By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 07, 2021 at 1:56 PM

Hollywood loves a comeback story – and in 2021, it's hoping to deliver one off screen as well as on after a year almost entirely without the movies (and certainly without a summer blockbuster season).

One of the people most avidly rooting for a Hollywood ending to the pandemic's freeze over the film industry is Greg Marcus, the CEO of Marcus Corporation, the name – and, for anyone who's seen a movie, and therefore the preroll, at a Marcus location, the face – of the area's largest theater chain.

In between having to shut down or open to limited audiences due to COVID-19 as well as keeping track of the wild changes in the film industry, from streaming's growing place in pop culture to studios' constant reshuffling of release schedules, it's been a tricky year for Marcus and the theatrical world. But with the summer started, pandemic protocols mostly dropped, crowds of vaccinated people looking to get out again and a movie schedule no longer pushing off into the future, theaters are back – and, after the arrival of several new streaming services and a year of ceding the spotlight to the small screen, hoping to prove the big screen's better than ever. 

With the summer movie season now kicking off, I got a chance to chat with Greg Marcus – naturally, in a movie theater – though of course not during a film – about the now-constantly shifting state of the theatrical business and Hollywood, as well as their "rivalry" with streaming.

Plus, I got to learn more about the origin story for his love of the movies, where his passion's led him and, of course, his favorite films of all time. So grab a seat, grab some popcorn, turn off your cell phones and enjoy this feature presentation: a Milwaukee Talks with Greg Marcus. 

OnMilwaukee: Obviously the movies were built into the family lineage, but when did you particularly fall in love with the movies?

Greg Marcus: Oh, I don’t know if I could pick a date that I fell in love with movies, but I’ve been into the movies since I was a little kid. I remember, because we’re in the business, we had a screening room – not in our house – where the people would watch the movies before they ran. So for my birthday party, when I was a little kid, they’d get an old movie and bring it in – that meant bringing in the reels. So I remember watching a movie called “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” with Don Knotts.

Oh wow, that’s a deep cut.

Oh yeah. (laughs) I couldn’t even tell you what it was about; I guess it was a ghost movie. But I remember they’d get a big garbage bag of popcorn and I’d have a bunch of friends, and that was my birthday party. So it goes all the way back.

So when you got a chance to get in charge of the movie business, how did that feel to take the reins?

It was a very gradual thing. I’ve been back at the company for almost 30 years, and I’ve only been the CEO for 11 – “only,” it’s still been more than a decade. But I had done other parts of the business. I went to film school. I was into the movie business.

Was there hope at some point of becoming a director or a writer?

I was in a producing program; I wanted to be a producer. And I worked in Hollywood. If I wanted to be a producer, I guess I was sitting in the right spot. I worked for a great producer – she was a woman, she’s unfortunately passed away – named Laura Ziskin, who did “The Doctor” and “What About Bob?” and “No Way Out” and the “Spider-Man” movies. She was really very prolific and a great producer. I was working for her, but I made the decision that I didn’t see my life out there, so I came back and ultimately came back to the family business. It wasn’t predestined or anything. But I obviously liked what we were doing. It helps to like what you’re doing.

From a producer’s eye, then, what would you make of the current state of Hollywood right now? Obviously there’s been a lot of big moves recently, with mergers and streaming and more.

There’s a tectonic shift – in television. Media likes conflict, so it must be the movies against the streaming. But really, does it impact movies? Yeah, but as I sit and look at it, streaming really is a television fight. Am I going to have a cable bundle or am I going to have streaming services? They didn’t just come up with streaming; people have been watching movies on TV for a long time, and on big-screen TVs. 

But going to a theater is a differentiated experience. It’s funny: We as humans adapt. We adapted to being stuck at home and watching stuff at home. We forget what it’s like to go to a theater. Even I forgot – and I’m in the business; I should remember more than anybody, so it’s a good lesson for me. In the late winter/early spring, I went into the theater and I watched “The Courier.”

Just a theater like the one we’re in today: a traditional auditorium, not the UltraScreen but still a 45-foot screen, recliners, it gets dark. At home, a movie goes on and I’m on my phone, I’m scrolling a little bit, the lights are on mostly, the dog’s barking, people are walking in and out. In the theater, it envelops you. I went, “Oh wow, this is completely different.” Whether you’re watching a movie or “Friends” or whatever on TV, it’s still watching it on TV. And that’s a fine experience; I’m not taking away from that experience. 

But that being said, the more stuff they put on TV, we always say we’re in a battle against the couch. We’ve got to remind people how great the experience is and how different it is, and to motivate them to get off their couch for something different.

It was very quickly into the pandemic that I thought to myself, “I don’t enjoy streaming.” I like the access, but you don’t fall into the movie the same way you do at a theater.

And it’s about being with other people. We forget how nice it is to just be around people. We are humans, and it’s our nature to want to be around other people. We forget about that until you’re there. I mean, maybe not everybody, but it is a different experience.

At home, you’re the master of the show. You can pause it, you can turn up the volume or turn down the volume, you can look at your phone. You cede that control when you go into a theater, which isn’t a bad thing. You know you’re not ceding that control permanently; you’re just ceding it for a couple of hours. To allow yourself to be transported by whatever you’re watching.

I think that’s true, but there are some people who maybe one of the reasons they like or prefer streaming is people on their cell phones or talking during the movies. How do we fix those kinds of problems?

You know, I hear about that, and I see it occasionally. But I honestly think it’s a little overblown. You’re going to bump into rude people wherever you go. I think that’s going to happen, and I think it depends on the show sometimes. But a tiny little cell phone that maybe lights up occasionally against the vision of a 45 or 50 or 70 foot screen? I don’t find myself going, “Oh my gosh…”

It is up to us as theater operators, if someone is being abusive – not abusive to other people, but abusing their privilege of being in a theater and being with other people and not being thoughtful of other people around them – then it’s up to us to go in and ask them to turn their phone off or just keep to themselves and to deal with that. And we do that if it’s called to our attention. It’s not easy; except for the media, nobody likes conflict.

Two or three years ago, Marcus Theatres and many of the other major theater chains wouldn’t touch Netflix movies – because of the day-and-date releasing and how they’re disrupting the system. Now, over the past year, you’ve had “Army of the Dead” and “Mank” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Do you see that thaw between theaters and streamers going away forever, or was that just something because of the strange times?

I think that there’s a thaw. I don’t think it’s a good idea for movies to come out on the movie screen and on TV on the same day. That doesn’t make sense, and our economics won’t support that. If a show is sold out, we would like them to still come to the theater – but now, if it’s sold out and it’s on TV, they’ll just say, “I’ll just watch it on TV if I can’t get the seat I want.” So we need to have some period of separation, of exclusivity, to allow our economics to function. 

But that period is shrinking. We’re in an experimental phase right now, to figure out where it should settle in. But the smaller that window gets, then the more likely that we will play films from streamers. And I think there are some advantages for them to play in a theater – because I don’t know about you, but trying to find something to watch is a nightmare. You want something to give you a clue that this was important. In the theater, we can’t play a thousand movies at one time.

There’s 10-15 choices, and hopefully one of those works for you, and you come and see it. That’s a much easier way to be entertained; I don’t have to sit in front of my TV and move from app to app and think, “Maybe we should watch that; let’s see what’s on the other streaming service.”

And many of them struggle to figure out how to put their newest, most exciting content forward. Netflix notoriously has had issues of releasing a new movie but it won’t be on the front page until days later. 

So I think we can be beneficial for streamers. If they can give us the window we need for the customer, then we can then provide them the exposure. By the way, I’ve looked at the Netflix top 10 – it’s mostly series; probably 70 percent series – and a bunch of those movies, they’re not always new. The movie theater allows them to establish the name of something, because it’s so highlighted. We’re talking about “A Quiet Place Part II” this weekend – that, and “Cruella.” That’s all the world’s talking about, so when it comes out on the streaming service, people will say, “Oh yeah, ‘A Quiet Place II’; I know about that.” It’s not like how Netflix will say something’s number one or number three, but I’ve never heard of it.

It does help center the conversation. A streaming thing only lasts for about a weekend and then it quickly fractures; a theatrical experience helps focus and hone the conversation.

You’re absolutely right. Frankly, I think that’s a TV issue that’s going on too. You’re not going to get this with TV again, but you still have this opportunity with movies. 

What was everybody talking about this week? The “Friends” reunion. The show’s, what, 20 years old? But it was a different time, and everybody was watching. There was a limited number of things to watch, and people watched at the same time. That’s why the conversation centered around it – because we all sat on Thursday night and watched appointment TV and then we all talked about it the next day. Now, a show drops, it all comes out at once, and you watch it when you want to. 

Some people are on episode three, some people are on episode eight …

“Don’t tell me what happens! Don’t tell me what happens! Let’s not talk about that show.” As a content creator, I think that’s the last thing you want to hear someone say. “Let’s not talk about it, because I’m not where you are.” Whereas with a movie, by preserving the theatrical experience, there is no “Let’s not talk about it” – maybe a little bit of “I haven’t seen that yet, but I’ll see it next week.” It’s a one-episode thing. 

In a lot of ways, once the streaming thing shakes out – again, with this tectonic shift, there are only going to be a limited amount of players, so they’re trying to establish themselves as that group – my thought is, once that happens, they’ll say, “Gee, it would be nice to get that money from the theaters.” It’s an incremental revenue stream. If they just put it on their streaming service, they get no extra dollars for it. If they put it in theaters first, they get paid for the theatrical eyeballs, and then when it goes to the streaming service, they’ll get paid again. They won’t get that if they just go to streaming.

What do you see for this summer for movie theaters?

The capacity restraints are coming off, and I think people are getting more comfortable every day. Even for myself, we adapted and protected ourselves and said we didn’t want to do anything. And then you get vaccinated and you start saying, “You know what, I want to start doing things again.” The day I finished my vaccination, I didn’t run out and say, “Let’s go nuts!” I started doing small things.

I went to dinner with friends at one of their houses and got to take our masks off. And then I started going to restaurants. And now I’m in restaurants, and I played music in a bar the other night, and I’m sitting here in a theater having a conversation with you without wearing masks and not ten feet apart, and I’m in the office every day.

But it took a little bit of time. So I think movies are going to be the same as people get more comfortable. Movie-going was always a pretty safe experience; people didn’t think about it like that, but you’re separated, you’re all facing one direction, you’re not talking or breathing on one another. 

Movies become a habit. You go to the theater, and you see the coming attractions. And you think, “Oh, that looks good; I’ll see that.” If you’re not coming to the theater, you’re not seeing the coming attractions, and you’re not having that experience where you think, “Wow, this is really great; I’ve got to go back to doing this.” 

That’s the near future. What do you see for the further future of theatrical?

It exists in an overall larger ecosystem of entertainment. I’m hoping that people, once they get back, will say that they missed it and value it even more. You take things for granted until you can’t have them. I like to do stuff at home, and there’s times to do stuff at home, but I actually want to go out and get out of my house and be amongst other people and watch a movie on the big screen. The business will hopefully be somewhere similar to where it was before. 

We will always evolve the experience. The movie theater we’re sitting in is nothing like what a movie theater was like ten years ago, which was nothing like a movie theater was ten years before that. We do change with the times – the fact that you can get Zaffiro’s pizza now or get a beer or a glass of wine or a cocktail and take it into the theater, you have the reclining seats, you have the large-screen formats. I don’t know what’s going to be next, but there will be something next. And whatever that is, we’ll be looking for ways to make that experience better.

I have to end this with the obvious question: What are your favorite movies?

I’m a (Christopher) Nolan fan, so “Memento” is one of my favorites of all time. “North By Northwest” was sort of foundational – it’s the foundational stuff that you always remember. I loved the Batman trilogy, going back to Nolan. “1917,” how they pulled that off was insane. “Animal House,” one of my favorite movies of all time. I can do every line in that movie. I love “Blazing Saddles” – you couldn’t make that today. I have lots of different genres, and there’s so many great movies.

I come to the movies once a week when we’re in full swing; I have a date night with my wife, and we come to the movies. And I like to just come and watch anything.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.