Community Change Maker: John Smith

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Airtable Alumni (Retired)

CommunitySpotlight John Smith.jpgThis month we spoke with John Smith from Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Alamo Drafthouse is a superior cinema and dining experience founded in Austin, Texas with ~40 locations throughout the U.S. John is currently a Senior Film Programmer and has been with the company for 9 years. Through various roles he has become an expert in how the business operates from end to end. John and his team of 3 are responsible for alternative content. In this conversation we discuss his passion for cinema, what it's like to be an “Airtable whisperer” and the impact interfaces has on the team. Hope you enjoy reading this month’s Changemaker Spotlight with John Smith. 

LM: You’ve been at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for 9 years which is a huge accomplishment! Currently you are a Senior Film Programmer. Tell me about your role and why you love working at the company? 

JS: I've worked at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for 9 years and worn a number of different hats. Aside from my role as Airtable admin, my team oversees what we call “alternative content. In cinema, the bulk of our revenue comes from the big blockbusters like the Marvel films or FAST & FURIOUS films, but they’re seasonal. That leads to times during the year where there are gaps, empty seats, or empty screens. My team looks at these gaps on a national level to identify where we can strategically place alternative content, often nostalgia films, to make incremental income for the business. I am really proud of this tight knit team. Annually we generate 5% of our revenue off of alternative content, but in months like August and September, our team can generate 15 to 20% of our weekly revenue.

LM: Have you always worked in cinema?

JS: I've always loved cinema. Working in cinema marries the ability to be creative, thoughtful and impact people's lives. Alamo Drafthouse gives individuals the opportunity to have a great time and discover something new with their family and friends.

LM: Speaking of movies. What's your favorite one?

JS: That's so tough. My go-to has always been Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. That said, it could be different each week but in general that's my favorite.

LM: I understand you use Airtable as a film booking system for project management. I am curious. What was life at Alamo Drafthouse like before Airtable? 

JS: Confusing. Well, sometimes. The real answer: a lot of spreadsheets and redundancy. It became clearer & clearer we were wasting time and running into the same issues year after year. Post-Covid, we had a leaner team, new team members and new roles that hadn't exist before. Airtable has been essential in helping us on the programming side, streamlining workflows and connectivity between teams. The platform has been key in helping my team of 3 do the work of what used to be upwards of 20 people.

LM: How did you discover Airtable and ultimately decide on the platform?

JS: Pre-Covid I worked on our marketing side overseeing copy social media, PR and promotions teams. I looked into Airtable as an editorial calendar. Once I started playing around with templates, I could see the potential of the platform, particularly on the programming and film side. I must’ve made a mental note and returned to it when I took on my current role. Coincidentally, new hires had previously used Airtable endorsed it. 

We’re pulling everything we can into Airtable. From first run content, repertory, booking, scheduling, core data about the film, ticketing, website, app merchandising. We are wiring as much information so our stakeholders have the right information they need. 

For example, if the release date of a film changes, many ripple effects occur. Everything from how many places that particular piece of information lives to staffing, budgeting for the month to our marketing and campaigns teams. With Airtable if we update the release date in one spot, it’s updated across the board in every place this information exists. This makes a big difference. 

LM: What impact does Airtable have across Alamo Drafthouse Cinema?

JS: There’s a small team working full-time in Airtable, but the information they are working on cascades into everything we do. It’s increasingly vital to have a centralized hub for tracking information about the films we’re working on, our long and short-term planning, and even the capabilities of our buildings. Airtable ties everything together and enables better, more accurate decision making – without needing an incredible memory or flipping through tabs of spreadsheets or “tracking docs.”

And because there are so many frequent “template-able” tasks, the ability to set up automations and templates has been a lifesaver, and reduced so much manual tedium for folks on our teams.

Lastly, I listen for frustrations about one process or the other. As an “Airtable whisperer” I think about how we can solve this problem using Airtable. It’s really satisfying finding a solution because it gets more people inside the ecosystem. 

LM: It sounds like you are using interfaces to the fullest extent right now. Tell me what that experience has been like at Alamo.

JS: I was excited when interfaces were announced. The ability to segment users to interfaces only versus bases is key. I’m mindful that we have a limited number of seats. We'll increase that over time but realistically, it's a relatively small number of people who need to be editing and creating brand new records on a daily basis. With interfaces we can streamline the experience for everyone so that you can surface and edit only the information you need.  

We are also a franchise business so interfaces allow us to make sure useful information is visible for all franchise partners to support their business. It’s aesthetically pleasing, streamlined and eliminates the guessing game of “which view does he want me to use?” 

I’ve been experimenting with other capabilities like pre-filtering, tab filters to switch view types on the fly and search functionality. I am actively spending more time working within the platform because of interfaces.

LM: Outside of interfaces, what are your favorite features of the platform? 

JS: It's not necessarily a feature of Airtable but the ability to incorporate ChatGPT into my workflow has been huge.  I understand how coding can work but I am not a coder. The ability to use ChatGPT and connect with APIs in Airtable has been huge for us. 

There’s no central database where I can download every movie that ever existed. If we decide to play a movie from 30 years ago that's not in our system we have to manually add it. Now ChatGPT can learn Airtable’s programming and scripting environment. I can enter the name of a movie, click a button in the base and in a matter of seconds it will pull all of the relevant information we need. Everything from runtime, reading synopsis, list actors, director, a poster image, the genre, rating and production company. This sounds very minor but saves so much time for us. 

LM: What are the challenges you've run into using Airtable?

JS: It’s easy to slow the platform down with different formulas, automations and an influx of synced records all hitting at the same time. If there's a way to better identify where the strain is coming from that would be helpful. I know there's a version of this but something richer with recommended improvements would be helpful.

LM: What's one thing you wish you knew before starting to use the platform? 

JS: If I were starting from scratch, I would have started with a better mind map. There’s been a lot of progression with syncing capabilities just in the past year. If I knew there would be two way syncing capabilities, I would have pushed some information into their own base. That said nothing major but perhaps my answer would be starting simpler. 

LM: You are the "Airtable whisperer" at Alamo Drafthouse. How do you introduce someone to a new Airtable base, workflow or interface? 

JS: I am finding that interfaces to be the best way to onboard especially since many individuals are comment or read-only. Interfaces reduces complexity and customizes the experience for everyone.

If I am working on a larger use case I will walk through the base so they can understand the logic. I try to document as much as possible. That said, it's an ongoing collaboration with team members who are using the platform daily so they too can become “Airtable whisperers.”

LM: Are you using Airtable in your personal life?

JS: A little bit! I garden on the weekends so I've started attempts at building a base to track plants I've got growing. If I were a full on farmer I'd absolutely need to use it. 

LM: Any closing remarks? 

JS: I've been pleased with Airtable and our team has made progress with it. You all are putting together a great solution for companies like ours and for others out there. We are really interested to see what's on the roadmap ahead and how the platform will evolve.