In 1989, Paul Glantz was a young certified public accountant on the hunt for additional business opportunities when he and a friend decided to purchase a movie theater in Clarkston.
The venue was small — just a single screen and 265 seats — but somehow, the pair landed on an industry list of the largest U.S. theater operators, albeit in 365th place.
“We were tied,” Glantz laughs, “with a lot of others.”
Thirty-three years later, Glantz is back on Boxoffice Pro’s Giants of Exhibition list — but this time he’s at No. 9.
“I couldn’t have envisioned this when I started the company,” says the co- founder and chairman of Troy-based Emagine Entertainment, which owns and operates 28 theaters across Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. “It’s gratifying to think that the hard work and teamwork that’s gone into building this business has brought us to this point.”
Indeed, it’s quite a feat for a man who, until four years ago, considered owning a growing slate of luxury movie theaters his “avocation” — a hobby to nurture on his off-hours as the chief financial officer of a local insurance business. Why’d he keep his day job for so long?
“Being an accountant, I’m a little risk averse,” he says.
It looks like the risks are paying off, even amid unprecedented challenges for the film industry — everything from the proliferation of streaming services and online distribution to, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Emagine has weathered them all, sliding into the Giants of Exhibition’s top 10 with the addition of seven new locations in 2021 alone.
“We had a pretty simple philosophy going through COVID,” says Emagine CEO Anthony LaVerde. “It’s the Warren Buffett adage: Be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy. We chose to be greedy.”
Still, Emagine didn’t escape the pandemic unscathed. First, there were the state-mandated shutdowns of movie theaters, which prompted Glantz to sue Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in June 2020. (He lost.) Then there were the other losses: $46 million between April 2020 and March 2021, and most of Emagine’s workforce, which plummeted from about 1,100 people to 15.
“We had to save every dollar we could,” says Glantz, who nonetheless covered health care costs for his laid-off employees. (All full-time employees are eligible for family health insurance, as well as other benefits and perks, such as free movie screenings.)
But thanks to some help from Emagine’s investors and Glantz’s relationships with various regional banks, the company raised enough capital to not only pay its bills but also facilitate growth.
Without that infusion, Glantz says, “[I] would not have the privilege of operating a business of this magnitude today.”
When it comes to knowing what moviegoers want, Glantz, who grew up in Redford Township and now lives in Lake Angelus, has always been somewhat of a visionary. He was quick to embrace what he calls “paradigm shifts” in the industry, like digital projection and stadium seating — Emagine was the world’s first chain to convert to 100 percent digital projection in 2005 and also opened Michigan’s first all-stadium-seating theater.
“I think it’s incumbent upon businesspeople to try to anticipate how to enhance the guest experience,” he says. “With moviegoing, it’s a relatively easy process. I look at it and think, ‘What would make this better?’”
The answer: heated leather recliners that can be reserved before showtime, bars serving local craft beer, brick ovens that churn out fresh pizza — delivered to your seat, of course — and soda fountains that let you order from your phone.
“It’s all about providing the best out-of-home experience you can,” LaVerde says. He knows Emagine is competing against the comfort of one’s own couch, but he says it’s not a zero-sum game: Movie theaters and streaming services “can both win.”
For Emagine, “winning” involves targeting underserved markets, whether that means locales with existing theaters that need a refresh or communities that lack upscale theaters altogether. Detroit is a prime example of the latter, but Emagine is working to change that. In 2018, the company partnered with hometown rapper Big Sean to develop an entertainment center in the city; locations are currently being scouted.
In a constantly changing industry, Emagine is also investing in alternative content, which accounted for more than 5 percent of the company’s revenue last year. In December, Emagine debuted a Vegas-style sports-gambling lounge at its Royal Oak theater, and it hosts live music every weekend at the Birmingham Palladium.
“[We] realized early on that our venues could be used for things other than viewing feature films,” says Glantz, who tested the concept at his Birch Run location in 1998 when he secured a digital projector “the size of a rowboat” to show the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But back to the present. With Emagine’s four consecutive quarters of profitability and a 2022 film slate that includes several anticipated blockbusters (such as the sequels to Minions, Thor,Black Panther, and Avatar), Glantz is optimistic about the future.
His company is back up to 900 “teammates,” as he calls them, and he’s looking to expand beyond the Midwest. “I’m not at liberty to talk about it, but there are plans afoot,” he says.
He even occasionally has time to enjoy the perks of his role, like popping into one of his theaters to catch the latest flick.
“It’s not a straight trajectory upward; it’s been a bumpy road,” he says of his decades in the movie business. Still, it beats working in insurance. “You don’t realize how much better life is going to be,” he says, “when you only have one job.”
This story is from the September 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.