Inside Track: Life’s in focus for movie theater exec
Eric Kuiper’s passion for storytelling leads him to career at Celebration! Cinema.
While working at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Eric Kuiper was most intrigued by the parts of church that involve storytelling.
“The great comic book writer Grant Morrison said, ‘We live in the stories we tell ourselves,’” Kuiper said. “What is a church if not a storytelling community?
“It came into focus for me while I was working for Mars Hill that the thing I loved to do was create communal experiences for people that help them make meaning in their lives. That has been the through-line for all of the things I do.”
Kuiper came on board at Celebration! Cinema in 2014 as director of alternative programming. He wasn’t looking for a new job, after years working in ministry at the Christian nonprofit Young Life, then at Mars Hill.
But the movie theater chain’s current president, J.D. Loeks, grandson of founder Jack Loeks, handpicked him for the new role on the strength of Kuiper’s leadership experience, outsider status and critical thinking skills.
Comfortable with ambiguity and drawn to creative challenges, Kuiper said yes. He said he channels his father’s example when facing the unexpected.
His dad owned (and sold) several businesses in the construction industry, did interior design work, retail — even had a tabletop vending machine venture in which Kuiper and various family members helped him empty vending machines and got paid in quarters.
“Some of his ventures were successful and some were not,” Kuiper said. “Some of it was hustling, but part of it was just, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’”
Years ago, Kuiper’s dad had a contract doing interior design work with a bank, and the bank asked him to make a sculpture for the lobby — an unusual request for someone with no training.
“My dad was not a sculptor; he was a wall and ceiling painter. But they wanted a statement piece. They asked him if he could do something, and he said ‘Yes.’ He and a buddy cooked up this plan of a set of concentric circles they were going to paint off-white and orange. It was initially supposed to be hanging from the ceiling. They got the whole thing built, and they got in there and tried to install it, but it was not working. It was now the middle of the night, and they had to have it finished by morning. So, they punted and figured out how to install it in a new configuration and got it done in time. When it was in, everybody loved it.
“To me, it was this willingness to say, ‘I’m going to create my own crisis for myself and see if I can pull it off. Yeah, I can do that.’ And telling somebody you can do it and then saying, ‘I’m going to do it, and I’m not going to fail.’”
Now, Kuiper has been promoted to chief creative officer, which means he oversees the marketing and programming departments and their vice presidents.
Although Kuiper hadn’t worked in the movie theater business before Celebration, he earned a Master of Arts degree in theology with an emphasis on pop culture and film from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in 2009.
“A pretty formative moment for me was going to the Sundance Film Festival (in Park City, Utah) in 2005 for a class,” he said. “I was taking a Theology in Film class, and it took place at Sundance. I’d taken other film classes before that, but this experience of immersing yourself in the current American zeitgeist, it was the most dynamic learning experience I’d ever had.
“I never stopped going back to Sundance. While I was working at Mars Hill, I started this sub-organization called Into the Noise that existed for me and other colleagues to go back to Sundance and help people have that experience.”
Kuiper also took parishioners to the Toronto Film Festival and South by Southwest in Austin, Texas — with the purpose of absorbing the movies and discussing them.
“Why I like taking people to Sundance is because it’s … engaging with films that are asking questions more than making statements,” he said. “Rather than asking each other, ‘Did we like this movie?’ ask, ‘Did the movie like us?’ Let’s flip the narrative.
“Sometimes, the movies that are the most tedious to watch end up being the most talked-about movies when I’ve taken people to film fests. One year, I took people to Toronto, and the first movie we watched was ‘The Turin Horse,’ and it felt five hours long. You watched people eat their last potato and the well dry up and their horse die. But we’ve been talking about that movie for years. I still get a random text from a friend who lives in California: ‘I was thinking about “The Turin Horse” yesterday.’”
After having fostered love and enjoyment of films through Into the Noise, Kuiper took a similar approach to creating what now are some of Celebration! Cinema’s most popular offerings, the $2-per-ticket Founders Film Series (think Founders Breakfast Stout paired with “The Breakfast Club”) and the Indie Film Series (limited-release films shown at Celebration! Woodland, such as “Maudie” and “Pop Aye”).
Kuiper also was an influence behind the decision for Celebration theaters to begin offering alcoholic beverages and the Oscar’s Bistro food menu. And it’s partly because of his connections from Into the Noise that he can offer free advance screenings of films such as “A Ghost Story” for selected rewards card members.
As he celebrates his third anniversary at Celebration this fall, Kuiper is excited about the changes coming to the chain, including the reseating project at Celebration! Crossroads & IMAX in Portage that will convert all seats to recliners, and the nine-screen Studio C! development planned for downtown Grand Rapids in 2019.
“What really drew me into Celebration is the size of the company,” he said, noting that it has 30 employees in the corporate office and 700 to 800 “frontline” theater employees.
“I love that it’s big enough to have the resources to do new things. It’s a healthy, stable company in so many respects, which gives us the ability to think differently and try new things. It’s also small enough that we can make changes. That’s the sweet spot.”
He is looking forward to the challenge of finding the right programmatic mix for Studio C!, which will show blockbusters but also might play host to new series or even a film festival.
Kuiper gets philosophical about the role of film in American life.
“There’s real value in people having an experience with someone else’s point of view,” he said. “Has there ever been a moment in American history where people need to learn how to empathize with a different point of view than their own than the moment we’re living in now? I really believe movies are a part of that happening. Engaging with story increases empathy.
“Movies are not widgets to me. They are incredibly important to engage with. Part of that is being critical. Sometimes they can teach us things, sometimes they are holding up a mirror, and we hate what we see. If that’s the case, there’s a real wondering that should take place.
“When we talk about being a place ‘where story happens,’ it’s much bigger than movies alone.”