Opportunity Knocks: Movio’s Sarah Lewthwaite Opens the Door

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 and early 2020, Boxoffice Pro will continue to honor the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.

Sarah Lewthwaite’s career is characterized by opportunities: seizing them when they come her way, leaving the door open for others, and making sure that clients at Movio—where she serves as director and senior vice president EMEA—don’t miss out on their own opportunities to connect with their audiences.

Lewthwaite—like many people who work for Vista Group International, Movio’s parent company—comes from an exhibition background. “I grew up in this industry,” she recalls. “I worked at Cineplex as a university student, popping popcorn when I was 18. It was a great part-time job. I loved it.” Another career called, one in journalism, but a quarter-life crisis had her reassessing her goals. “When you’re 20 years old, and you think you’re going to change the world through your writing, and then you realize that maybe that’s not so easy, you sort of have that crisis of conscience.” 

Lewthwaite’s manager at Cineplex, realizing his employee’s potential, suggested she apply for a marketing job in Cineplex’s head office. Not having had formal training in that area, Lewthwaite was willing, if not necessarily enthusiastic: “‘Well, that doesn’t sound right to me, but let me apply.’” 

Unfortunately for Cinemark—but fortunately for Lewthwaite—the chain was fighting bankruptcy at the time, meaning “they didn’t cast the net for candidates of this very junior marketing role very far at all. And they saw this keen university grad who was willing to start from the bottom up in a bankrupt company. And that was me! It was the best decision I ever made.”

Lewthwaite stayed at Cineplex for over 15 years, a period that saw a lot of changes for both Lewthwaite and her first employer. Cinemark emerged from bankruptcy; went public; acquired Famous Players, its biggest competitor; and secured 80 percent of the Canadian cinema market. Lewthwaite, meanwhile, had gone from a recent college graduate in an entry-level marketing position to vice president of marketing overseeing a team of 22 people. 

Also during this time, Lewthwaite “brought in Movio as a supplier. Cineplex, at least from my awareness, was one of the first cinema chains to really embrace data as a competitive advantage.” Through loyalty program Scene, introduced in 2007, Cineplex was able to “bring [customers] out more often and increase their frequency and spend.” Cineplex found itself taking a larger share of North American box office on some films than they would have previously. “We started to ride some downfall periods, where there were declines in box office in the U.S. but we were still holding strong. Our CEO really did attribute the growth that we had as a chain largely to the relationship we’d built with our customers through our loyalty database. I brought in Movio as a supplier and a partner in that journey. Funny things happen, lo and behold, and I’ve ended up on the other side of the coin now working for Movio.”

Movio’s purview is vast. Boiled down into a sentence, it helps theaters market to their audiences through the analysis of data. Lewthwaite estimates that Movio is currently active in about 20 countries throughout the EMEA region. Those include more established regions in addition to emerging markets. 

“Everyone’s trying to drive bums in seats and maximize spending, whether that be through food and beverage spending, premiumization of experience,” or something else, Lewthwaite notes. There are differences from market to market, though, and it’s those that keep Lewthwaite’s job exciting. She cites Middle Eastern markets, where there’s a trend toward ultra-exclusivity—“How expensive can you make it so that no one else can afford to go?”—while in some African markets there’s “a huge portion of the population that probably has never been to a cinema. How do you then partner with other companies to even get that first experience out to somebody who has never been into a big auditorium before? There really are some different dynamics at play, which I think I took for granted coming from Canada.”

Challenging the conventional wisdom—the “folklore,” Lewthwaite calls it—of the film industry is one of Movio’s goals. As that folklore would have it, certain demographics like certain movies—teenage boys will show up for superhero movies, while 20-something women love their rom-coms and the 55-plus segment wouldn’t be caught dead at a horror film. This line of thinking, Lewthwaite argues, limits opportunities for theaters and moviegoers alike.

“If you strip away someone’s nationality and gender and age and just look at their behavior, how can you use that to drive the marketing and drive the messaging?” Lewthwaite asks. “To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re an 80-year-old woman or a 16-year-old boy—if you both like action films and there’s a new one coming out, you should be told about it, and it should be promoted to you. And it shouldn’t necessarily just be because you fall into a specific four-quadrant segment. We’ve been trying to work with cinemas and also film studios to change their thinking around how movies are traditionally marketed and remove some of the human bias around traditional demographic profiling and move it more towards behavioral-based targeting.”

As a mentor in the third and most recent round of UNIC Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme, Lewthwaite is determined to take the opportunities she’s been given and use them to boost a new generation of women in the exhibition space. “As I advanced in my career, and when I moved to Europe, and particularly now that I’m in more of a tech company, I’ve become more acutely aware that there is a lack of diversity, not just in cinema but in the supplier side as well, with cinema tech,” she notes. 

“It’s not just about women. I do believe there’s a lack of diversity overall. And one of the initiatives I’ve been involved in starting here in the Vista group offices in London is a program around [asking] how do we bring opportunities to other underrepresented groups, and how do we have other voices be heard? That could be not just about gender. That could be about ethnicity, it could be about sexual orientation, or even ability. There has been a lot of focus on the gender imbalance that exists, and that’s an absolutely right thing to be focused on, because it is a huge issue. But I think we have to look beyond that and realize that in general there’s a lack of representation from other groups as well. As an industry, how can we be giving a voice to these other groups? The leadership and the direction of companies in cinema and films should reflect the audience. And I don’t necessarily feel that’s the case all the time. If we go into an auditorium and you look around at who’s attending films and watching movies, certainly it’s not the same faces we often see around the boardroom table. That’s something that’s really important to me.

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