Show business: Entrepreneurs find niche building movie theaters
MINNEAPOLIS -- In their line of work, Steve Tripp and Bryan Sieve sometimes rub elbows with celebrities, but they occasionally dish up popcorn and pour fountain drinks, too.
"Steve and I will, every now and then on a Friday or Saturday, stop by one of the theaters and take over and sell concessions," said Sieve. "Here we are, these two old guys, working behind the counter."
"We probably look like Laurel and Hardy," chimed in Tripp, "but we roll up our sleeves and work with the employees. It's a chance to see the smiles on our customers' faces and wish them a good time at the movies."
More than 10 years ago, Tripp and Sieve -- two Worthington High School graduates -- formed CineMagic Theatres in Minneapolis and started building cinemas, starting with a five-screen complex in Okoboji, Iowa, that has since been expanded to seven screens. They also operate theaters in Hutchinson, Austin, Menominee, Wis., and Rochester and have begun their biggest project yet.
"Our latest foray is a 60,000-square-foot, 15-screen theater in St. Michael, and that one's going to be very unique," detailed Tripp. "It's a whole new concept we've been working on, where you entertain people from the time they get out of their vehicle with fountains and music and lighting in the parking lot, and we're theming our theaters. It's actually going to be called the Metropolitan 15, modeled after the Metropolitan subway in Paris in the 1920s. There's going to be a cobblestone street, trees and a working replica of the Moulin Rouge in the lobby. The lobby's going to be like a streetscape with facades of buildings."
The CineMagic duo created a similar effect when they remodeled their Hutchinson theaters more than a year ago, and Tripp likened the process to building sets. They work with a Twin Cities company that develops the thematic concepts.
"We're working, of course, on our seventh and eighth theaters -- those are in the planning stages," he explained. "In one of them, the lobby is going to be like Wrigley Field, with a sports-themed idea we've been working on."
CineMagic's latest project also incorporates a full-service bar, located on the second level. Adults will be able to enter the theaters directly from that mezzanine.
"And the third floor will actually have a corporate events center, so businesses can bring in a corporate event, have dinner, go to a movie," Tripp said. "We've got local people who are already trying to book it. We're just putting in the footings for the building and they want to book an event."
Both Tripp and Sieve can trace their start in the theater business back to their Worthington roots, although they each followed a different path to get where they're at today.
Tripp, the son of Marv Tripp of Worthington and the late Dolores Tripp, graduated from WHS in 1977 and started working at the local movie theater. He became its manager in 1979 and left Worthington in 1984, moving to Alexandria to become the general manager of the circuit that owned the theater. When the circuit was bought out in 1989, Tripp retained his position, but was asked to relocate to the Twin Cities.
"I had just built a house in Alexandria when this all happened, an A-frame on the lake, and it was a fantastic setup," Tripp recalled. "So I started to look at life after the theater business, because I thought I was going to be out of it. At the time, my mom was ill with cancer, and I can remember a conversation I had with her, late one night, like it was yesterday. She said, 'But would you be happy doing anything but the theater business?' At that point, I decided I was moving to Minneapolis."
Sieve, the son of John and Ruth Sieve of Worthington, grew up in the same South Shore Drive neighborhood as Tripp, but was several years younger, graduating from WHS in 1984. When Tripp was manager of the Worthington cinema, he hired Sieve as an usher. Following high school, Sieve went to the University of Minnesota, got a degree in finance and entered the corporate world. But the two remained fast friends, and Tripp enlisted Sieve's help in his first cinematic venture, they became partners and eventually Sieve left his corporate position.
"Basically, the way we operate here is I'm the president and CEO of CineMagic, and Bryan is vice president and CFO. Because, of course, his background is in finance, he handles the development and financial end, and I handle operations and Hollywood," explained Tripp.
Besides building and operating theaters in the Upper Midwest, Tripp and Sieve have maintained previous connections and also diversified into complementary interests. Tripp continues in his role as film buyer for the company with which he first started as well as other theaters.
"Totally, we buy for 145 screens in the Midwest," he detailed. "Mondays can get hectic, because Monday is the big film day. ... We've also formed CineMagic Media Studios and are doing prefeature entertainment on 95 movie screens. That's the prepicture entertainment that runs prior to the show time. We've been cutting edge on that, had national operations look at us and ask how we're doing it. We were one of the first groups doing a full digital presentation, although that hasn't been without its pains. It used to be done with a voice-over-slide presentation, but here we've got the capabilities to do fully digital animation and a sound studio where we do the voice-overs."
To facilitate movement between their enterprises, about five years ago Tripp and Sieve both earned their pilot's licenses and bought an airplane. By flying themselves, they spend a lot less time on the highway and in airports and can visit multiple theaters in one day.
Throughout their partnership, Tripp and Sieve have maintained a hands-on approach to their business, doing tasks as diverse as developing their own stadium seating concept to hanging screens and drapes. Sieve's mom, Ruth, and wife, Lisa, have previously sewn all the curtains that hang in the theaters.
"Now we're getting to the point where that has to change," acknowledged Tripp. "Every screen that we own, I've personally hung as well as the lion's share of Lakes and Rivers Cinema's screens. It's always been about being hands-on and really our desire to make things as perfect as possible. But, unfortunately, we're just running out of man hours at this point. In our new theater, the largest screen will be 75 feet wide and three stories tall -- one of the largest screens in the entire state. I'll gladly hand over the chore of hanging that one to someone else."
Getting a new theater up and running can be an intense process -- one that can strain even the best of friendships -- but so far Tripp and Sieve have weathered every storm.
"Probably one of the greatest parts of working with someone who's a real true friend is brutal honesty," reflected Sieve. "There are times when we disagree with each others' approaches, but those disagreements are never internalized. We just lay it all out on the table, and in a whole, I think that's improved how we manage the organization."
"And there's that unquestionable trust when you've known somebody all your life, this trust level that in business today is very important," added Tripp. "But when you build a theater and work virtually around the clock for that final month or two before that theater is ready to open, sometimes the building isn't big enough and tempers can flare."
"Most of our employees and the contractors will laugh when they see us arguing about something," Sieve continued. "Most of them will realize that's part of the normal process. Steve and I have both told just about everyone that we tend to have thicker skin than most. Probably another great thing is we have vastly different interests in the business. Steve is interested in operations and the film side, and I'm more involved with the financial aspect and business development aspect. Those functionality aspects keep us in different directions 90 percent of the time."
In his capacity as film buyer, Tripp has more opportunities to interact with celebrities. At one time he collected autographed photos, but quit when the collection got too big.
"I have to watch the good and the bad (movies), and I do go out to Hollywood and meet people," Tripp said. "One of the most genuinely sincere people I've ever met was Walter Matthau. I bumped into him in a corridor at a convention, and we talked about Minneapolis and the 'Grumpy Old' movies. He told me about how he almost died of pneumonia during the filming. So we're talking, and up walks this gal and says, 'We have to move on now, Mr. Matthau," and he says (in a fairly apt impression of Matthau's voice) 'Can't you see I'm talking to my good friend, Steve?' We probably talked for about 10 more minutes. ... After a while, they all just become people. I'm not really a fan anymore. It's business now."
For both Tripp and Sieve, it seems there's no business like the show business, and they've both gained immense satisfaction from the projects in which they've been involved.
"It's pretty interesting when we can go across the country and people know who we are," said Sieve. "I guess we've arrived on the scene, on the national presence, and that's somewhat self-satisfying. Our work has paid off, and when people ask where we're from, we say 'Worthington,' and they say, 'Where's that?'"
"I always tell people that the reason I got into this business was that I always wanted to be an entertainer," said Tripp, "and this is as close to being an entertainer as an untalented person can get."