Why one local movie theater chain is expanding rapidly as others close
*Photography by Samantha Levi
A touch of old Hollywood glamour lingers in the air on a bright fall September day in south Overland Park. Liberty-based B&B Theatres is celebrating the opening of its newest theater, the Overland Park 12, an extensive renovation of the former Palazzo. A small combo and a singer belt out “Hooray for Hollywood!” as the suits from the Chamber of Commerce join the family-run cinema chain’s brass onstage to cut a bright red ribbon.
The space at 135th Street and Antioch Road has been totally overhauled. State-of-the-art reclining leather theater seats have replaced the old ones, and a lavishly appointed snack bar and dining area offers everything the discriminating moviegoer demands.
The theater now has something called ScreenX, which CEO Bob Bagby describes as “the world’s first multi-projection immersive cinematic platform.” As the lights go down, scenes from Captain Marvel expand from the center screen and flow to the side walls of the auditorium. Sound, image and fury assault the eyes and ears.
It’s a powerful demonstration of the formula that has allowed B&B to expand rapidly in an era where other movie theater companies are contracting.
Although it’s often overshadowed by larger companies, even in its hometown, B&B is now America’s sixth largest theater chain, comprising more than four hundred screens in fifty-two locations from Florida to Oklahoma. At this writing, B&B proclaims it is constantly growing or updating, with new theaters opening locally in Topeka and Lee’s Summit, for example. Meanwhile, Kansas City-based national chain AMC has been either closing a few theaters in malls like Oak Park or handing older theaters over to independent owners, as was recently the case in Crown Center.
Jack Poessiger, host of Jack Goes to the Movies for KMBZ-FM and a longtime veteran observer of the local film community, says B&B is “much admired by industry leaders and competitors alike.”
“B&B Theatres is a generational love story in every sense of the word,” he says, “not only in the personal lives of its leadership but also very much in the seamless and total hands-on operation of its rapidly expanding theater circuit.”
The roots of B&B stretch back nearly a century and across two families, the Bagbys and the Bills. Their collective enterprise stretches back to single-screen theaters and traveling road shows crisscrossing middle America.
“The Bills and Bagby families have been in the business for generations,” explains Bob Bagby.
Elmer Bills started with the Lyric Theater in Salisbury, Missouri. His pianist for the silent movies was local Johnnie Miller, who he later married.
“My father, Sterling Bagby, was just ten years old when he worked for Elmer Bills at a concession stand for one of his theaters,” says Bob Bagby. “Later, when Sterling married his ticket seller, Pauline Kelso, they both got into the business and took movies on the road throughout central Missouri.”
Details of those early years are a bit sketchy according to Bob Bagby’s daughter, Bobbie.
“Few records survive — everybody was too busy to stop and take pictures and record diaries,” she says. “I would ask Grandma about those days, and she would say, ‘We were too busy and working hard!’ But there have been some occasions when I would sit down with her and take notes.”
What’s well established is that after World War II, the Bagbys hit the road for the Bagby Traveling Picture Show.
“Dad got a truck with projector, popcorn machine, chairs, and they would go to all these small towns,” says Bob Bagby. “Tuesday night they’d be in this town, the next night another town. He might show the movie on the side of a building or on a sheet stretched across the street or inside a barn. That grew into a circuit of both drive-ins and indoor theaters. This was before TV was really taking off.”
The early Bagby movie enterprise relied on a unique business model.
“They didn’t sell tickets but would pass the hat and folks would put in whatever they could,” says Bob Bagby. “That business doubled in size and he got what he called the ‘Mama Truck.’ So, [Johnnie] went out on her own.”
That family connection has continued through the evolution of B&B. Bob’s wife of forty years, Bridget, is involved, as is their daughter Brittanie Bagby Baker, vice president of corporate operations; son Brock, vice president of the film department and booking; and daughter Bobbie Bagby Ford, vice president of marketing, who is headquartered in Los Angeles.
Bob Bagby is in the center of it all. At a family gathering at the flagship Liberty Theater 12, he’s seated at Johnnie’s original piano, just off the main lobby, playing ragtime. This performing area, known as Johnnie’s Jazz Bar and Grill in honor of his wife’s grandmother, is the true heart of the theater — indeed, of the whole B&B enterprise. Tunes from that tiny keyboard have been harmonizing for decades the “family affair” of the B&B story.
When he’s not premiering new theaters, Bob Bagby is playing music for friends in churches and at parties. And all the while, he’s grinning at us from movie screens, popcorn box in hand, promoting his theatres.
The movie theater business has been a lifelong passion for Bob Bagby, who learned the family business as a kid.
“This ‘family’ thing is not just a PR stunt,” he says. “We have people who have been with us since Bridget and I started thirty years ago. I think the secret to our family company’s success is simply that we have fun, we love what we do, we love going to the movies as a family. We’ll close out an auditorium at 9 am on a Friday morning and bring up the grandkids and watch something together.”
That’s how it’s always been for Bob Bagby.
“I remember traveling to Kansas City Film Row with my dad when I was about eight years old, and we went to the United Artist sales office so dad could meet with the branch manager. The branch manager gave me the book entitled Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and told me that they were going to make a movie about this book and asked that I read it and give him my comments on my next visit,” he says. “I loved the book, and for the first time I understood the connection between small-town theatres, the movie distribution offices and Hollywood. The movie went on to be nominated for an academy award, and I felt like a movie ‘insider’ for the first time in my life.”
Bob Bagby married Bridget Bills in 1979, and a year later the B&B brand was consolidated. Starting in 2000, the company expanded. Their three children, Brittanie, Brock and Bobbie, were brought into the business at an early age. Digital conversion was completed in 2012. In 2014 they purchased one hundred and sixty-nine screens from the Overland Park-based Dickinson Theatres.
“Many of the Dickinson locations were well-positioned in their respective markets,” says local film insider Poessiger. “What was needed in many instances was complete refurbishing beyond just simple face lifts. That is what B&B has done with the older properties while steadily bringing new complexes online as well. The renovation process has proven to be just what today’s moviegoers are craving — namely immersing themselves into the movie experience.”
en Fritz, in his recent study of the exhibition industry, The Big Picture, reports that at first glance, it might seem that theater attendance these days is in trouble.
Going to the movies is more expensive than ever. Streaming combined with better TV offerings has led to falling attendance over the past twenty years, from 1.57 billion tickets sold in the United States and Canada in 2002 to 1.31 billion in 2016, writes Fritz.
“When they do go to the cinema, modern consumers increasingly prefer to know what they’re in for, which means a brand-name franchise, like Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars,” Fritz writes. “The dawn of the ‘franchise era’ is the most meaningful revolution in the movie business since the studio system ended in the 1950s.”
Worse, movies no longer enjoy exclusivity in theaters for what used to be the standard ninety-day window. Because millennials demand quick access to new movies, companies like Netflix are offering a few great movies online the same day they opened in theaters. Theater owners have had to accept that many films will quickly hit streaming services.
Bringing viewers into a full-service theater and entertainment complex is where the B&B operation comes in.
What once was a traveling show of truck, projector and concession snacks has become a chain of carefully placed theaters that offer heated leather recliners, massive row space, reserved-seating options, “upscale art” for a more adult audience, a ScreenPlay auditorium featuring a play area for children a half hour before the show and several types of large-format screens.
“It’s all about creating events,” says daughter Brittanie Bagby. “We’re very bullish about getting people out of the house… Even the cocktails are movie-themed, and we have Q&As after movies and board games in the bar. ‘Linger longer,’ we say — it’s not just the movie but the whole event of the movie.”
The Bagbys have had success with that model, including a recent run of the two biggest years in the company’s history.
“You can’t enjoy a movie on a computer, a phone or on television like you can on the big screen,” Bob Bagby says, smiling. “We had our biggest movie opening recently with Frozen 2 here in Liberty. We ran virtually 24 hours that entire weekend, nonstop, with our last show around two in the morning and the next show at seven in the morning. People were coming in at that time ready for hamburgers and beer!”
The reason, Bob Bagby says, is that contrary to the popular narrative, home viewing of movies only whets the appetite for theatrical presentations.
“There are recent studies that find people who watch movies at home are actually your best moviegoers,” he says. “People who watch Netflix go to movies more than anybody else.”
The fact that there’s a positive correlation between streaming and movie theater attendance is surprising to some, says Phil Contrino, the director of media research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. “People who love content are watching it across platforms, and all platforms have a place in consumers’ minds.”
Statistical studies and industry analyses aside, Bob Bagby also attributes B&B’s success in no small measure to the spirit of the company motto: “Enjoy the magic of the movies.”
“Those words come from me,” he explains. “I took my granddaughter, Bobbie’s girl, when she was three to a Disney store in an L.A. mall. Well, it was a hectic moment, and I was a bit frazzled. As we left, the clerk said, ‘Have a magical day.’ And I stopped for a moment. I felt better. And when I came back home, I thought we should end every one of B&B transactions with, ‘Enjoy the magic of the movies.’ Well, it took awhile to get that across to everybody, but then it caught on, and that’s what we say.”