It’s a feel-good story for Tobias Farley, one that Hollywood might find worthy of a feature film perfect for a Saturday afternoon matinee.
A local guy lands a humble job washing dishes in a diner, then after experimenting with a handful of other potential careers, returns to the place where it all started to work his way up the career ladder. He ultimately gets married the same year he becomes a movie theater general manager.
OK. That may not be as Adrenalin-pumping as a blockbuster superhero flick on a hot summer weekend, but it’s still the stuff that hometowns were meant to be, nurturing their own to success.
Such is the case for Farley, 30, who has been a general manager with AMC Theatres (formerly Carmike Cinemas) since the spring of 2011, first in Athens, Ga., then back to Columbus at the AMC Ritz 13, which is tucked beside the Hollywood Connection entertainment complex off Whittlesey Road.
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It’s a great time to work in the theater industry, Farley, who was born in Columbus and now lives in Smiths Station, Ala., would concede. After all, the Academy Awards, aka the Oscars, are only a few weeks away (March 4), with best-picture nominees likely to include “Dunkirk,” “The Shape of Water,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Post,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Farley’s role in the hoopla will be leading his staff with the mission of making movie fans comfortable as they venture into his movie theater before the awards to watch the nominees on the big screen, then debate which films and actors they think are worthy of Oscar recognition.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with the personable general manager recently to discuss his job, what it’s like to run a theater, and to find out what types of films a movie fan such as himself likes to see. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. Is it true you started out selling popcorn here?
A. Not selling popcorn. I’m pretty sure it was the summer of 2004; I started in Lieutenant’s Diner, it’s just the diner now, on the Hollywood Connection side, washing dishes.
Q. Why did you decide to work at the diner here?
A. I played sports and stuff. I played basketball and ran track, so I was very involved with school. But when I wasn’t involved in sports or in the offseason, I was working weekends washing dishes, trying to make some money. That was from 2004 until after I graduated high school. Then, in 2006, I left Carmike and started experimenting with different jobs. I worked for Bonanza on 280 in Phenix City, and also with Steak ’n’ Shake, Kaiser/Warren and TSYS. Eventually, I ended up coming back to Carmike, and got promoted to staff leader in the diner. After about a year I came over here (to the movie theater)
Q. What did you first do in the theater?
A. My first job on the movie side was staff leader, and within a year and a half I became assistant manager. That was up until 2011, when I accepted the offer to become a GM.
Q. So you never sold popcorn?
A. I did, actually. As staff leader, it means leading by example, which in any case is good. You definitely have to get the staff rallied and behind you. … When I was staff leader I used to make it competitive. Back then it was the Ritz 10 (later expanded to 13 auditoriums) and we had two separate concession stands on each side of the lobby. The staff leader on the other side, I would tell them that we’re going to win selling the most buckets or large drinks, whatever the contest might have been. But I would also be on the register if we were training people just to give them the technique of up-selling or pitching the Carmike buckets that we had back then.
Q. So you were motivating by competition and example?
Q. Where did that mentality come from?
A. I’m sure it came definitely from watching my mom and in school. As a small child and being in sports, I played basketball and I was always the point guard. So the coach would always say: If you’re going to be the point guard you’ve got to be able to lead the team, and you’re the one that’s got to keep a cool head to keep everybody else in line, and with composure … I’ve always been taught to lead by example.
Q. Which includes working alongside the troops, so to speak?
A. Right. I’ll still do it. I’ll get in the concession stand, especially in our one-stop-shop concession stand — we sell tickets and concessions at the same time — just to relieve some of the pressure off them. If we get really busy I’ll jump back there and make the popcorn for them. That way they can just focus on their transaction and on the guest. It also gives me that shoulder-to-shoulder action with my staff and to help me know my staff. If something’s out of line and I’m working with them, then I can see a problem both from my perspective and their perspective.
Q. What’s your schedule like? You’re not bound by a desk it appears?
A. I’m not, but I do have certain reports and things that are due on certain days, as any general manager would. I would say my main duty as a general manager is to make sure that everyone is in a good state of mind. To make sure first, of course, that guests are satisfied. But the guests can’t be satisfied unless we’re providing them great customer service, the facilities are in a good state of repair and, of course, that we get the movies on the screens on time like they should ... That’s when I’m not upstairs making show schedules, because I like to personally make the show schedules.
Q. Meaning what shows are showing …
A. ... At what time, and how can I add extra shows on a screen.
Q. That gives you flexibility in accommodating movie-goers?
A. Right, which is really great. We do have a film department that negotiates that, like how many shows (of a particular movie are required).
Q. You also have recliner seats, which I hear are popular?
A. Our biggest recliner (auditorium), capacity-wise, is 51 seats. If we get a new movie, and I’ll use ‘Star Wars’ for example, everybody wants to see it in a recliner. We only have one 3D house with recliners. Of course, I’ve still got to put (a major movie) in our biggest auditorium, which holds roughly around 300 people. But I also try to fit (certain) shows into the recliners, which is where the flexibility comes in with our film buyers to negotiate with studios which movies we can take some shows from to accommodate the capacity for a new movie.
Q. You also have the flexibility to change things based on the demographics of people walking in the doors?
A. When we talk about demographics, every theater’s location and every theater may not perform the same. It’s interesting to watch. There are theaters in Atlanta that perform better on certain movies. There’s theaters in Columbus that perform better on certain movies. There’s theaters in Florida that perform better on certain movies, and it’s all because of demographics. Those are all things that can be tracked by (ticket sales) grosses, and you can see typically what location does well for what particular movie that’s being released that week, whether it’s a drama, suspense, a children’s movie or something that’s more of an independent, indie art film. We get a lot of those here. The art films that come through, we do extremely well on, and we tend to put those in recliners.
Q. The Academy Awards movies coming up will likely be in the recliners ahead of the show?
A. Right. Like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” came back to us. We also got “Lady Bird” back, which should be nominated. The film buyers watch and see who gets nominated, so we’ll bring it back even though it might have already played. Guests will have the opportunity to go see it and why it got nominated.
Q. Do you watch lots of movies?
A. (It changes) as you move up the (career) levels .... when I was a staff leader, it didn’t matter. Every Wednesday night or Thursday morning, whenever we screen movies, I was here. I was like, I want to watch them all. But then I became an assistant manager and my hours got a little bit longer, so it had to be something I really wanted to see in a theater. And, now, as a general manager and being married with three kids, I’ll be up here when the next animated movie comes out. (laughs)
Q. So you or your staff screen the movies?
A. Yes. Screening the movies we have to do just to make sure the content is good, and that halfway through the movie it doesn’t black out. That’s the main reason, but it’s also good that the staff can see them so that when guests come in, the staff knows how to pitch the movie.
Q. What types of movies do you like?
A. My preference? I love the superhero movies. I’m definitely looking forward to our lineup. We’ve got Marvel movies. We’ve got “Black Panther” next month, and then we’ve got the next “Avengers” series coming up in the summer. I love those. I still haven’t seen “Justice League” yet, so I’m kind of disappointed in myself because I’m a D.C. fan. … But I’m also down for a good drama. I don’t like to admit it, but I will occasionally watch a good love-romance movie with my wife. It’s interesting to me. I’ll catch those with her if she wants me to. But moreso the superheroes. I love the comic book movies.
Q. Do you get to meet the guests sometimes and perhaps get to know them by face?
A. I definitely know a lot of people by face. We have our normal crowd that comes through and it’s like an every-week thing. Like some people go bowling every week and some people go skating, there are some who go to the movies every week.
Q. A colleague of mine may see two or three movies on a weekend, which racks up some expense and rewards points, I take it?
A. We always hear that, oh, the prices of the movies have gone up. They have. I’ve been here to witness it all. But it’s just as time progresses, the minimum wage goes up, the cost of living goes up, everything goes up together. Which is why I feel here that we definitely have to be on top of customer service because people don’t have to go to the movies. Nowadays you can watch it at home, and stream stuff. So I personally value every person that walks through the door, and I try to instill this in my staff: If nobody’s coming in, then we have no reason to be here. But I do get to know the guests, and a lot of people know me.
Q. And they give you their opinions?
A. I encourage it, even though I know sometimes when I get some really interesting feedback, I know that it’s out of my hands. But I listen to it all.
Q. The bottom line, you like to hear the feedback?
A. Yes, because that’s the only way you get better, whether it’s positive or negative. But even if it’s negative, it’s still positive because if you look at it (that way), you correct your negatives to make things better. So I encourage all feedback.
Q. What’s the most challenging part of your job?
A. The biggest challenge is definitely meeting goals that are set by our Theater Support Center ... meeting goals and budgets. But at the same time, the challenge can be not necessarily trying to satisfy everyone, but trying to satisfy everyone in the same sentence, if you know what I mean. That’s all the way from (guests) to our TSC to everyone inside the building. But, then, as general manager if there’s an issue that arises, you have to listen to every perspective and know that no matter what decision you make, someone’s going to like it and the other person’s not going to like it. It’s just really tough finding the perfect balance.
Q. Do you ever think back to those early days at Lieutenant’s Diner?
A. I do, especially when I go over to the diner, it hits me more. I may go over there and order some hot wings and sit down and watch them cooking them. In my head, I’m thinking, well, I would have done that this way or that way. I went to Athens in 2011, and in 2013, I went to Auburn and Opelika and helped with (the theater) there.
But as soon as I arrived back here, it brought back memories. It was just interesting to know that I started my career with the company in this exact building and, now, to see where I’m at, and all of the people that helped me get to the position that I’m in, it’s just been a really great journey .... It’s a great feeling to know that the city I was birthed in and got my first job in, ultimately was the same city that helped me become the person I am today. So I love it. The memories come back all the time.
Hometown: Born in Columbus, but raised in Phenix City and then Smiths Station, Ala.
Current residence: Smiths Station
Education: 2005 graduate of Smiths Station High School; now working on earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Walden University, which should be completed this year
Previous jobs: Aside from the theater industry, he has worked at Bonanza, Steak ’n’ Shake, Kaiser/Warren and TSYS
Family: Tawana, his bride of seven years, and three children – daughter Reagan, 7, daughter, Jaida, 5, and 1-year-old son, Tobias Jr.
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with his kids, including taking them to and from practice; when everyone is asleep, he really loves to play Xbox video games, particularly because of the Adrenalin rush and the fact that “it helps you learn to make decisions really fast”