for you to come see a movie.
The market is apparently replete with too many groups and operators jostling for space. What made you foray at this time? Is there a thought that you are already late?
We are truly a niche business. To me it doesn’t matter that there are other cinema operators that are a ten, hundred or thousand times bigger than us. We are not competing with them. We have a wonderful small space in the middle of Bangkok.
We are looking after our own small niche.
The market is dominated by many, big potential and long-established players. Being new entrant, how would you compete with them?
Well, to be very honest, we are not really a new entrant. I have been living in Bangkok for 10 years and our MD Jim Patterson for over 22 years. So we know the market very well. I don’t consider myself a new entrant. But I’m not trying to compete with other brands. Our only competitors are ourselves.
What particular strengths and strategies have you brought in?
The biggest strength that we have brought and borne out in our strategy is to have some of the best designed cinema auditoriums and screens on the planet. The thing that sets this cinema destination apart from any other even in Thailand, where cinemas are pretty nice already, is the design of the space is really exceptional. And I give a lot of credit for that to our design team, particularly Rockwell Group, who did conceptual design for us. We spent a lot of time looking at the kind of customer we want to have here. These are clients who think5-star. So how do we design lobby space, seating area, auditorium that feels unique and 5-star?I think that’s what we achieve more than anything else. Then of course, comes customer service. You can have 5-star deign and atmosphere but if you have 2-star service, the customer will notice. So we work hard to try to make sure the level of service matches to the level of the environment we have offered. And then last but not the least the sound and picture has to be exceptional.
Tell about the latest sound and vision trends at Embassy Diplomat.
We utilise state-of-the-art digital projection systems. Our 3D system is supplied by RealD, who are the largest suppliers of 3D systems in the world and we use their best system. We decided they were the best and the ones to go with. Our sound systems are effectively the best for the auditorium size that Dolby has to offer. We have best sound system that you can find in pretty much any digital screen here in Thailand or anywhere in the world. And because our spaces are relatively small (we have 50 or 40 seat auditoriums), the screens are oversized and the sound systems are higher than necessary. It actually feels better, stronger and more powerful than you would find in the other spaces.
How different is the Group’s proposition in terms of ambience, services, pricing and cinematic luxuries…
I think in terms of the ambience we are the best you find anywhere in Thailand and I challenge you find a space that feels as nice anywhere in the world. In terms of customer service, we are right up there among the best in the world. We are looking constantly at the ways of building and improving. In a country of 67 million people, whose culture is Buddhism, people put others before oneself – convivially and smiling… there is warm than generosity of spirit in Thai people that comes forward naturally. And so even if your staff may not be the best trained in the world yet, and we keep working towards it, what comes from their heart is better than almost anywhere in the world. So I think our customer service levels are exceptionally high.
When you look at our proposition in terms of price, there is a very interesting secret. There is a wide belief that because we are best in Thailand, and perhaps the best in the world, we have the highest ticket prices anywhere in Thailand. But that’s not true. We don’t have the highest ticket prices. There are several other locations in Thailand that consistently have a higher ticket price than here at Central Embassy.
We have a relatively high list ticket price but we offer promotional discounts through our partner and sponsor affiliates. So the ticket for the vast majority of our customers is cheaper despite the fact that you are getting a very best cinema experience in this space.
Having taken the plunge, how do you look at the Cinema exhibition industry in the Thailand?
The Bangkok market is a very healthy market; it is still growing but not as much as the rest of Thailand. A lot of cinemas are being built outside Bangkok. There is still a growing demand for a premium cinema experience from people who are willing to pay a higher ticket price –
a double or triple or more!
How much investment has the Group earmarked for cinema business? When do you think you would breakeven?
As I said earlier, when the investment was made to build the cinemas it was not made with the objective of making a lot of money. The primary objective was to build something unique and wonderful that people will enjoy and want to come back to. The original investment in these cinemas – 5 screens, 200 seats, the surrounding lobbies and supporting infrastructure – cost roughly
USD 3 million. And if we continue to do our job well and customers continue to enjoy the experience, may be another 4 – 5 years will give all the money back, which is very good for any cinema, let alone VIP theatres.
Your future plans in cinema exhibition…
My future plans are to work with my team to make sure that our customers continue for a long, long time to have the best cinema experience that they could possibly have anywhere in the world, right here, at Embassy Diplomat Screens.