A movie quote seems like an appropriate place to start. Near the end of The Martian, when the lead character is asked how he reacted to an impossible situation, he says: “You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem. And then you solve the next one. And then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
J.D. Loeks ’99 can identify with that kind of relentless determination. Loeks is the president of Celebration Cinema, a company that manages 13 movie theaters in Michigan. And in spring 2020, while he wasn’t stuck on another planet, he faced a situation that felt impossible.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters in Michigan were closed for months. Even when they reopened, there were restrictions to navigate, and studios stopped releasing major films.
“A year ago, I thought I was good at solving problems,” Loeks said. “Now, I’m solving problems I didn’t even know existed.”
Loeks can rattle off a dizzying list of problems—pivoting programming, lobbying the government, restructuring debt, and becoming well-versed in unemployment laws.
“And like a lot of leaders, I’ve also had to become an armchair epidemiologist to figure out how to keep our staff and guests safe,” said Loeks.
“The irony is that our business is to give people a two-hour vacation from the stress of life. At the moment in history where we’re needed the most, we’re unable to do it in the ways we used to,” said Loeks.
Loeks has been at the helm of the leadership team at Celebration Cinema for 14 years and worked to cultivate a culture that is open to change. “We don’t want to get comfortable with the status quo,” he said.
It might come as no surprise that Celebration Cinema has found some small, creative ways to continue its mission in the time of the pandemic. They created a drive-in movie experience by stacking 40-foot shipping containers and attaching screens to them. In the summer, they hosted 100 guests at a time in an outdoor lawn environment for movies and concerts.
Loeks has been interested in problem-solving for a long time. Philosophy classes at Calvin sparked his interest.
“Philosophy teaches you how to make decisions and process complex things,” he said. He graduated with a business major, just one class short of a double major in philosophy. “I had a great time at Calvin. I sang in the choir, played lacrosse, was involved with dorm leadership, and made a ton of lifelong friends.”
Loeks wasn’t sure if he would go into his family’s business for his career. His grandfather, Jack Loeks, was a movie theater pioneer. J.D.’s father, John, also served as president of the company.
After Calvin, J.D. worked for his dad for two years and moved to Colorado to work in residential real estate and earn a master’s in business finance. “I realized that I wanted to lead a company that could have a lasting impact on the community, and that I could do that back in Grand Rapids,” he said.
Hello, Studio Park
For the past several years, Loeks has spearheaded a major development that’s having that kind of lasting impact: Studio Park. Located in downtown Grand Rapids, this development has a cinema, restaurants, shops, offices, and apartments.
“Though it’s the smallest part of Studio Park, my favorite part of the project is the Listening Room, a 200-seat small-format music venue,” said Loeks. “That’s got a special place in my heart, and what I’m personally looking forward to most as we get to the other side of this current crisis.”