The Ticketing Tango: Melissa Heller’s ‘Small Bets’ Keep Fandango Moving Forward

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.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the relationships you have.” Fandango’s vice president of domestic ticketing, Melissa Heller, says relationships are key to every facet of what she does—her own relationships with mentors and other industry professionals as well as the relationships Fandango itself cultivates with exhibitors, studios, and of course the all-important moviegoer.

Heller grew up in a “tiny, tiny town in Northern California,” where the closest theater—Coast Cinemas in Fort Bragg, still in operation—was an hour away. From the beginning, going to the movies was “a big deal. … When we got the opportunity to do it, it was one of those life-changing miracle moments.” (An early moviegoing experience that’s stuck with Heller: going to the Coast with her best friend to see Babe.) “Sharing those movie moments with my best friend, enjoying candy, and feeling like we were there on that farm with a talking pig … does life get any better than that?” No, it does not.

While Heller has always known the magic of moviegoing, she “stumbled into” the job of providing that magic for other people. In college, Heller studied business and economics, which took her to a job at Quantum Loyalty Solutions. A “rewards and incentives firm,” Quantum Loyalty Solutions partnered with studios, exhibitors, and outside companies to offer “Hollywood Movie Money” to consumers. Fandango, looking to beef up its own promotions operations, acquired Quantum in 2015, rebranding the service as Fandango Rewards. “At the time, there was an ask to relocate to Los Angeles and join the core exhibitor relations and ticketing commerce team,” recalls Heller. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It was a personal and professional challenge—an opportunity to grow and learn from incredible people. So, despite my fears of L.A. traffic, I decided to move. And [now] I’m here to stay.”

One of those “incredible people” Heller learned from was Fandango’s chief commercial officer and executive vice president Kevin Shepela. “Since the day I started at Fandango, Kevin always challenged me to think more broadly, to look at strategy and align decisions accordingly, to ask questions, to think bigger. He supported me doubling down and getting my MBA along the way, no matter what it took. All in support of me as a person first, and an employee second.” 

While Heller has benefited from structured mentorship programs, she cites informal mentorship as the thing that’s helped her professional growth the most. “It’s just seeing how people work with each other: ‘Oh, wow, that’s how she responded to a really hard question. That’s what I want to do the next time I’m in a position like that.’ Or: ‘That was a really unique way to tackle that problem.’ Just really being able to learn, and not sit at your desk with your headphones on, answering emails. It’s really about absorbing the people around you. Inside [Fandango], outside, all over the industry. It’s actively listening and figuring out what your style is, not mimicking someone else.”

One of these informal mentors was Heller’s mother, who, as a co-owner of a construction company, “excelled in a heavily male-dominated industry, keeping her focus on creating houses that became homes and meeting every challenge along the way. She is an advocate for women in her industry, and it is empowering to see her help showcase others. She showed me how a rising tide lifts all boats.” Fandango embodies that spirit, Heller explains, through their chapter of TechWomen, an initiative geared toward supporting the next generation of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Fandango’s TechWomen chapter, founded by director of project management Shanit DeLuca and director of software engineering Rema Morgan-Aluko, provides professional development for the women of Fandango. “It is exhilarating to see progress on this level. I’m hopeful for the future.”

As for what the future holds for digital ticketing in general, it’s hard to say, if not impossible, and “that’s the fun challenge” for Heller. The growth of digital ticketing has been both massive and relatively rapid; Heller recalls that the year she joined Quantum Loyalty Solutions, 2007, was the year the first iPhone came out. “One way you can look at it is, OK, we don’t know” what digital ticketing will look like in five, 10, 20 years. “But can we help shape that? Can we help work with our partners to prepare for it? It’s very dynamic. Every day there’s some new company, some new technology. I think it’s about making small bets and trying out new integrations with emerging companies and market incumbents, like the Apples and the Googles of the world. And just doing what we can to innovate, innovate, innovate.”

Those “small bets” have included the acquisition of trailer-streaming outfit Movieclips in 2014 and movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes in 2016. Partnerships, Heller argues, are also key to Fandango’s success, present and future; she cites Fandango’s integration with Apple iOS, where a plugin lets moviegoers purchase tickets within a text conversation, as well as AT&T Ticket Twosdays, which lets members of AT&T’s loyalty program get two tickets for the price of one every Tuesday (using a Fandango code, of course). Heller is particularly passionate about “expanding Fandango ticketing to independent exhibition—giving movie fans a theater as close as possible to plan their movie night out with friends and family in their hometown.”

All this can fly under the radar for consumers who just want to buy their movie tickets with minimal hassle. But that, explains Heller, is the point. “Our goal is to have things very simple and easy and seamless for a movie fan,” she explains. “We want you to be able to buy your ticket and go. And because we’ve done that, I think the misconception is that it’s really easy to do it. Because it’s easy to use, it’s easy to do. But it definitely takes a lot of very talented people and a really strong team environment to be able to deliver an easy consumer-facing product.”

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