Doing Their Part: NATO Trio Encourages Industry Diversity

Earlier this year, Boxoffice Pro partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019, Boxoffice Pro continues to pay tribute to the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.

The role of NATO, as any Boxoffice Pro reader knows, is wide-ranging. The trade group represents the interests of a diverse range of theaters across the United States and beyond. It’s an “inviting and passionate industry,” says NATO’s general counsel and director of industry relations Jackie Brenneman—if one that, like many other industries, is largely male-dominated. “There is no doubt,” Brenneman expands, “that unconscious bias and ingrained sexism impact women in this and nearly every other business.” But NATO is making an effort to combat that, putting in the work to make the world of film more inclusive and diverse. It’s Brenneman, Esther Baruh, and Kathy Conroy’s daily work in support of a thriving, successful industry open to all that earned them a spot on Boxoffice Pro and Celluloid Junkie’s 2019 list of the Top Women in Global Exhibition.

Baruh, NATO’s director of government relations, is also the staff lead on NATO’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which has three goals: “increasing diversity and inclusion with the association’s volunteers, committees, and leadership; providing our members with the tools to increase diversity and inclusion within their companies; and increasing the variety of movies exhibited in theaters so that all stories are told and represented on the big screen.” For an industry that’s been male-dominated for so long, achieving these goals takes effort and mindfulness, which luckily Baruh, Brenneman, and Conroy have in abundance.

The committee “has undertaken several initiatives in support” of its diversity and inclusion goals, notes Conroy, NATO’s vice president and COO. Among those initiatives are “holding rounds of meetings with industry stakeholders to discuss exhibition’s role in increasing diversity and representation in film content; offering scholarships to currently underrepresented groups to participate in NATO’s annual governance meeting [in September] in Los Angeles; and developing educational materials to assist NATO members in expanding diverse and inclusive hiring.”

As NATO’s general counsel and director of industry relations, Brenneman describes her job—or one of them, in addition to working with theaters to combat movie piracy, answering questions regarding movie ratings, and generally serving as a liaison between the exhibition and studio sides of the movie industry—as the Diversity and Inclusion Committee’s third prong: increasing “diversity of product.”

Along with her colleague Erin Von Hoetzendorff, Brenneman formed the Green Light Committee, made up of “a group of members who are in a position to make booking decisions.” The committee reaches out to various corners of the distribution industry, spreading the word that “variety matters to exhibition. We are not only looking to do business in tentpoles. We love tentpoles. They’re very important. But our members need variety. There are a lot of small towns that need faith-based titles but aren’t getting them, for example. Not to mention the importance of diversity to serve local communities. America has a very diverse population, and people want all kinds of different things. Our movie theaters [are a very important part of that], especially if they want to stay relevant. 

“We’ve met with the DGA. We’ve met with Time’s Up. We’ve met with NALIP [the National Association of Latino Independent Producers]. We’ve met with [civil rights advocacy group] Color of Change. It was really interesting, because I think a lot of groups don’t realize how the business model of exhibition works. They don’t realize the robust data that some of our members have started gathering now, with their loyalty and subscription programs. Exhibitors are working really hard to understand their audience more and more. And that information can help justify a theatrical release of titles that maybe are not leaning towards theatrical release at the moment.” 

Though Brenneman admits that a lot of money is being spent on securing films for “alternative pipelines”—which Brenneman views as a temporary part of the “bulking up of these services”—she emphasizes that the so-called division between theatrical and streaming is overblown. “Data shows that people who stream the most also go to the movies most,” offering an alternative viewpoint to the idea that the increase of streaming spells doom for exhibitors. For example, “We think that part of the success of all the documentaries last year”—five documentaries crossed the $10 million mark domestically—“was because people saw great documentaries on Netflix, and so then they wanted to see other great ones in the theaters.”

As the North American theatrical industry’s premier trade and advocacy organization, NATO also has the power to open up various events and committees to a wider spectrum of participants—a responsibility that Baruh, Brenneman, and Conroy take seriously. 

“I’ve helped form two committees recently, and I reached out to some of our members and said, ‘I’m looking to fill a slot in this group. I would love for you to recommend someone, and I would love for you to be mindful of us trying to expand our diversity. So just think about people who haven’t historically participated in NATO committees who you think are really smart and would be a good fit.’ And it’s making CEOs identify other people as good volunteers. And we’re gaining more, new, interesting volunteers. So it’s a win-win for all of us.”

“There is still progress to be made,” adds Baruh, “but I have noticed and rejoiced that there are more female executives featured as speakers at industry events. It is heartening to see that trend.” As the industry moves toward gender parity, Baruh cautions women that “there will be many meetings in which you may be the only women, or one of the only women. But don’t be afraid to speak up, share ideas, and be confident in what you have to offer.”

Though Baruh, Brenneman, and Conroy have all come to love the exhibition industry, none of them originally started in that space. Before joining NATO, Conroy worked in marketing and communications at the Color Marketing Group, the Employers Council of Flexible Compensation, and the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, among others. Baruh “worked in foreign policy for several years before I joined NATO. I wanted to stay in D.C. and pivot to private sector government relations. I saw that NATO had an opening and jumped at it. Of course, when I told people that I was shifting from foreign policy to NATO, they were initially a bit confused! And Brenneman worked in law before leaving to join NATO and be a part of “an industry I cared more about.” Once joining NATO, in a non-legal capacity, she “did some initial legal work … [that] allowed me to think about our industry at a higher, more strategic level pretty early on, which I enjoyed. It helped me get to know the industry better, because I was certainly an outsider. But now, of course, I’m general counsel of NATO and the Global Cinema Federation. So I didn’t really quit law very effectively!”

In reading trade publications, Brenneman explains, she often sees a “bleak picture” of exhibition as an industry that’s “fighting for this old business model. I don’t see that at all. I do see that exhibitors have something to offer. There are so few places for people to go and be with other people. I think that there should be enthusiasm for this. I go to the movies all the time, frequently at pretty full houses, and people are always really enjoying themselves. It’s such a positive experience. I see a lot of really exciting potential partnerships that haven’t even been explored yet.”

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