Back from the brink: LOOK Cinemas’ Brian Schultz survives and thrives in post-pandemic market

LOOK Cinema in Colleyville

Brian Schultz will forever remember the devastating blow that March 19, 2020, delivered to his business empire.

Of course, Schultz was hardly alone in a battle against doom that the coronavirus shutdowns dealt to restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and a vast swath of other businesses under the “non-essential” business umbrella.

Schultz, who popularized the dine-in movie concept through his company Studio Movie Grill, was down but he was not willing to be out.

While some of the company’s theaters were able to re-open during the summer of 2020, the pandemic’s toll left a depleted inventory of new, first-run films that made it difficult to draw audiences. Studio Movie Grill was facing foreclosure by its lender.

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“The hardest part was that I had to lay off 7,200 people,” said Schultz, 53.

As CEO, Schultz did all he could to save the company he founded in Dallas in 1993. He retained 34 employees and pivoted into preparing to-go food orders from the kitchens in his theaters to keep money coming in.

But in October 2020, Studio Movie Grill filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a move Schultz viewed as an opportunity to recover.

“Our restructuring demonstrates our commitment to SMG’s future and to welcoming back our 7,000 plus treasured team members as we strive to preserve our mission to open hearts and minds, one story at a time,” Schultz said in a statement at the time.

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“Our guests can also be assured that we have always been, and will continue to be, committed to your safety and have the resources to do so,” he stated.”

Brian Schultz

The company offered further reassurance in announcing that it had “reached an agreement with its secured lenders to support its restructuring through financing and an agreement regarding the terms of a plan that will provide a path forward.”

But when Studio Movie Grill emerged from bankruptcy in April 2021, the company’s longtime CFO and COO Ted Croft took over as CEO.

Schultz departed to start over with an “improved, next generation” version of the dine-in movie concept.

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For him, this type of business is a labor of love.

Schultz grew up in Chicago and Los Angeles and attended college at the University of California-Chico, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in finance and musical theater.

While attending college, he got involved with political activism and took a job after graduating as an aide to the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Schultz was working on Specter’s campaign in the early 1990s, when Specter was trailing badly in the polls. While contemplating his future beyond politics, Schultz caught a film at the Bethesda Cinema ‘N Drafthouse in Maryland and was transfixed by the concept of combining food and a movie.

Although Specter won the race, Schultz moved on to launch his future in the dine-in movie business. In his attempt to see and learn as much about the business as possible, he made his way to Dallas and went to work at the legendary Granada Theater on Greenville Avenue.

The Granada’s storied history in the Lower Greenville neighborhood includes multiple repurposing from a first- to second-run movie house to an event center for various types of entertainment, a concert venue and a place for community gatherings and weddings.

A little more than a year ago, Schultz started LOOK Dine-In Cinemas and now has opened 10 locations across the country, including three in Texas – two of which are in Tarrant County, in Arlington and Colleyville.

“We had the chance and decided to take the knowledge we had and create the next generation of dine-in movie theaters,” he said.

Schultz was confident that he could make his new venture even more successful than Studio Movie Grill was before the pandemic. He lined up the capital from private investors that gave him solid financial footing to move forward.

Prior to the pandemic, Studio Movie Grill operated 25 locations with more than 350 movie screens in 10 states. Several new locations were under construction, including one at The Shops at Chisholm Trail in Fort Worth.

The company made Inc. magazine’s list of “fastest growing private companies” for three straight years and ranked 11th in Box Office magazine’s “Giants of the Industry” in 2019.

Studio Movie Grill currently operates in 21 locations across the country, including 10 in Texas. Two of those locations are in Arlington and a third is in Fort Worth.

Schultz said he plans to add another 12 locations in the next 12 months. Eight of the 10 operating LOOK Cinemas locations are in former Studio Movie Grill sites and the others are in abandoned former movie theater buildings.

Schultz said the pandemic has reshaped the movie-going experience in a way that means his competition is not so much with Studio Movie Grill or others dine-in movie chains.

“It’s with the couch,” he said, acknowledging that movie fans have grown accustomed to stretching out on their sofas and streaming movies on their televisions rather than going to a movie theater.

To break that pandemic mindset requires movie theaters to offer an extraordinary experience.

That’s where Schultz’ visionary approach and incessant attention to detail comes in.

Included in all the LOOK auditoriums are top-of-the-line sound and projection systems and ultimate-in-comfort recliners.

The food and beverage menu features in-house, scratch-made American fare, including panko and coconut crusted chicken tenders and shrimp, cheeseburger sliders, as well as pizzas, sandwiches, wraps and salads. To pair with the entrees, are a large selection of innovative craft cocktails, beer and wine.

Schultz has taken the food options a step further with decadent desserts, including New Orleans beignets with chocolate hazelnut filling and over-the-top “Insane” milk shakes.

Yet, Schultz has remained diligent about affordability, offering entrée items within the $10 to $12 price range.

LOOK Cinemas reflect changes based on complaints he received at his Studio Movie Grill theaters. Improvements include minimizing disruptions while movies are in progress. The company policy requires as much food and drink as possible to be delivered beforehand. During the film, service transactions are carried out as quietly and discreetly as possible by attendants dressed in dark attire.

He has also introduced plates that make the least amount of clanking noise.

“People come here to watch a film and they want it to be a great experience. Period,” Schultz said. “Quality is non-negotiable.”

Schultz eagerly seeks out new locations in communities where his product might be the only source of entertainment. Due to his experience with the Granada, he has adopted a multi-purpose business approach of hosting or renting auditoriums to serve as venues for concerts, lectures, film festivals and community and corporate events.

As an adherent of the Conscious Capitalism movement, which emphasizes engagement over profits, Schultz partners with local nonprofits to help them raise money through film festivals or other types of events by lending auditorium space.

Schultz continues to be deeply committed to the welfare of his staff and paying a living wage.

“I started working for Brian 14 years ago,” said Casey Hudson, general manager of the Colleyville LOOK Cinemas location. ”Brian believes in meritocracy. My wife, my friends have all been with him for 10 plus years. That says a lot about who he is.”