Embracing Diversity: CinemaCon Panel Looks at Expanded Cinema Programming

“Diversity” and “inclusion”—words we hear often today—should be the aspirations of any business with a sound and sensible plan for the future. On Tuesday morning, April 2, at CinemaCon, Rolando Rodriguez, chairman, president, and CEO of Marcus Theatres, will moderate a panel on why cinema circuits large and small should embrace more culturally diverse movies and content. Participants will include Nikkole Denson-Randolph, VP of content strategy and inclusive programming at AMC Theatres, whose efforts have resulted in some out-of-the-box box office successes; Moctesuma Esparza, founder of Maya Cinemas, a circuit specifically appealing to Latino audiences; Glenn Morten, co-founder and general manager of myCinema, a one-year-old company seeking a wide range of “fandoms” with its content offerings; and Niyati Nagarsheth, VP, sales and distribution, at Eros International USA, who reports that the market for Bollywood films in the U.S. “has increased by huge numbers over the years,” especially in places like the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, Texas, and New York/New Jersey.

Below, Rodriguez and three of the panelists elaborate further on how diversity initiatives are impacting their business.

Rolando Rodriguez, Marcus Theatres

What are some of the topics you’ll be discussing at the CinemaCon panel on diversity and inclusion?

It’s becoming more and more apparent that recognizing diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do, it’s a good thing to do from an overall business and industry

perspective. That said, we’re excited to use this forum to foster dialogue across our industry. We will aim to cover as much as we can, while homing in on core principles such as gender and ethnicity.

How has Marcus Theatres embraced diversity and inclusion in its circuit?

From our employees and film product to our guests and community outreach efforts, diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of everything we do. A great example of our commitment to diverse audiences is our alternative programming efforts including special series catering to African American, Indian, and Latino segments. Recognizing that Hispanic consumers represent more than $1.6 trillion in consumerism, we took our commitment to this segment a step further in 2017 when we introduced the CineLatino Hispanic Film Festival. Much more than a film festival, CineLatino has grown into a powerful platform to share the richness of the Hispanic culture with the greater community, while giving back to local partners. 

We’ve also made an effort to be more inclusive of underserved populations through value programs like $5 Tuesday. Although we’ve reduced the price, guests still get an amazing experience complete with free popcorn, recliner seating, and premium large-format screens.

Because of these efforts, and many more, we were recognized with the “Diversity in Business Award” from the Milwaukee Business Journal in 2017.

What are some easy steps a cinema can take to begin creating a more inclusive atmosphere in its theaters?

First and foremost, both leadership and employees need to recognize that diversity and inclusion is not just a set of words; they actually have to have meaning. It starts with proper recruitment and training. Strive for an open-minded culture where everyone is given the opportunity to succeed—regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or otherwise—and recognize that good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. Creating an inclusive talent pool will naturally create a more inclusive environment for guests. From there, you will be better positioned to understand their habits, interests, and needs, and then more effectively cater to them through unique programming, offers, and more.

Why is this conversation so important to have in the industry today?

It comes down to understanding the consumer. When you think about movies like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and more recently Alita, Bumblebee, and The Upside, a large part of why these films are so successful is that they portray people from all walks of life. Consumers want to see themselves represented on-screen. Better yet, film is a very powerful art form for understanding; it can take you around the world and introduce you to a lot of different people and cultures. It’s encouraging to see the industry listening, reacting, and recognizing that diverse audiences are making a huge impact in the present and future industry business.

Nikkole Denson-Randolph, AMC Theatres

Have we entered a new era with the success of films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Coco?

I hope so. In my opinion, inclusive programming has historically been cyclical. The industry sees something work, so they

attempt to replicate the lightning in that bottle, and once someone doesn’t get it right, it becomes a risk and therefore forgotten for years until the next “surprise” comes along.

Now that there is a growing social conscience and supporting studies around the benefits (both monetarily and experientially) of inclusion, I believe that the entertainment industry is beginning to move in the right direction of creating and supporting content that reflects worldviews, diverse experiences, and our communities.

How much potential do you see for more diverse programming?

The potential for diverse programming is limitless. We are sharing human stories. The U.S. is becoming more diverse by the day, and our screens should reflect that.

What is AMC doing specifically to attract more diverse audiences?

We do the homework to learn what we can about the communities we are in, then actively source content from ancillary filmmakers and resources, and we do our best to maintain consistency by remaining committed.

2018 brought challenging and original independent films like Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting. What was AMC’s experience with those or similar titles?

We had upwards of 25 percent of the market share for both, but the box office delivered two wildly different results. While both films offered compelling stories and were supported by established studios, Sorry to Bother You seemed to have found an audience by way of word of mouth given its unique sensibility, whereas Blindspotting appeared to just not have caught on, which was immensely frustrating, given its timely message. More people should have seen it.

How do you go about scouting films for AMC?

While we work with 45-plus distributors year-round, we don’t wait for films to come to us. We study the marketplace, keep our eyes and ears open, and introduce ourselves to filmmakers to educate them on who we are and what we do. 

What has been your most surprising or gratifying success story at AMC?

I’ll provide two—something old and something new.

Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain (2011): This was one of the first direct-distribution films that I fostered at AMC Theatres. What began as a standup comedy concert movie for home entertainment ended up breaking box office records as an independent theatrical film.

Wandering Earth (2019): This, too, was born out of a relationship with the distributor from its very inception. While we have coached and supported several of this distributor’s films in the last couple of years, this film has broken box office records and has become AMC’s highest-grossing Asian-Pacific film to date.  

These films may not have found their way to the big screen without our involvement, which not only validates the work, but continually inspires us to seek fresh opportunities.

What are your predictions for the future growth of alternative content programs in cinemas?

My outlook is positive. Year over year, we are seeing growth beyond our core tenants (i.e., The Met Opera, the arts, live faith-based events), and we anticipate continued growth as our content partners find new and unique experiences.

Moctesuma Esparza, Maya Cinemas

How can the exhibition sector better embrace diversity initiatives?

There are two elements to it. One is the availability of quality venues in underserved communities. We’re committed to that at Maya Cinemas and it’s something we’re currently doing.

The other is the issue of content and the diversity of careers within our industry. I encourage our industry to look at how we can all be more successful and grow our business, and I believe it’s achievable by continuing to reflect our communities. All our fellow exhibitors in the country have the same commitment; we’re all talking about it. I feel really good about the steps the industry is taking to address that.

As a movie producer yourself, do you believe there’s enough being done at the production level to bring more diversity content to our screens?

It’s important to encourage the studios and content creators to create more content that speaks to our communities. Latinos are already 25 percent of the national box office, and if you take a look at the content that’s being created by the studios that are reaping that reward, we’re less than 1 percent in terms of the directors, writers, producers, studio executives, actors in front of the camera, and crew behind the camera. That has been a problem for the last 50 years. We actually played a bigger role in the industry, had more participation, 60 or 70 years ago than we do today. I challenge you to think of any American Latino movie star who could green-light a movie today for a major studio. And this is nothing against great actors like Penélope Cruz or Javier Bardem, who don’t identify as American because they’re not, nor should they need to. While we do have Spanish-speaking actors who became stars in their home countries and have found similar success in Hollywood, they do not speak to the aspirations or career goals of American Latinos, of which there are 60 million.

It’s concerning to think how that visibility among American Latinos has decreased in the entertainment industry over the years.

Go back 60 years, 70 years, and you’ve got folks like Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, José Ferrer, Gilbert Roland, Rita Hayworth, Katy Jurado, Dolores del Rio—all of whom could green-light their own movies. Think about television. Today, we’re lucky if we get to be the villain as the leader of a drug cartel or a gang member—or a subservient role as a farmworker or maid. You go back 50 years and we were heroes. The Cisco Kid, he was a hero. “The High Chaparral,” Manolito, he was a hero. Zorro, another hero. “I Love Lucy,” we had that visibility. Can you think of as many heroic characterizations of Latinos today?

How much can be done at the boardroom level among the top companies in the industry to promote more inclusion and diversity?

I think there is an openness and appreciation in the industry for how that will actually help the industry. I think it’s a conversation that occurs across the boardrooms of today, there’s a general acknowledgment that diversity promotes the success of companies. It’s important to look at that in a way where you ask yourself: How can I do more? At our own company, we’ve adopted the Rooney Rule from the NFL; if we’re going to be hiring for a position, we make sure that there are diverse candidates that are considered. We always hire the person who is available, and that is going to help support the success of the company. We’re very proud of the team that we’ve got. Jeremy Welman, our head of operations, has been doing a fantastic job of finding people who are doing a great job and who represent our diverse backgrounds. We take special care to make sure that we reflect our community.

Glenn Morten, myCinema 

How many different groups does myCinema cater to?

If there is a sizeable fandom, then we are interested in catering to that group. Diversity and inclusion are key values for myCinema; therefore, it is hard to say how many different groups we cater

to, as that would be too limiting. We believe that one size does not fit all and that exhibition should take control of their programming catering to the local fandoms.

myCinema launched at Cinemacon 2018 with the purpose of bringing high-quality, diverse content to cinemas eager to grow and expand their audience base. To do so, we use big data to identify the fandoms found in and around the community centers we call cinemas. Then we provide the tools (including content licensing) that allow the cinema to become the local hosts of their most active fandoms.

For example, Legend of the Demon Cat is an epic historical mystery from director Chen Kaige that performed very well earlier this year. While it certainly has mass appeal, Legend of the Demon Cat was held over and sold out in cities and communities in which there are large Chinese and Japanese populations. We launched the film on Chinese New Year, February 5, 2019, and it continues to draw interest and appeal because of its unique cultural significance. Set during the Tang dynasty, it’s a story of love and revenge revolving around the death of Lady Yang, a very important figure in Asian culture.

We love the blockbuster movies that studios are producing. Yet there are large segments of our society who will not attend a cinema to see a movie unless it is a spiritually uplifting and culturally meaningful story. Our current and growing slate of family movies is gaining important traction for myCinema.

As you look to the rest of our 2019 myCinema content slate, the multiple, high-quality foreign-language films—especially Spanish-language—are allowing myCinema exhibition clients to consistently book and market films that welcome people of all cultures into the cinema to enjoy movies that more directly appeal to them on a cultural and family level. Several of our cinema partners have implemented CineLatino content from myCinema, including a recent showing of Zoe Panoramas, the documentary story of the 2019 Grammy-winning Latin American alternative rock band. 

What are your most successful ethnic categories so far?

While myCinema is a relatively new distributor in the industry, we have had remarkable success with the aforementioned Chinese film, Legend of the Demon Cat. To date, we have released more than eight high-quality Spanish-language movies. Faith-based titles are also driving myCinema’s success.

How does your team go about selecting films for myCinema?

myCinema has a large content-acquisition core team of nine personnel located in Korea, Mexico, France, Italy, Switzerland, and the USA. These core team members are category experts backed by the larger NAGRA sales team that services content rights holders in 35 countries from 65 offices globally. The team also is backed by the president of the Cannes Film Festival, Pierre Lescure, who is myCinema’s “godfather,” serving on the NAGRA board of directors. The myCinema content acquisition team also attends other international film markets such as Berlinale Film Festival and EFM. And recently myCinema became a sponsor of the Bentonville Film Festival, whose foundational building blocks are diversity and inclusion. myCinema also serves on the board of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where we are collaborating on a fandom genomics project that maps fandoms around theaters and maps content to fandoms.

How do you help get the word out about your screenings?

Like any distributor, myCinema provides marketing, promotional, and advertising support for the content that exhibition partners book with us. Of course, we do the usual digital marketing (paid and organic), we provide posters, trailers, and digital assets to our myCinema cinema partners. For significant titles like James Franco’s Zeroville, we may engage publicists and arrange TV and radio interviews and other marketing initiatives.

Ethnic content cannot be treated like a studio blockbuster title. You cannot do mass marketing for a title that may only show in 20 theaters. Geographically targeted and culturally focused methods must be employed, and the exhibitor must play their part

Ethnic content is a special case and provides additional opportunities to market. When you group content into fandoms like CineLatino or faith, you can create weekly or monthly event/festival days. This allows for cost-effective marketing. In this case, you can market the weekly event, not individual titles—this creates a regular audience without the significant expense of per-title marketing. This is something easy for the local theater, making them the local host of the fandom, not the title. At CinemaCon, we are launching a subscription-based catalog for certain fandoms that will allow the exhibitor the freedom to create weekly or monthly event/festivals from our content, controlling their programming.

How many clients do you have?

Starting from launch last year at CinemaCon, we have successfully built a network of nearly 70 exhibition partners in the United States and Canada, with circuits large, medium, and independent—representing more than 500 screens installed with myCinema content distribution capacity. In the second half of 2019, we will extend myCinema to Latin America, and we recently partnered with RAI Way and RAI Cinema to jointly deploy myCinema throughout Italy.

What kind of audience feedback are you getting?

Several sold-out shows, holdovers, and repeated bookings of high-quality myCinema content are gratifying, meaningful, and represent the type of success we seek to experience along with our myCinema partners in exhibition and content ownership. As our consumer-facing marketing and social media efforts expand, we are especially pleased by consumers who contact us with heartfelt appreciation for bringing movies to the market that might not otherwise be on the silver screen.

Candidly, we receive messages and contacts from customers via social channels and direct mail who are frustrated that their local movie theater owner has not yet signed up for myCinema—hence, they have to travel farther than they might otherwise to see one of our movies. This helps us awaken exhibitors and cinema circuits that have been on a “wait and see” mode with myCinema, while most others are already on board, installed, and leveraging myCinema to serve their customers and grow their revenue opportunities.

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