Diversity Matters: Marcus Theatres CEO Rolando Rodriguez on the Importance of Diversity & Inclusion

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What role does diversity play in our industry today?

If you think about it, the type of year we’re having is largely driven by a diverse audience. The top three films of 2017 were female-led; we need to start there: Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Star Wars. Then you have Black Panther, which really energized the African American community, and rightfully so, it’s a Marvel movie solely dedicated to an African American superhero. I’m out there pounding the pavement saying this. It’s time for El Tigre Latino. It’s time for that Hispanic superhero; with almost 60 million of us, it makes a ton of sense.

The audiences are certainly there, but do you think there has been enough progress overall for diverse casts and filmmakers to break out?

We’ve already started to make some inroads. You think about Coco winning Best Animated Feature, Una Mujer Fantastica winning Best Foreign Film, and Best Picture happened to go to a Mexican director for The Shape of Water. I think there’s a movement, a realization that these diverse audiences, which were once considered niche, form a much bigger part of the consumerism that’s taking place in our country.

What is the potential of embracing diversity on a corporate level?

Part of my messaging in our communities is that it’s about workforce, the workforce of today and tomorrow, the leadership of today and tomorrow, and the consumerism of today and tomorrow. If you look at Hispanic consumers, we represent more than $1.6 trillion in consumerism and heading towards two trillion. Depending on the statistics you look at, there are somewhere between 55 and 60 million of us in the U.S. We’re 18 percent of the population, yet we represent less than 2 percent of public company boards of directors, and an equal number or less in the key leadership positions. I’m a proponent that everybody needs to earn their spot. You have to have the capabilities; you have to have the drive, the commitment, and the ability to deliver results. I have to believe that there are a heck of a lot more Hispanics delivering great results than just 2 percent. That’s where I’m hopeful that we can continue to broaden our perspectives.

When you were starting out in the industry, did you feel there were enough people to provide a roadmap for your own career? Or did you have to blaze your own path?

I had to find a way. The best example I gave you is a movie like Black Panther, where the African American community can look up and say, hey, that superhero is just like me. Well, that wasn’t around in our industry. If you look at the Hispanic roles in the industry when I was growing up, most of the time we were being represented as either banditos, drug dealers, or some type of villain. We’re a heck of a lot more than that. I started in an era when diversity and inclusion wasn’t really talked about. I was always given opportunities by all different types of people, who I am very grateful for because they served as mentors along the way. But look, today, I serve as the only Hispanic CEO of the top 10 largest companies in our industry. There are a couple of others that are doing very well, great entrepreneurs, and I’m very proud to see that. But I still look around and can see that I stand out in a crowd. It’s my hope and, I think, my responsibility, to pave the way for more Hispanics. I serve as the vice chairman of NATO, and one of their committees is the diversity and inclusion committee. I’m very proud of that; I think that’s terrific. We’re bringing in young people, women, African Americans, Hispanics—and I think that gives us a broader understanding of the consumers out in the marketplace. It takes little steps to build bigger steps, and it’s my hope that as we get more representation in leadership positions, we’ll have 10- and 12-year-olds who can look at what we’re doing confidently and say, “I want to be the next editor, the next CEO.”

How can the exhibition community fortify its commitment to diversity and inclusion?

It has to start somewhere, and I think every company and all leaders need to take a position of recognizing that diversity and inclusion is not just a set of words; they actually have to have meaning. The way we recruit has to ensure that we’re providing the proper training and development, and then making sure we can keep doors open for the candidates who are delivering the results along the way. That might include courageous decisions; you’re going up sometimes against the norm, but they are necessary decisions.

What does this mean to you personally, as a Hispanic American, to help lead this change in the corporate culture?

I have four daughters. I want them to be highly successful in their careers and be recognized for the contributions that they make, their capabilities, the results orientation, and the type of individuals they are. As Hispanic women, I want them to at least have the opportunity to succeed in the same way this country has given me that very opportunity. I was born in Cuba; my family came here with the clothes on our back—that’s it. This country gave us that opportunity to make something of ourselves: go to school, work hard, and climb the corporate ladder. I want to provide opportunities in the same way my own mentors gave me opportunities along the way. I want to pay it forward and make sure our organization is committed to ensuring diversity and inclusion.

One of Marcus Theatres’ initiatives that I believe has helped foster more inclusion is your $5 Tuesday offer, where anyone can walk into your theaters and purchase a ticket for $5—with a free popcorn if they’re a loyalty member. How did that idea come about?

One of my key learnings from the five years I spent at Walmart was not forgetting about the underserved communities. And that’s one of the things that company does well—they understand there’s a large portion of the population base who feels underserved. When I came back into the industry, it was one of the key learnings that I brought with me: finding a way to engage a large segment of the population out there that has very limited means. This was during the recession, and when you think about the alternative out-of-home entertainment options available—what are they? A baseball game nowadays costs 50 bucks for one ticket; a football game will cost you $100. And is it the same experience without the popcorn and a drink? We’ve always been known for catering to general audiences, and somewhere along the line, we forgot a little bit about the underserved communities. We forgot that there’s a sector of the population out there—moms and dads, hardworking people—who are living on $40,000 a year. I can’t tell you how many letters I got thinking us. I think it’s good for business and from a corporate-citizenship perspective

The fact that we’re in the movie theater business means we have to cater to all general audiences, and if we’re forgetting that underserved community, we’re missing a large portion of the population. We are about the only venue where most people can enjoy a fantastic experience for a very reasonable price.

What I like most about it is that you’re including more people without sacrificing any aspect of the experience.

As an organization, we’ve spent over $350 million over the past five years on upgrading our facilities. So when these folks come on a Tuesday, they’re getting the best. They’re getting the recliner seating, the Dolby sound, the large-screen format.

Do you believe cinema is uniquely positioned to help push the message of diversity and inclusion?

Absolutely. Think about a movie like Crazy Rich Asians. I went to see it with my wife and we walked out thinking it was one of the best films we had seen in a long time. We’re in an industry that can take you around the world and introduce you to a lot of different people and cultures.

On a more general level, what other factors are crucial in order to see success in this area?

It starts with education. We need a better system to help empower more African Americans, more Hispanics, more women to graduate and go on to higher levels. We also need to focus on job growth. It’s not just about jobs; it’s about the ability to project a journey for individuals. Today’s young men and women, millennials, are the most diverse and fastest-growing group in America. These are going to be our future leaders. The responsibility will eventually pass onto them; how will they look at diversity and inclusion and promote it moving forward? These are important elements to become a better community. The third key piece of this is that we really need to aspire to see more leaders on boards of directors, in key leadership positions, so we can truly see that potential in action.