Geneva Convention 2019: Diversity—On and Off the Screen—Plays a Big Role in the Future of Exhibition

By Daniel Loria and Rebecca Pahle

Diversity and inclusivity emerged as one of the biggest themes at this year’s Geneva Convention. The event played host to the inauguration of a new industry group, Women in Exhibition, composed of female executives dedicated to promoting leadership and mentorship among women in the industry. In a panel session sponsored byBoxoffice Pro, the group’s representatives shared insights based on their experiences as female executives in theatrical exhibition.

”People have to acknowledge that gender diversity is important as opposed to just being the right thing to do,” said Darryl Schaffer, EVP of exhibitor relations and operations at Screenvision Media. “There’s a lot of research showing that gender diversity provides for a happier workforce, greater productivity, and more innovation. We need to acknowledge that and set targets in order to start working towards achieving this goal.”

The group was conceived as a way to support the next generation of women in the industry through mentorship and networking opportunities with today’s leading female executives. Kim Lueck, V.P. of technology and chief information officer at Marcus Theatres, expressed it best in the panel when addressing her own reasons to join this effort. “Why am I not helping more? I didn’t get here by myself. I had men and women that helped me get where I am today. How do I give that back?”

While there are multiple ways industry executives can “give back” to help promote more inclusivity within the industry, Melissa Boudreau, chief marketing officer at Emagine Entertainment, suggests that taking the time to meet with colleagues can be one of the most effective tools in this outreach. “Even if it’s just something like lunch or dinner, it doesn’t have to be anything formal or even within your organization; it can be as simple as reaching out to a person. Getting to know your colleagues better and understanding what their goals are can help get them an opportunity for a leadership role in the future.”

Most executives don’t have to look very far in order to be proactive in mentoring candidates. “I think it’s important for us to look at our theater staff,” said Boudreau. “Are there people in our staff that we could be mentoring to help bring up into more leadership roles? Doing internships and things like ‘shadow-ships’ can help people get a glimpse of what we’re doing.”

According to the panelists, one of the hardest challenges female executives face in today’s workforce is achieving a satisfying work-life balance. “In the movie theater industry, we work 365 days a year. We’re on all the time—especially over the weekends,” said Gina DiSanto, a veteran industry executive and founding board member of the Independent Cinema Alliance who was honored with the Larry D. Hanson Award at this year’s Geneva Convention. “I had the advantage of working for an independent theater, a family-owned business, so it was a little more flexible in that I could bring my children to work as they got a little older. They could come in and join us if there was an evening event. … It’s hard to say no, but sometimes you have to—you need that time for yourself and your family.”

The Geneva Convention’s John Scaletta (l) and George Rouman (r) presented Gina DiSanto and Julien Marcel with the Larry D Hanson Award and the Paul J Rogers Leadership Award, respectively.

Screenvision’s Schaffer agreed. “If someone were to ask, what’s been the hardest part about being a woman in your career? It would be being a mom and having that constant guilt of, Should I be at home helping with homework or should I stay late at the office?”

It’s an uncomfortable question for any executive, but more so for younger women executives—who are oftentimes balancing a rising career (and its time demands) with a young family at home. Employers can help by showing flexibility in scheduling: it’s not just about providing an opportunity, but providing it by keeping someone’s family in mind. Schaffer believes anyone can grow their career exponentially by taking part in as many professional-development experiences as their schedule permits. “One of the things I always say to people starting out in the industry is ‘Show up,’” she said. “Go to the meeting, accept the lunch or dinner invitation, participate in the panel, go on the business trip, volunteer to be the one to make the presentation. Showing up is a big part of success. And when you show up, make sure they know you’re present.”

Having that presence in meetings is crucial in order to stand out, and Kim Lueck suggests that women need to do a better job at promoting themselves in a professional setting. “Sometimes we forget to say, ‘Look at all that we’ve done’ and take the time to look at our accomplishments and be proud of ourselves.” she said. “I think women are used to juggling a lot of different things. We’re very humble about things like that … and although it might be old-fashioned, there’s always the concern that being an assertive woman can be interpreted in a different way.”

Inclusivity isn’t only limited to achieving a long-awaited gender balance. Ethnic minorities make up a large share of moviegoers and are equally as underrepresented in executive positions throughout the industry. That isn’t to say there haven’t been success stories. This year’s Ben Marcus Award honoree at the Geneva Convention was Royal Corporation, a single-source janitorial and food-service equipment company. Royal, founded in 1985 by George and Marianne Abiaad, has grown from a local operation on the West Coast to a trusted industry partner that services nearly 30,000 screens in the United States.

“Like us, Ben Marcus was an immigrant, and thanks to his vision and self-sacrifice he was able to achieve his own American dream,” said George Abiaad accepting the award in an emotional speech. “Everybody in this room is affected by the decisions Ben Marcus made. He had a love affair with America and was very proud to be an American; his emphasis was always on the human element of doing business. While we appreciate to receive the Ben Marcus Award, we don’t feel as we have filled the shoes of this amazing industry icon. We stand proudly and humbly in front of you to say it is an honor for us to continue his American dream.”

Ben Marcus Award winners George and Marianne Abiaad of the Royal Corporation with Marcus Theatres’ Rolando Rodriguez (r).

Marcus Theatres and the Marcus family were further represented by CEO and president Rolando Rodriguez, who spoke about the importance of diversity in programming in a closing-day panel discussion sponsored by Boxoffice Pro. A particular point of pride for Rodriguez—and an illustration of his point as to the necessity of tapping into a wide variety of demographics—is Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s CineLatino film festival, founded by Marcus Theatres in 2017. 

“I can tell you that when I first brought this up, most people thought that I had lost my mind,” Rodriguez recalls. “I’m thinking about bringing a film festival, especially a Hispanic film festival, to Milwaukee? But what most people don’t realize is that the largest ethnic minority in the entire state of Wisconsin happens to be Hispanics. That there were about 200,000 Hispanics in the metropolitan area. And that, frankly, the marketplace had changed, and we had not yet adapted.”

CineLatino proved successful and has expanded since its inaugural year, with its 2019 edition adding more Marcus Theatres locations. Another illustration of the success to be found in diverse programming could be seen in the box office reports that were rolling in throughout the Geneva Convention: Hustlers, boasting a female director and a diverse cast, had just days before given a $33.1 million opening to STX Entertainment, the largest debut for the midrange studio.

Diversity in programming, as was made amply clear in the aforementioned panel and throughout the Geneva Convention’s three days, doesn’t just come down to demographic groups. It’s also about opening the door to small and midrange films that—while they may not give theaters the six-digit openings of a Star Wars or an Avengers—are a large and necessary component of the success of the theatrical industry. An acknowledgment of the importance of non-tentpole films was echoed in the announcement that the Boxoffice Blue Ribbon Award—usually given to the highest-grossing film of the year—will be given to the year’s highest-grossing non-franchise, non-sequel, original-IP film starting in 2020.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love tentpole films. I think they’re fantastic, and we certainly need them,” says Rodriguez. “But if every time you get up to bat, you’re hitting for the fences, eventually you’re going to strike out.” It’s up to the film community, exhibitors and studios alike, to figure out how to “support these smaller films that do a lot better within our theaters.”

Programming a slate of films with the potential to appeal to a wide range of audience members is only part of the battle: the other part is getting moviegoers to actually show up. This is a point of particular concern for small and midrange films, which don’t have the massive marketing spend of a major tentpole. It’s an issue panelist Glenn Morten, co-founder and general manager for event-cinema provider myCinema, deals with every day: “Independent filmmakers and distributors like ourselves don’t have the ability to spend tens of millions of dollars on a film in order to get the word out.” 

Loyalty programs are “probably one of the most powerful” tools in spreading awareness, Morten notes, particularly for these smaller films. Another factor is the coming end to the VPF era. Here, Morten uses as an example the psychological thriller Murderous Trance, a November myCinema release that screened at the Geneva Convention. “If I have to pay $850 to put Murderous Trance in your theater, there’s a chance I won’t, because I don’t have a chance of recouping that. I have to be able to pay the bills, and then I have to pay the filmmaker. If I’m getting 35 [percent] from you and I had to pay $850, there aren’t very many films that I’m going to be able to book at your theater.” That’s why, Morten argues, “The best market for diverse films are the smaller indie theaters that didn’t buy into the VPF.” 

Rodriguez agrees with the effect the expiration of VPFs will have on diversity of programming: “Eventually a lot of these smaller films will be able to find their way into theaters without the VPF charge that’s associated.”

There are things that can—and should—be done now to help connect audiences with non-tentpole films. Subscription services are often touted for their ability in this regard; people will take a chance on a movie they may not have heard a lot about, the argument goes, if they don’t have to pay for the ticket. Rodriguez isn’t necessarily convinced. “I’m a believer in the subscription program. I just don’t think that there is the right model that’s been developed yet. We want to encourage moviegoing, yet most of the models are built on breakage, which means that people don’t show up. I don’t know about you, but I actually want them to show up!”

Rodriguez is more bullish on discount pricing, practiced by Marcus through its $5 Tuesday program. With its ability to transition moviegoing into a habit instead of a few-times-a-year special event, discount pricing is “going to become more and more relevant as streaming services” spring into being and potentially cut their prices. “We found that a high percentage of those individuals that come on that $5 Tuesday all of a sudden started to come on Fridays. They would see the big movie on Friday or Saturday, and then they would come back on Tuesday to catch that secondary film. It’s about moviegoing all of a sudden. It’s showing up at the box office and saying, ‘You know what, why not? I’ll watch that movie because there’s a discount.’”

The Boxoffice Company CEO Julien Marcel brought an international perspective to the conversation on pricing, citing the Fête du Cinéma concept that’s taken hold in some European countries. Every year, for a span of a few days, ticket prices drop nationwide, encouraging moviegoers to “come and be surprised by the diversity you can see. … It’s been a very effective scheme in promoting not specific movies, but the moviegoing experience,” he said. A similar initiative in France helped capture the youth audiences; prices for those under 14 were dropped nationwide for a whole year. “A couple of years later, most of the movie theaters still have very aggressive pricing for those under 14 years old. Of course, some studios initially hated the idea, because it did bring the average price down. But it’s about thinking in the long term. If you manage to create a relationship through the schools, through the parents, with the movie theaters, it does pay in the long run.”

Innovations in pricing, whether through subscription programs or discounts, come down to “allowing curiosity and the right to be disappointed with a movie. To go to a movie without knowing whether I’m going to like it or not,” says Marcel. By encouraging a culture of moviegoing not centered around particular tentpoles, theaters can assume more control over their grosses during potentially fallow periods. [The Boxoffice Company is the parent company of Boxoffice Pro.]

But that takes effort on the part of the distributor—not just in developing pricing schemes, but in picking the right films and giving yourself enough time to get the word out to consumers. It does no one any favors, myCinema’s Morten argues, to “look at this diverse content and try to squeeze it in at the last minute, based on the fact that, ‘Oh, none of these big titles are working out, so I have some screen availability. These are ones you need to do about four months in advance, because they take special targeted marketing.” 

Morten calls it going “from push to pull,” that is, actively researching available titles and building a curated lineup. “Think about the small films as far in advance as you can. Probably the best way that you’re going to advertise those films to your community is to have that trailer running four to six months beforehand. … There is definitely a future for the diverse film. What it takes is a little bit more planning and a little intentional strategy around making that happen.” 

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