Over the last few years, movie theater operators have worked perhaps more closely than ever with the team at NATO, struggling through a morass of Covid-related regulations while trying to secure government assistance and keep movie theaters (responsibly) open. One of NATO’s number, Belinda Judson, is getting some well-deserved recognition of her support of the industry at CinéShow, where she’s set to be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
As NATO’s regional leader, for decades Judson has racked up airline points and miles on the odometer working with NATO’s regional chapters. It was Judson, as an ex–movie theater owner and one-time executive director of NATO of Ohio, who helped form NATO’s regional chapters as we know them today, transforming a collection of individual state chapters into larger groups able to better deal with the challenges that came their way.
Now living in Portugal, Judson spoke with Boxoffice Pro about how she became a part of the cinema industry “not really intentionally”—only to find that “it’s an industry that gets in your blood.”
How did you come to work with NATO?
Actually, my husband and I owned a couple of twin theaters in Columbus. That’s how we got into this crazy business. It was at a time just before multiplexes really took hold. At that point, it [became] much harder to make a living with small theaters. So we got out of the theater business. But I stayed connected, because I had been very active in NATO of Ohio when we owned our theaters. When we sold the theaters, I went to work for NATO of Ohio as their executive director. That kept me in a business that I was very passionate about. It seemed a good fit, and then it all just kind of rolled from there.
I was lucky enough to have a lot of people that helped along the way, but one in particular, Mary Ann Grasso Anderson [NATO’s vice president and executive director], was such a mentor to me. I was very, very lucky to have her in my life. [It was] definitely at a time when there weren’t too many females in a lot of positions in this industry. Her friendship and her mentorship meant everything to me, not just then but now. I look back on it, and I realize that I had a gift.
Mary Ann … pushed me to do things that I never thought I could do and put me in front of the right people. [She] definitely shaped my career. I have so many friends in the industry; I could go on and on about the people that are important to me. It’s an industry that is that way.
What led you to be interested in owning two theaters in the first place?
I didn’t get into the business intentionally. My husband’s an accountant, and one of his clients was trying to buy the theaters. [My husband] was trying to help him put the package together, and then instead we ended up signing up for them. We ended up with two theaters, not really knowing much about the business. Again, [I was] lucky to have people in the industry, in Columbus, who helped us. It was an atmosphere where everybody in the business helped each other. I’m blessed to have had that help when we first started with the theaters.
When you and your husband decided to buy the theaters, did you ever imagine a career in exhibition?
We thought, well, maybe we can buy them and [the client] can run them and buy us out, because he wasn’t able to make the deal work with the bank. [We had] no intention of having them for a long period or getting into the business. [But] it’s an industry that gets in your blood. So I was ready to stay with the industry. At the time, I served as the [NATO of Ohio] executive director, and then later on it started snowballing. Along the way, I did things like help put regions together that would make it easier for our regional people or independents to get educated together and help each other. That’s how I came to be the regional leader. It just kind of snowballed from what I was doing in Ohio.
Can you describe those early days of helping to form those regional groups?
It put me with our exhibitors, and that’s what I loved the most: being with them and trying to help them. It was a good marriage, so to speak. Because I had walked the walk. I had credibility with them. At that time, there were no regionals. They were just state associations. At a certain point, a lot of those states weren’t particularly active on the regional level. What happened was, we started to see legislative issues become more state and local, versus federal. It became crucial to have some active associations throughout the country. [I’m proud of] getting the regionals up and running. In certain instances, I feel like I gave birth to them! [Laughs.] It was lovely. They would all welcome me at their conventions. They got used to me being there at their meetings, and then they wanted me to come even after we had regionalized most of the states throughout the country. I was very pleased and happy. … So that became what I did for NATO.
Your travel schedule must have been insane.
I was out on the road a lot. [Laughs.] You know how many conventions for NATO there are, [plus] regular board meetings for NATO? There was a lot of work out on the road. I loved it, because I was helping [people].
My husband loves to go to the movies. He was very supportive of all the work I’ve done. I’ve been living a blessed life, because he’s been very supportive of all I’ve wanted to do. He was the one that stayed home and I [was] traveling all over the place.
It’s great that the regional conventions are back. CinemaCon is just so hectic.
I’m just really proud of all of the regional leaders. They do so much work. A lot of them are volunteers; they’re not paid staff. It’s a lot of work. I’m really, really proud of them and what they do. I don’t think people realize how much they do for them. They do it because they love the industry. They love what they do. They work hard in their theaters and work hard for the association to make it healthy. There’s so much going on legislatively. It’s a tough road sometimes, when you feel like you have the [weight of the] world on your back. And that if you don’t succeed, it’s going to hurt the entire industry. So that’s kind of a—yipes!
For example, with the pandemic, after the theaters were shut down, it was the regional guys that had to do the heavy lifting as far as lobbying governors to let us reopen the theaters. You would go to bed every night thinking, “I have to get this and this and this.” It’s very, very stressful.
Everybody helped each other, which was great. We’re calling each other: “What happened today? How many do we have open now?” They’re quite lovely. If they have a certain issue that they’ve dealt with and talking points, everybody shares that.
Do you remember the first movie you saw in a theater?
The first movie I remember seeing was Song of the South. I remember standing up on a chair in the back of the theater, watching it with my aunt and uncle.
Wow! Disney’s made it really hard to watch that movie nowadays.
I think Bambi was the second. My grandfather always gave us a dollar when he came to see us, and my brother and I always saved it so we could go see a movie. From right away, that was an important thing in our lives, the movie theater.
My mother’s cousin owned a drive-in theater, too, and my mom worked there. We would always go out in our pajamas and see my mom at the drive-in. I was so nosy. They figured, “We’ll take the kids, and they’ll fall asleep so we can watch the movie.” But I wasn’t going to sleep!
What do you like to get at the concession stand?
When I was little, it was always Junior Mints. Now if I get something, it’s usually popcorn. I never ate candy. My mom had sugar diabetes. We never had sweets at home. So we didn’t tend to eat candy, either. But I always had to have Junior Mints. That’s the only time I ate them, when I went to the movies. To me, those are married together.
Can you talk a bit about the work you’ve done with Variety – the Children’s Charity?
I worked a lot with Will Rogers people, too, me and NATO. [They] have a lot of meaning to me. The kids and the babies—being able to do some small part in helping them has been just wonderful, because these kids are amazing. The little babies, they fight for their lives. The kids with disabilities go around with the biggest smiles on their faces all the time. That’s amazing. It’s brought a lot of joy to my life.