Nurturing and empowering the cinema leaders of tomorrow is a key part of this year’s ShowEast programming slate, with The Coca-Cola Company’s Mayson Spellman (national account director, AMC Theatres) hosting the Wednesday afternoon panel discussion “Today’s Industry Executives Leading Tomorrow’s.”
Adding her voice to the panel, alongside other executives from the studio and cinema communities, will be Rebecca Stein, VP of studio relations and U.S. marketing at Showcase Cinemas, part of the multinational cinema and media megapower National Amusements. Stein, who in 2024 embarks on her 25th year with National Amusements, will also be receiving this year’s Coca-Cola Empowerment Award—an honor reflective of her commitment to supporting the next generation of cinema leadership, as she herself was supported and mentored in her early years at National Amusements. In advance of this year’s show, Boxoffice Pro spoke with Stein about her career, her mentors, and the changing tenor of movie marketing.
Next year you’ll have been at Showcase Cinemas for 25 years. How did you come to start your career there?
The long-story-short [version] is that I worked in a couple of different PR firms in Boston. I was young and really had to improve my writing skills, so I did a course at Emerson College in writing for press releases. In that class, there was a group of four or five people from National Amusements who were sent from the publicity department to work on their writing skills. When I learned that they were doing, essentially, PR and marketing—which we really didn’t call it in those days; it was more “publicity”—for the movies, I knew I had to connect and stay in touch. And I did. I became friendly with them and wanted to know whenever there was a job opening. Lo and behold, probably a few months later, they were looking for an additional entry-level publicity person. While the interview process took a lengthy period, it all worked out.
1999—that was a good year for movies. A good year to be in movie marketing!
At the time, when I first started, we had an in-house agency as well as doing our own corporate programs and marketing. I was doing some field publicity for New Line Cinema and for Paramount at the time, a “four walls” kind of thing. I don’t remember exactly the name, but it had a “running with brides” scene with Chris O’Donnell… [The movie was 1999’s The Bachelor, from New Line.] We were charged with hunting down as many cheap wedding dresses as we could and getting brides to run through the streets of Boston. At the time, I was also working on Flint, Michigan field publicity. We had to execute these really grand stunts, which were part of how movies were marketed on a regular basis at that point. I think, during our discussion, we’ll come full circle on that, because it’s certainly something that we’re trying to do more these days on our own.
What changed, to make that sort of splashy marketing less viable? Most movie marketing these days takes place from behind a desk. Was it just the rise of the Internet?
[There’s] a choice of marketing dollars, right? You could do a big stunt that cost a lot of money at the end of the day, or you could target [more] people in a digital way and spend there. We’ve seen that change with all marketing, across all platforms and all industries. The thing about our industry is that, as that changed, we lost a little bit of that magic. There’s always the magic of the movies, but …
Some of the showmanship is gone.
At National Amusements, Showcase Cinemas, that was always a part of our DNA: the showmanship. For a theater opening, we would have celebrities and exciting things happening for a couple of weeks. Creating experiences beyond the screen, so that the theater is way more than the screen.
How were those early days? You came into the industry from the PR side, not the cinema side; did you have any mentors to help you become familiar with the industry?
Absolutely. It was Elaine Purdy who hired me. [Purdy is now National Amusement’s VP of U.S. marketing.] She grew up in the business. Her parents met in the business. She had worked for General Cinemas, and she had worked for studios. [The fact that] she hired me was the most fortunate thing in so many ways. I almost get emotional, just thinking about how fortuitous it was to connect with Elaine. [She] certainly has become one of my best friends, but also one of the strongest mentors that I’ve had.
She’s just such a caring person. She really took me under her wing very early on. She pushed me and gave me confidence and didn’t make me feel like an outsider—which did happen a little bit within the department, to some extent. Everyone seemed to [have been in the industry] for so long. Even the young people had already been in it for so long.
I came in feeling a little cocky out of these PR firms. But I was a kid, you know? She would call me out on some of that behavior, which I needed. But she also put a lot of trust in me and let me soar. She made sure that if it was something I was doing, I got the recognition for it. She’d let me shine. I definitely have taken so many pages out of her book as I lead a team now. Elaine has, in general, taught me to be more creative, to push myself. She taught me true kindness.
Are there any marketing initiatives that stand out for you from those early days, when you were still learning the ropes? Aside from wrangling old wedding dresses, I mean.
Pretty early on, shortly after joining the publicity team, I became a young mom and was really in the kid’s space. I learned very quickly the importance of moms and kids in moviegoing. We were starting to do stuff then with loyalty [rewards], and our Starpass loyalty program was growing, but it seemed that there was this other market. It made a lot of sense to get kids and families in—and in young.
At that time, I had brought to [Elaine] the idea of a kids’ movie club and a kids’ loyalty program, called the Popcorn Club. It was quickly embraced. I had to learn a lot fast. It was the first program where I was kind of on my own and had to work with all these new teams within the company. Fast forward: 20 years later, and the Popcorn Club is going strong, which is something I’m very proud of. It’s a program that’s very effective. Our studio partners have come to count on us to reach a young family audience.
Now it’s in the great hands of my team. I have Rachel Lulay (Senior Director of Marketing & Partnerships), who works with me and who really makes all these things keep going and come to life.
I am very fortunate to have a great partner in crime, and that’s Mark Malinowski, who heads up our global marketing. Together, we [develop] joint initiatives that will work across the board. Whether it’s something that worked great in the U.K. that we’re going to bring to the U.S., or it’s something coming out of [our cinemas in] Argentina—Mark and I work really closely together. He’s one of the best parts of working at National for me, and we definitely collaborate across the board to make the best things happen for all markets.
You also helped launch Showcase’s sensory-friendly screening series, right?
Yes. In addition to sensory-friendly movies—which we are rebooting now, because we kind of stalled during the pandemic—our other really family-focused program that goes back about 20 years is our Bookworm Wednesdays program, which is a summer reading program that we offer. It brings in kids, and their only price of admission over the summer—for select movies, of course—is a book report.
The [community-focused] things that we do, they always have a “doing good” angle. You asked me about mentors, and I’ve had the real privilege of working for Shari Redstone [president of National Amusements] for all these 25 years. What Shari taught me and has shown me is [the importance of] giving back. There are a ton of [things] that Shari has shown me by example.
Something I have had the privilege of working on with her is our community efforts, [through which] I was able to start our Showcase for Good programming. Early on, when we talked about a kids’ program, it made sense to have reading attached to it. We partner with libraries and can say to our communities that we are not only offering kids this fun movie experience, but [we are encouraging] summer reading.
From the book perspective, it’s wonderful that we have a lot of books that come to the big screen. It’s been fun to work with different book titles. We’ve done a lot of “read it before you see it” programs and giveaways. We happen to be pretty passionate on books in our department, too! Right now, we’re working with Sony to show early screenings of Dumb Money. We are fortunate to have Ben Mezrich, who wrote the book Dumb Money [is based on] working with us on a couple of events where he’ll be doing Q&As.
[We also have a series called] Holiday Classics, where the price of admission during the holiday months is a canned good for a local food pantry. We’ve built from there. Under Showcase for Good, we partner with local nonprofit organizations in our communities. It’s some of the best work that I get to do these days.
Are you from Boston originally? What was your childhood theater?
I have to admit, I have not gone far from home! I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, [and now] I’m probably six minutes down the road from Newton. My two local movie theaters—and it was two because they were close together and they didn’t play day-and-date, so [where I went] depended on who was playing what—[were the] General Cinema in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where now we proudly have a Showcase SuperLux theater, and a National Amusements [location] in Cleveland Circle, which is [in the vicinity of] Boston/Brookline, Massachusetts.
My earliest movie memory is seeing Pete’s Dragon. It was at the Chestnut Hill General Cinema. That was 1977, so I was about four years old. I remember feeling small but just being in awe of that big screen. I loved that movie. The other [early moviegoing experience] that pops into my mind, also at that General Cinema, was [seeing] Annie. When the movie opened, they had a “Sandy.” I don’t know if it was actually Sandy the dog, but they had a Sandy the dog! I remember waiting in line. That’s an early childhood movie memory that is pretty cool.
Those are the sorts of things you remember when you grow up, that make you love going to the movies.
Here’s the thing: that’s what we are working to do with the Popcorn Club. We have members who are two years old. We encourage parents to sign their kids up early. We’re working with Paramount now on some early screenings of Paw Patrol, and we’re inviting Popcorn Club members to see it early. But it’s not just going to be the movie. Beforehand, in the lobby, we’re bringing in some children’s music makers, doing some crafts, and we’ll have some fun food, so that it really touches those sweet points for kids and it sticks.
No real-life dogs? I guess that’d be tough to do.
We are not doing dogs for Paw Patrol, but we are doing some fun giveaways. Though that’s more for some lucky influencers and their kids.
So much of movie marketing is centered on social media influencers nowadays. You go to an advance screening, and where it used to be press, it’s influencers. It’s something that those in the cinema business have been a bit slow to pick up on. When the “GentleMinions” thing happened, with all these teens on TikTok organizing group outings to see Minions: The Rise of Gru dressed in suits, no one saw that coming.
That was a pivotal moment. After that happened, we knew that we had to be on TikTok. We’re having great success [there]. We now generate content every week. We’ve set aside time. We have people who are on it. Obviously, all social media is key right now. It gives each theater circuit a voice that is differentiated from the others, which is nice, too.
But, back to influencers: [Working with them] is a key part of our strategy. We are definitely spending marketing dollars on influencers. We have been doing a program of influencer screenings, and each one has to be curated [to match] the right influencers. We are creating atmospheres that give that full picture. With our Barbie influencer event, there was no stone unturned. If we’re seeing a movie early and loving it, as a team, we want to get behind it. That happened recently with Gran Turismo. I reached out to Ann-Elizabeth [Crotty, who leads exhibitor marketing] at Sony and said, “We want to get behind this. We want to get influencers in.” There were custom drink menus. Everything had black and white checkered flags. We had a tire-changing station where they picked up their drinks. We are really into party planning, [thinking through] all the details to make sure that they leave with a full experience of what it means to go out to the movies. It was a black-and-white party. We saw everybody come out in pink for Barbie. We’re giving people reasons to dress up for the movies. It’s a big part of our strategy. Now people are asking us, “How do we get on your list?” What we’re building with our influencers, in all different markets and all kinds of different lanes and genres, is fantastic.
If you’re not already plugged in, venturing into this world can be a daunting prospect. Who are you working with? Is it hyper-local people who live near the theater in question?
Yeah, people in the local area. A lot of our influencers cover bigger markets. We have a couple of national influencers who are Showcase moviegoers and are happy to help us. We’re having a good time with influencers, and they love what we’re providing. It’s been a good two-way street.
GentleMinions felt like chapter one, where people got a glimpse of the organizing power of this whole world they didn’t know about. The Barbie release, with cinemas working closely with Warner Bros. and going all-out on promotion and marketing, felt like chapter two. What’s chapter three? Can you re-capture some of that Barbie energy? With Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, maybe?
I think that we have to, collectively, as an industry, look at Barbie as a guide. Granted, it had everything [going for it]. I’ll tell you, there’s something about the color pink that really gets people excited. As soon as we knew that this Taylor Swift [concert film] was coming—which was a wild day, since we found out in the morning and wanted to get tickets on sale by that afternoon—I said to my team, “Look, this is a gift. We’ve got to squeeze everything out of it that we can, just like we have been doing with Barbie.” We immediately got on the phone to get DJs into our lobbies, so that when people are walking in, the party starts there. We are making friendship bracelet stations within the lobbies. And photo backdrops; we’ll have big images of Taylor Swift where people can take their picture, and our branding is there.
I think everybody, as an industry, needs to look at what happened with Barbie and try to replicate it as best we can. I mean, [with] a movie like Barbie, not only do you have a superpower like Warner Bros. behind it, but Mattel was behind it too. I’ve never seen anything like it from a marketing perspective. There was no company that didn’t want to attach to it. And when you have someone like Margot Robbie—she was everywhere and did an amazing job [promoting] that movie. We saw it with Tom Cruise for Top Gun: Maverick. He was key. I do hope that, from a studio perspective, that is being recognized as really important. As people look at how these movies are being marketed, we need to make sure that the talent is part of the strategy in a big way. It’s beyond just the star power. It’s that these people’s passion for their project comes out. And I think that’s important.
We see it at CinemaCon every year–studios know that bringing out the stars is going to get the industry pumped.
We all feel it, right? We go to CinemaCon, and we’re recharged. We feel we’re part of something so much bigger. Every filmmaker says, “I’m making this for the big screen.” That’s another important thing: We need to be thanking our audience. I encourage adding that message to every movie: thanking the moviegoers. Whether [it comes from] the talent or the filmmaker, we need to appreciate the moviegoer and understand that they’re not [getting] the Kool-Aid that we’re drinking ourselves. All of it is part of the magic. The recipe is there, but we need to pay attention to it.