As the CEO of UNIC, the largest international trade body in cinema, Laura Houlgatte Abbott has a lot to juggle. Representing the needs of UNIC’s 37 member companies (soon to be 38—“Hopefully we manage to get Cyprus on board”) requires legal knowledge, political acumen, and an ability to operate within the cultural arena. It requires a gift for listening to and collaborating with people who often have different backgrounds and needs. On the more trivial side of things, it requires an ability to stay on top of member countries’ various time zones, which Houlgatte Abbott admits is something of a challenge—“It does my head in most of the time. What do I say? ‘Good morning’? ‘Good evening’?”
Time zones aside—Houlgatte Abbott has more than earned her place on this year’s list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published by Boxoffice in conjunction with Celluloid Junkie.
Houlgatte Abbott’s educational background—and the seed of her eventual role with UNIC—is in political science, which in her native country of France is an area of study that encompasses more than it does in the U.S.: “You study economics, you study history, you study languages, you study law.” All subjects, of course, that come in handy if you’re running an international trade body, which at the time Houlgatte Abbott had no intention of doing. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Absolutely none,” she recalls.
“I’ve always been very much into films and culture, but my parents always told me, ‘You’re never going to find a good job in that sector. You’re always going to struggle. It’s really hard and competitive, and it’s such a small pool. You’re never going to manage. Study something that will give you a real job!’” Houlgatte Abbott chuckles. The job in film, admittedly, didn’t come straight away. Houlgatte Abbott started as a cultural services trainee at the French embassy in Ireland. From there, she moved to her current hometown of Brussels, where she worked for the British Council and then with the Federation of European Publishers. Then came “a bit of luck,” as she describes it. “UNIC was looking for someone to help on policy at the time.” She was hired. Two years later, when her predecessor, Jan Runge, left, she applied for and got the job as CEO. With her background and the UNIC’s multifaceted requirements, “it was a match made in heaven.”
“The call was stronger than anything,” Houlgatte Abbott reflects. “I’ve been lucky enough to find these opportunities. Sometimes you need to believe in your dream.”
It’s not just luck, skill, and professional background that are responsible for Houlgatte Abbott’s being in her present position. The executive also credits her “amazing team” at UNIC. “It’s not only a good team, it’s a happy team. I think that’s how we manage to do everything we do, even though we’re a small office here in Brussels. … It’s not a woman-alone job!”
Mentors also played a key role in Houlgatte Abbott’s professional rise. (“I could probably list 30 of them!”) Barring a bulleted list, Houlgatte Abbott singles out a few key women who served as mentors when she started as UNIC’s CEO: The “absolutely amazing” Anne Fitzgerald of Cineplex and Cinevital CEO Edna Epelbaum, a vice president on UNIC’s board.
Houlgatte Abbott pays it forward with UNIC’s Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme, which launched at CineEurope in 2017. Now entering its third cycle, the program pairs up-and-coming women in the exhibition space with female senior executives, from whom they receive on-one-one guidance and advice over the course of the year. “When we launched it in 2017, it was a pilot scheme for us,” Houlgatte Abbott says. “We didn’t know what the results were going to be. The kind of support we got, and the feedback, not only from the participants in the program but also from the industry overall, was overwhelming. We realized that there was nothing like this in the industry. That it was very much needed. Young women were looking for role models and advice, which they didn’t think they could ask for sometimes in their own company, because sometimes you need to open up about things that are quite personal.” The flow of information goes both ways, with mentors sharing with Houlgatte Abbott that “they were also learning a lot from their mentees, which is incredible.”
This year’s mentors and mentees will be announced at CineEurope. Looking down the road, the Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme’s fourth year might include mentors who were mentees the first year, a reflection of how some of the program’s participants have “made such big jumps in their careers already.”
“We don’t pretend that we’re going to solve the issue of gender balance in the industry, because we certainly cannot do that,” Houlgatte Abbott says. At the same time, the benefit UNIC’s Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme provides goes beyond individual mentors and protégés. “It’s also created this incredible network of amazingly talented, professional women. That’s really heartwarming, because sometimes you can walk around in this industry and, you know … the diversity in some of our territories is not great. ‘Challenged,’ to be polite. It’s such a great energy when you are in a room with all these women. We have get-togethers twice a year, once in Barcelona during CineEurope and once in Brussels during our Cinema Days. The feedback that we get and the energy that’s flowing from it is just amazing.”
On a personal level, Houlgatte Abbott has pulled inspiration from women outside the exhibition space: “I’ve had incredible role models outside the industry that have been extremely important in my career. Just seeing women here in Brussels being CEOs and telling you, ‘You can do it. You have to work hard, but it’s possible.’ That’s all made a difference.”
In one’s professional life, too, Houlgatte Abbott recommends opening the lines of communication and being receptive to ideas from people in different industries—or within one’s own industry who have different ways of doing things. “You have to think outside of the box sometimes. You see it in our own industry: people who have incredible career paths who did something completely different before they arrived in cinema. They can bring a lot of new ideas to this sector.”
Regular get-togethers and the exchange of ideas—CineEurope is the site of UNIC’s biggest gathering, but there are smaller ones at Cannes and elsewhere—are what Houlgatte Abbott counts as “the most valuable moments. You really can’t replace them.” Yet inevitably, members have their share of differences. There are big chains and small, mature markets and emerging, differences in local regulations and moviegoing cultures. But the ultimate goal is the same: Getting people to the movies. “I think it’s easier to find something that we can all fight for than something that’s going to divide us. The diversity of the markets contributes to the beauty of the organization, because it’s a source of inspiration. People are looking at what’s happening in other markets and thinking, ‘Oh, I could try that as well.’ Or ‘This is something that we could bring to our local government.’ That’s a big asset.”