Name: Shaun Jones
Role: Vice President of Operations (UK & Ireland) at Cineworld Cinemas
Notable Achievement: From being a projectionist at a local cinema to becoming VP of Operations at Cineworld!
About Shaun Jones
Shaun Jones is the Vice President of Operations at Cineworld Cinemas across UK and Ireland. He’s worked within the cinema industry for over 20+ years, having started from the bottom and worked his way up to the top! He tells us today about his journey to Vice President of the UK’s leading cinema chain, shares the insider secrets on how 4DX screens run, and touches on the exciting re-opening of cinemas post-lockdown!
Let’s start with a little bit about you! What’s your relationship with cinema? Did you always want to work in the film industry and how did you obtain the role of VP of Operations at Cineworld?
I have always had a love for cinema and the cinema experience from a very early age. My first trip to the cinema was when I was 7 years old, I went to watch Disney’s ‘Pete’s Dragon’, this started my love for and instant connection with the cinema industry. I knew from this moment that this is what I wanted to do in life, no question. I was about 10 years old when my brother gave me his old standard 8 projector with a number of short films from ‘Harold Lloyd’ and ‘Laurel and Hardy’, I was fascinated with the projector, I would strip it down and rebuild it and would often set up a cinema in the house and in my friends garage using an old bed sheet as a screen and get friends and family to gather round to enjoy the experience!
At 14, I walked into the local Astra Cinema in Rhyl, North Wales and pestered the then Cinema Manager Geoff Mander for a job, he eventually caved in and this is where my career began. I started working as a projectionist, handyman and Usher. ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ had just opened for the summer. The projectors were Gaumont Kalee 2000s, the film reels were changed over every 20 minutes… We used carbon arc lamp houses for the light source and valve amplifiers for the sound system. I worked in every area of that cinema, I was determined to learn about all aspects of cinema operations, cleaning the toilets one minute to changing the letters on the front canopy balanced precariously on a wooden ladder the next, not the same health and safety concerns back then. Geoff was a great mentor and true Showman.
I eventually became VP by literally working my way up from the bottom, I have always worked in cinema and during 1997-2001 I moved into live theatre as well where we also produced shows for Broadway. We made all the costumes and sets as well, this was a great experience for me. I returned to full time cinema in 2001 when the new Cineworld opened at Llandudno Junction, I was the first external General Manager they had recruited, so I had a lot to prove! Jon Perry, now Head of Ops for Picturehouse was my Regional Manager who saw something in me and gave me this great opportunity. I didn’t let him down and from that point forward just continued to develop and work myself up the ladder, bringing a number of people along with me on my journey!
Cineworld is one of the biggest cinemas in England! So as the Vice President of Operations and Company Director, you must have so many responsibilities! Can you share what a typical day is like for you?
A typical Monday starts at about 4am, when I leave Staffordshire to drive over to our offices in Brentford. I spend a lot of time in the car, and this is where I do a lot of thinking and forward planning, listening to podcasts and current affairs. I will spend the first few hours of work clearing emails, reviewing the customer service stats and business numbers and signing and reviewing contracts. I also have a quick review of what I want to achieve for the day and adjust any planning accordingly so I can be as productive as possible. Since COVID-19, we’ve embraced more video conferencing technology which has worked well for us, it’s pretty much back-to-back from 8am until about 1pm, having calls with the senior leadership team and my direct reports. The rest of the day is taken up collaborating with other colleagues in the office etc. In the world of operations, you have to also be prepared to deal reactively to any situation or emergency.
I like to spend most of my time out and about the cinemas and with the teams in the field, this is where you really get a feel as to whether the policies and processes you have introduced are actually working. I’m blessed with such a professional and efficient operations team, I love to visit cinemas and see where the next round of talent is coming from. Whilst it’s important to have a mixed experience workforce, I always like to promote from within and give others the opportunities that I was afforded when I was young, this is very important to me.
How does cinema programming work? Are you limited to screening a movie a certain amount per day or can you choose to screen as freely as you’d like?
Negotiations are held with the Distributors and the performance schedule is usually agreed in advance, individual film bookers are assigned a group of cinemas to manage. The great thing with everything being in digital is that we can react quickly and move things around to meet the business demands and customer needs.
How does Cineworld make money? And do you get a higher percentage of ticket sales for more ‘anticipated’ blockbusters in comparison to independent movies?
There are a number of ways that cinemas make money and cinemas of today cannot rely wholly on box office revenue alone. I can’t go into specifics, but basically individual exhibitors negotiate their own terms with Distributors directly. A number of influences may affect the terms agreed. Other forms of income are of course other premium offers such as IMAX in addition to food and beverage, VIP, concession or merchandise sales, advertising and sponsorship deals, private hires etc.
How do you choose which locations to open Cineworld cinemas in or where to have your next IMAX/4DX/Superscreen?
We listen to our customers and teams, we also look very closely at the demographics of the area, property deals often take a very long time -10 years in some cases! – so we plan well in advance. We firmly believe that Cineworld is the best place to watch a movie and we want our customers to be able to choose the way that they want to watch it. We continue to expand our portfolio of premium offers across the UK and Ireland.
Leicester Square… It’s the heart of London’s red carpet premieres and Cineworld has been home to many! Do you work closely with distributors in planning a premiere or have any creative control in such events?
We have great relationships with Distributors and creative media agencies and have held many premieres at Leicester Square. We always work closely with them to deliver the best event possible.
What genres do you feel perform best at the box office and why do you think that is? Do you think there any ‘underdog’ genres that you reckon should be more recognised?
In all honesty, most genres work well for us, we have a great Unlimited Card scheme where customers pay a monthly charge to see films as often as they like; these customers will often come and see films they might not normally choose to see. Clearly blockbusters such as ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Mission Impossible’ are extremely important for the cinema industry, but equally smaller lower budget independent films with an intelligent script and great cast are equally important and can also break out to the broader market. We have had many surprises with smaller films sometimes outperforming multi million pound blockbusters.
For Cineworld, Family, Action and Horror movies play particularly well for us.
Do distributors pay you [cinema] to screen their films?!
I can’t go into specifics here as individual exhibitors negotiate their own percentage or fixed rate terms directly with Distributors.
With just over 100 cinemas and 1000+ screens across the UK and Ireland, Cineworld is a renowned chain! What do you feel is a significant factor in Cineworld’s consistent growth and development since 1995?
We have 102 cinemas in the UK and Ireland, and the simple factor here is we care about the service we give and listen to our customers. We all passionately believe in cinema and want our customers to have the best experience possible. We have introduced premium offers and quality brands such as Starbucks to further enhance the cinema going experience and to give our customers value and choice that they can’t replicate in the home environment. We are currently refurbishing our cinemas in the UK and Ireland and continue to invest and explore further ways to enhance the cinema going experience.
Cineworld is the only cinema chain in the U.K. to offer 4D screenings and currently have over 20 branches hosting the sensory experience! 4DX gifts cinemagoers motion moving seats, wind, rain, scents and more! You really feel you’re IN the film during a 4D showing… but with all these endless elements, how much does it cost to run a 4D screen?! And is there someone in the back controlling everything while the film screens or is it all automated and synced timely to the on-screen action?!
Yes, we are the only Exhibitor in the UK to offer 4DX and ScreenX, and continue to install these popular propositions throughout the UK! Both offer something different and really immerse you in the film, it’s an experience like no other. The technology is expensive and there is a small premium uplift for customers to experience them. Our customers love it; they tell us this regularly and these formats often sell out quickly. The whole process is automated, we have very sophisticated technology behind it and a highly skilled team of technicians that install and maintain these formats. A team in LA masters an additional digital track on the film which in turn controls what you see and what you feel in the cinema.
What films can we expect to see in 4DX that haven’t been re-released yet?!
I think you can expect to see many back catalogue films remastered into these formats, for example ‘Gremlins’ was a huge success when we released it in 4DX.
Cineworld has adapted tremendously well in response to the pandemic and implemented many safety measures to adhere to government guidelines on social distancing. How do you feel the pandemic is going to affect the cinema industry in the long run? In the future, Do you see a change happening in the layout/architecture of screens to have viewers seated differently or maybe even having pre-bookings only as an option?
We are very optimistic about the future and I’m very confident with the processes we have put in place to safeguard our staff and customers to make cinema a safer experience. I don’t see a need to make any architectural changes, the systems in place are working well, we are of course keeping everything under constant review. We all live in hope of a vaccine but in the meantime we are focussed on delivering a great experience with the measures we have introduced. ‘Tenet’ has proven to be a great success and will give the confidence needed for the Film Distributors to release their movies going forward, we have a strong line up ahead way into 2021 and beyond!
It must’ve been a huge relief to finally re-open again but also a daunting time because you just didn’t know how quickly film fans would return. What has the response been like so far, what are you learning and what do you plan for the future?
It is a huge relief to be back open, the response from our customers has been so positive, our loyal Unlimited customers have supported us all the way and are delighted to be back in the cinemas, for many this is their second home. We are all very positive and optimistic about the future, this is not the end of cinema by any stretch, we just need to continue to build confidence with the public so they can be sure of a safe movie experience during this pandemic. There have been learnings along the way and the exhibition industry continues to share best practice with each other to overcome any issues.
To celebrate the re-opening of cinemas and welcome movie fans back, does Cineworld have any other special cinematic events planned/in the works through to the end of the year?
I think shorter term focus is all about safety and security and adapting to the world we are living in, reassuring our staff and customers that Cineworld remains the best place to watch a movie. There are a number of things that are being worked on in the background to further surprise and delight our customers over the coming months.
You’ve worked at Cineworld for more than 19 years (Congratulations by the way!) and with that, you’ve had a front row seat in seeing the cinema industry, (Cineworld especially) evolve so greatly! From 3D, to IMAX and just fandoms in general… What would you like to see next in the future of cinema?
That’s a really good question… for me, anything that enhances the cinema going experience is a good thing. We have lots of innovation going on around the use of digital display systems in lobby areas and cinema design, I think creating a bit of theatre for our guests is extremely important, we want them to relax and leave the stresses of life at the door for a couple of hours, feel the magic of cinema and immerse themselves in a great film. I see further advances in ScreenX technology in the future and we continually look at our new build and refurbishment cinemas for opportunities to improve the experience with higher rake in the auditorium, extra legroom, improved access and the latest in seating comfort. Sound and vision technology is constantly evolving now that things are digital, we have a team always looking to ensure we stay ahead of our competitors using the latest and best technology available. I see an incredibly bright future for cinema and I’m just as excited now as I was when I first joined the business!