When new technologies emerge to enhance the movie-going experience, UltraStar Cinemas is an early adopter, Executive Vice President of Operations Damon Rubio says. He explains that its seven locations specialize in providing more than just movies to their audiences.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on providing ... a great entertainment experience,” he explains. “That [covers] everything from pristine facilities to amenities to great technology to great guest services.”
The Vista, Calif.-based chain started operations in 1999 and today operates locations in California and Arizona that have 72 screens in total. Additionally, many of its locations feature bowling alleys, sit-down dining, arcades and laser tag arenas.
This has inspired UltraStar to call its locations “multitainment” centers, Rubio says. Whenever customers come to one of its locations, “They can choose from multiple experiences,” he says.
Although UltraStar has a modest number of theaters compared to competitors AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group, it can keep a closer eye on quality, Rubio insists. “[They] are very successful theaters, but they also have 2,000 locations, so how much quality can you oversee every day?” he asks. “We stay focused on the operation to provide a quality experience.”
UltraStar is an industry leader in the adoption of new technologies, Rubio says. In 2007, “We were the first chain in the country to go to 100 percent digital [projection], which is now becoming the standard in our business,” he says.
The company also was the first to adopt D-BOX motion systems, which are motion chairs that mimic the action in the films. If a viewer sees a car making a sharp turn, “You’ll feel that because your chair is mimicking that action,” he says. “The action of the movie is timed directly to your chair.”
The newest technology in which UltraStar sees potential is high-frame rate (HFR) projection, which was used in last year’s release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” HFR projection improves the experience of viewing 3-D films by eliminating shadows and blurriness during action sequences. “[It] solves that problem and it adds more dimension,” Rubio says. “It’s like a steroid boost for 3-D.”
But UltraStar has yet to see if HFR will be a popular trend, since its benefits are limited only to 3-D films at the moment. If a viewer watches a 2-D film with HFR projection, it can have a negative effect by making images look as they would appear in real life. For example, Rubio says, if a viewer watched “Star Wars” in 2-D HFR, the artificiality of the special effects and costumes would be more obvious. “It takes you out of it,” he says.
Social media is becoming increasingly important in the movie exhibition industry, Rubio says. “We’ve found it to be very successful,” he says. “We do a ton of incentive-based marketing with Facebook and Twitter, keeping our guests engaged with us.”
UltraStar’s use of social media helped sales at a location it acquired in Anaheim, Calif., adjacent to Disneyland. “When we took it over from another operator, it was an underperforming location,” he says. But social media promotions have “doubled the grosses at that location,” he says. “We were able to take it from a 4 percent market share to an 8 percent market share in just 12 months.”
Working Well Together
Rubio, who has been in the industry since 1988, says UltraStar’s culture manages to be both professional and family like. “We know the people working in our theaters and we trust them,” he says.
This type of environment means there has been little turnover in its management team. “It’s a very cohesive unit,” he says. “We work well together, and there’s not a lot of politics in the corporate culture.” It has been more than five years since it has lost or had to replace a general manager.
UltraStar also maintains strong relationships with its suppliers, Rubio says. “It comes down to the fact that we’re known by our vendors for being on the forefront,” he says. “If they have new technologies and new ideas, they’ll bring them to us.”
This is mutually beneficial to both sides, he asserts. “They have someone they trust that can take their ideas and deploy them,” he explains.
Rubio sees more growth ahead for UltraStar as it builds more theaters, but not only in California and Arizona. “We will bring great entertainment facilities to numerous locations throughout the country,” he predicts. Its next project is slated to break ground in the fourth quarter of this year.