INTERVIEW: NATO Chairman & Marcus Theatres CEO Rolando Rodriguez on Embracing Diversity Initiatives

Photo Courtesy the National Association of Theatre Owners

A veteran executive in theatrical exhibition, Rolando Rodriguez held leadership roles at AMC Theatres and Rave Cinemas before a stint as an executive at retail giant Wal-Mart. Rodriguez returned to the exhibition industry in 2016 as CEO and president of Marcus Theatres, currently the fourth-largest cinema circuit in the United States. He was recently named chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

In this conversation with Boxoffice Pro editorial director Daniel Loría, Rodriguez speaks about the importance of embracing diversity and inclusivity initiatives in the cinema industry. As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, the two engage in a frank discussion on missed opportunities and the future potential in promoting Latin American leaders and audiences alike.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE BOXOFFICE PODCAST

Rolando, the last time I saw you in person was at Lake Geneva last year. You came up to me before a panel we were doing and asked, “Do you know what day it is?” and instinctively I said, “It’s Mexican Independence Day.” And you said, “Well, yes, it is, but it’s also Hispanic Heritage Month.” 

It was an interesting exchange because it shows how this month––a chance to celebrate and unite all Latin American and Hispanic people in the United States––we have a tendency, even within our own community, to overlook it amongst ourselves. And that’s really a missed opportunity, I think, for a number of reasons. So to preface our conversation, let’s start with a basic question as it relates to the cinema business: what role do Hispanic audiences play in our industry?

Hispanic and Latinos play an incredible part in our industry. In particular, when you think about the fact that one in every four customers to come through our doors [in 2019] happened to be of Hispanic heritage. 

We’re now coming to the end of Hispanic Heritage Month––that runs from September 15 to October 15––and it’s a chance to take into consideration what makes the month so special. It started by the fact that seven countries basically celebrated their independence day around these dates, but it wasn’t necessarily just locked in on those seven countries. It’s about Latinos and Hispanics celebrating the richness of our culture and the fact that we play an incredible economic labor force and consumer base in this country. Hispanic Heritage Month should play an integral part in our communities, our country, and frankly, in our industry.

What’s exciting to see is the dialogue starting to take place in our country relating to diversity and inclusion, and the impact that it makes, not only economically, but what it means for our country. We represent almost 60 million people in the United States. We are 18 percent of the population and growing rapidly, there’s a general feeling that we could be as much as 30 percent of the population within the next 10 years. That’s a significant number of the workforce, leadership, and consumerism of our future. In our industry, we’ve been able to recognize that already, knowing one out of four customers that comes through our door happens to be Hispanic or Latino. This month is a great way for our country to learn about the culture, the background, and also the potential economic impact that we represent today, and continue to represent in the future.

In terms of frequent moviegoers––those that go to the movies most often throughout the year––Latin American moviegoers over-indexed in terms of their share of the general population. Right now we represent around 18 percent of the general U.S. population, and Latin American audiences represent 26 percent of frequent moviegoers. That’s more than any other ethnic group, by quite some distance.

When I think about diversity and inclusion, there’s been an incredibly positive movement that’s taking place in our industry, relating to women being recognized, behind the camera and in front of the camera. It’s also great to see that you’re now starting to see much more representation from the African-American and Black communities, which is a tremendous and necessary improvement. They are also a huge part of the moviegoing population. But we still lack improvements that are necessary to see more Hispanic actors, directors, and producers. We over-index because we play a product that’s family-oriented, which relates to the consumer base. As you relate to consumers, I think it’s important that we also see ourselves, that our kids are able to see themselves on the screen. And by the way, that also applies to leadership positions within the film studios, and frankly, within exhibition itself. 

I think that was the beauty of a movie like Black Panther. Kids could sit there and say, “That hero looks like me.” It’s a great way to not only create inspiration but also drive aspiration in our communities to chase leadership positions, acting positions, political positions, board of directors positions. These are areas that, unfortunately, diverse communities continue to lag in. The state of California is taking some interesting steps to correct that, but it shouldn’t be government-driven. It should be done because it’s the right thing to do, to recognize the consumer base, and recognize where consumer-based growth is going.

In exhibition, we have a little bit more representation because we’ve seen the growth of Latin American circuits expanding into the US, which produces an introduction of Latin American executives through that expansion. We have Hispanic executives among some of the leading vendors that service the exhibition industry. At the studio level, however, it is alarming that we don’t have that same presence. What is there left to do so we can see more of that diversity in other sectors of the industry––namely in production and distribution––that can hopefully influence more programming for Latin American audiences?

I would start out by saying that even in exhibition, as you noted, we have been very fortunate to have some very effective leaders and companies that are owned by Hispanics. But most of them started outside of the United States. Even within exhibition, an industry that generated over $11 billion in 2019 in the U.S., a country with nearly 60 million Hispanics, there’s more left to do. I’m very fortunate and grateful that I happen to be a Hispanic CEO, representing the fourth-largest circuit in the United States. But aside from that, if you take a survey, even within the top 20 circuits, you will not find many others. 

If we represent one in every four people that walk through the door in this industry, then it goes beyond just looking at the CEO level. How many Hispanic CMOs, COOs, or CIOs are there? It’s about leadership. If you take a broader look and say, “How many Hispanics sit on board of directors positions at public companies in the United States?” that number gets really small. It’s less than 2 percent.

There is still a lot of work to be done, not only in exhibition, but clearly with our partners in the film companies. I think they’re starting to make changes, there’s clearly an awakening through the social dialogue that’s happening, but I think it needs to be a balanced approach. I think that they are making good progress in female leadership, which is fantastic, I think that they’re starting to really move significantly in improving the African-American and Black Americans represented in their senior leadership ranks. But there’s no question that there’s a tremendous gap associated with our film and distribution partners that relate to Hispanics and Latinos. 

At NATO, we started the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. There’s a lot of group work that’s been done that represents all diversities, not just one group. The level of awareness that we need to ask our friends and partners in the distribution and film companies to ask themselves is, “Are we properly representing our consumer base in our leadership positions and on our board of directors positions? 

We need to push the importance of that narrative so young Hispanic kids growing up can look up at the screen and say, “That could be me someday.” Obviously, it’s not about becoming a superhero, but the idea behind it, that you can strive to better the lives of those in your community. Because as you do better, you’re in a better position to help influence your community.

Rolando Rodriguez moderating a panel on
diversity and inclusivity initiatives at CinemaCon 2019

Photo by Daniel Loria

It’s also important to emphasize this Latin American and Hispanic population isn’t something limited to several cities or key markets in the U.S. I think the national conversation sometimes ends up being misplaced as a regional conversation. In previous stages of your career, at AMC Theatres and Wal-Mart, you were able to see how the Hispanic population spread nationally from a regional concentration. When you came back into the exhibition industry at Marcus Theatres in 2013, headquartered in Milwaukee, not a market directly associated with a Hispanic or Latin American population, did you see that expansion firsthand?

In earlier days, if asked to name places where a concentration of Hispanics existed, you would have said Miami, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Texas, in particular, Houston, parts of Dallas, and San Antonio; and obviously California. Maybe some of Colorado and Arizona. That was the case twenty years ago. Now you talk about Hispanic populations in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Minnesota. There is more representation in Colorado and Nebraska. 

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when I first joined the company over seven years ago, it was a movement that was starting to happen. I’m also the chairman of the Hispanic Collaborative in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we do a lot of research on this. Over the past decade. the reason the entire state of Wisconsin has shown a population growth is thanks to Hispanics. If Hispanics would not have been there, there would have been a declining population in the entire state. It is the most rapidly growing population base in the state of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, and in the southern portions of Wisconsin. 

The importance of that, from a business perspective, is about consumerism and the workforce. It’s also represented in the age group, Hispanics and Latinos happen to represent the youngest average age in America. We happen to represent the highest percentage of Millennials, the highest percentage of Generation Z’s. 

This is not to discount all the other diverse populations, by any means. Asian communities are growing, so are African-Americans and Black communities. Hispanics just happen to be growing at the fastest rate and are the largest ethnic minority in the entire United States. 

Talking about minorities and underrepresented groups here in the United States, they don’t represent monolithic audience blocks that just go to movies that represent them. Hispanic audiences buying one in every four tickets sold at US cinemas last year confirms that. When we start talking about bringing audiences back to the cinema during this very difficult recovery effort, we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing enough to communicate with this Hispanic audience that is overrepresented in terms of frequent moviegoers? Am I reaching them?”

When you think about marketing to Hispanics, the fact that we’re ending Hispanic Heritage Month––and I know that there are a lot of other topics currently going on in the world––but how much have you seen, in any level of the media, discussing Hispanic Heritage Month? Very little to none. We missed a tremendous opportunity, in a time period that we’re talking a lot about diversity and inclusion, we still managed to miss this particular gap. 

I’m Cuban-American, born in Cuba, and grew up watching movies from across the world. The movies I couldn’t watch were actually from the United States, they were blacked out. I grew up watching Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, German, Spanish films, films from Mexico, from South America. For me, the beauty of our industry and what we represent is that we provide an education and other views of cultures that you wouldn’t otherwise get without traveling. 

We have an incredible richness as an industry, how do we relate that to a consumer base that appreciates it? When I think about my own background, growing up in Cuba, I love the movies because my parents and I went every Sunday. Every Sunday, that was our outing. No matter what, we went to the movies as a family on Sundays. 

We have an incredible audience base that is very loyal to our product. It’s an audience base that really relates to brand loyalty and brands that actually represent them well and recognize them. When you recognize Hispanics within your product, it has a relationship with their ability to make sure that they stay loyal to you and keep coming back. 

Part of that is reinforcing moviegoing habits that people might come into this market with. In Latin America, it’s customary to have a discount day in the middle of the week. When you came back to exhibition with Marcus Theatres in 2013, just as the country was recovering from a recession, the circuit introduced a discount day, $5 Tuesdays. Did you see a different sort of engagement in appealing to pre-existing customs that Hispanic audiences might have already been familiar with?

We introduced that concept just slightly over seven years ago as a $5 Tuesday, with free popcorn. We wanted our studio partners to recognize that we were putting skin in the game as well. Seven years ago, there were still economic challenges…it was very well accepted, almost immediately. 

The thing that most impacted me, both personally and professionally, was figuring out very quickly that we found an audience we had lost. Many of those audiences are diverse, from underserved communities with limited income and economic basis to take their families out for any form of entertainment. All of a sudden, I’m getting letters and calls from moms saying, “Thank you, I’m now able to take my family to the movies, and thank you for the popcorn.” It felt like the right thing to do: re-introducing ourselves to communities that were now able to take their families out for a fun evening, while at the same time creating a very exciting day that does a lot of business in finding this lost audience that had stopped going to the movies.

Especially right now, as we’re facing a very difficult part of the reopening phase, an initial reopening cycle with a lot of changes, a lot of things outside of our control. At the heart of this challenge is reconnecting with a lost audience. Once you engage with these conversations around diversity, around inclusivity, you can apply the lessons in a number of different scenarios, including the current Covid recovery.

As we talk about diversity and inclusion, about Hispanic Heritage Month, and the importance of diverse audiences, we need to remember we also provide an escape to people. What NATO has done through CinemaSafe, what every one of our theater chains has done, we’ve all spent a great deal of time in our planning, upgrading our systems and processes to make sure that people understand the safety procedures. Keeping in mind the health and safety of not only our customers but our associates. There isn’t a case that can be traced to any theater at this point in time. It’s important for us to get things started again. 

And there’s a bigger picture here: there’s an underserved community out there that is struggling economically without an outlet for out-of-home entertainment. Our communities, all of our consumers out there, are looking for a place to smile, have a healthy laugh, or a healthy cry. We provide that. I think it’s incumbent on government officials, on our film and distribution partners, and it’s incumbent amongst ourselves in exhibition, to ensure that we work together. We need to make sure that this incredible art form continues to serve all communities, including diverse ones, so we can stay in business and continue to cater to them. We have a lot of work to do, and hopefully, we can get started tackling it in a short period of time.

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