This Week on The Boxoffice Podcast: Film Row’s Melanie Valera & Jeff Wilk

Launched as an extension of the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation in 2019, Film Row has emerged as one of the most important industry groups as the motion picture business rebounds from the pandemic. Conceived as a mentorship and networking group meant to develop young executives into the next generation of industry leaders, Film Row works with members in exhibition, distribution, and the vendor community across a range of educational and fundraising initiatives. Boxoffice Pro spoke with Paramount’s Melanie Valera, the group’s founding president, and Warner Bros.’ Jeff Wilk, its current president, on their experience in getting Film Row off the ground and what the future holds for the organization. 

How did Film Row come together and how did you get involved?

Melanie Valera: We started back in March of 2019. Todd Vradenburg, the former Executive Director at Will Rogers, and Christina Blumer,  the current Executive Director, approached us to form this group and put something together. They gave us carte blanche to put something together that could encourage and engage our industry, and find a way to connect to one another. 

Jeff Wilk: I’ve always been into philanthropy and all of my mentors and peers mentioned a couple of great organizations in the industry to get involved with. Over the course of my career, I went from attending events to help plan events for some of these organizations. That’s how I came to know Todd Vradenburg. We got close and every couple of years, I would mention that I wanted to get more involved at the leadership level of Will Rogers. He kept saying, “Your time will come, be patient, keep doing what you’re doing.” He came knocking on our door a couple of years ago and said, “Look, when it comes time for your generation to take the reins and lead Will Rogers, we’re finding that you haven’t had the experience and you’re put in these roles without being sure what to do. So we want to start more of a junior organization that can help prepare you.” Essentially, a farm league for Will Rogers. 

That’s how we started Film Row, with a focus on educating and preparing the next generation of leaders. Our tagline is to help cultivate the next generation of pioneers and trailblazers in our industry. Our three pillars are education, philanthropy, and networking. Education: How do you teach people to speak publicly? Something as simple as an excel class or a tastemaker series. Philanthropy: How do you volunteer your time? How do you make a difference? We’ve done three food drives at the LA Food Bank, and those have been fantastic. Networking: We’ve done cocktail parties, one at ShowEast and we had our kickoff party at the Montalban Theatre’s rooftop a couple of years ago. 

This industry can feel intimidating for young and new executives, especially since you have so many multi-generational members of the industry in both distribution and exhibition. How is Film Row leveraging that to the advantage of newcomers to the business?

Jeff Wilk: We definitely want to tap into that long-standing industry knowledge. You have people in this industry that started as interns and are still working at the studio 40 years later. You have multi-generational executives on the exhibition side, and you also find that among vendors and studios. It’s really important that we share that knowledge and we’re fortunate the executive board of Will Rogers and other leaders in the industry have raised their hands and offered to share their stories—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to help the next generation. We have the luxury of having these leaders participate in our Lunch and Learn series. Our first one was at Paramount, on the studio lot with Kyle Davies, the president distribution at the time. We had somewhere between 15 and 20 people, he answered a couple of prepared questions and opened the conversation to the group in a very organic way. It’s difficult to get that sort of exposure with executives. It’s an opportunity to take lessons from those conversations and blaze your own path.

Melanie Valera: We are currently in the second round of our mentorship program. We had 130 participants and 65 pairings in our first round. We were blown away by the response we got and the feedback we received afterward has been incredible. There has never been any sort of program like this, that pairs people from different studios, exhibitor partners, and vendors. It’s a really fulfilling program for both the mentor and the mentee. 

We’ve registered over 150 participants in the current round. It’s another way we can all connect with each other. We’ve got quite a few theater managers who are participating in the program. From an educational standpoint, I feel like we’re really on par with the goals we set out to achieve. In the fundraising aspect, we are always trying to build a fundraising component in our events. We had an in-person trivia night prior to the pandemic and had quite the turnout, it was a great fundraiser. 

How difficult has it been for Film Row to operate during such a difficult time for the film industry?

Jeff Wilk:  Melanie was really key in getting us off the ground. We worked really closely with Christina and Todd from Will Rogers, but it was really [Melanie’s] hard work and tenacity that got us going. When Covid-19 hit, Film Row didn’t skip a beat under her leadership. In the early days, we were focused on growing and getting our name out there. Defining what we were looking to do. Yes, we’re an organization for young executives: what does that mean? We took learning lessons from different types of events,  initiatives, and people getting involved to fine-tune our approach. We’re constantly learning and trying to experiment with new things. 

As we look forward to the final months of the year, how is the rest of 2022 shaping up for Film Row?

Jeff Wilk:  We’re shaping that now. We timed the changes to our management to coincide with those at Will Rogers. That’s how we found ourselves starting Q1 of 2022 with a new board—and we hit the ground running. We’re all excited to get out and do in-person events again and continue our Cafe a Zoom series, our virtual coffee events with executives. We like to do in-person events but we don’t want to slight anybody that doesn’t live in Los Angeles, which is why we have so much virtual programming. 

Melanie Valera: The idea initially was to start in LA because that’s where the bulk of the industry is located. I would love to see us expand into other parts of the country, it would be amazing if we could launch different chapters. We have people tuning in from Canada, Argentina, and [other countires] who are interested to learn about our program. Right now our Lunch and Learn programs are held locally in Los Angeles, which makes it difficult for others in the country. It would be amazing to see the future of this group expand out to other parts and places of our business.