This Week on the Boxoffice Podcast: Heather Morgan on the Evolution of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation

Image Courtesy Heather Morgan

In this week’s episode of The Boxoffice Podcast, Daniel Loria, Rebecca Pahle, and Shawn Robbins discuss Spider-Man: No Way Home’s pre-sales numbers and its positively looking box office debut predictions. 

In the feature segment, Pahle speaks with Heather Morgan, who as of January 1, 2022 will become the first female president of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. She speaks about her own personal relationship with moviegoing and the future evolution of Will Rogers.

Listen to this week’s episode below and subscribe to The Boxoffice Podcast on any major podcast platform.

During COVID, I think it’s fair to say Will Rogers has had a singular purpose: assisting those in the exhibition community affected by the pandemic. Over theses last few years, companies have taken the chance to reassess how they’re going to operate moving forward. What does that look like for Will Rogers?

At the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, there’s a number of things that we do. For example, our roots are centered in pulmonary health and research. That actually was something that was reignited; the necessity for it became ever more prominent during Covid, because Covid is a lung issue. And then we also have Brave Beginnings, which is buying NICU equipment for premature babies so that they can develop.

The Pioneers Assistance Fund is used to support members of the industry when they are going through times of financial difficulty. Covid and everything it did to ravage our industry and shutter theaters really thrust the Pioneers Assistance Fund into the limelight and increased people’s awareness of it. Many people in this industry were not aware of the Pioneers Assistance Fund, or Will Rogers at all. We had a number of partners in the industry step up to donate during that time, and also to raise awareness, letting people know that they could come and apply for grants and financial assistance. We helped people stay in their homes, helped them buy groceries, keep the lights on, just to try to bridge the gap during financial difficulty. Everyone at the organization is incredibly proud of the work that we did and incredibly grateful for all the partners that helped us do that work during that time.

Will Rogers hasn’t been able to have its annual fundraising dinner recently, and I’d imagine exhibitors don’t have as much capacity to donate to you as they did pre-Covid—for obvious reasons. Are things going to change for Will Rogers?

I think they will. We’ve actually been talking a lot about that. I’m taking over the presidency of Will Rogers starting January 1 of 2022. We’re putting together the executive board that is going to be partnering with me to navigate the future direction and initiatives for the charity. No final decisions are going to be made until that board gets firmly in place and has a chance to meet and provide input and brainstorm.

But we do know that the direction of the charity is going to shift somewhat, because the needs of our industry are shifting. And so are people’s financial positions and their ability to give to charities. During Covid, when everything was happening to the theaters, [that resulted in a lot of] goodwill and desire to contribute to the industry and the people who were struggling. Now, as the story around the industry, thankfully, is shifting toward one of recovery, that also makes people feel like there’s a less urgent need to give. Yet the need is there. And so we’re going to be talking, going forward, about not only how we adapt as a charity, but are the things that we’ve been focused on traditionally still relevant for the industry going forward? What new needs do the industry and all the members that make it up what have that no one is currently meeting?

I think any successful charity has a very clear mission statement, which says, “This is the problem that exists. This is who we are. And this is what we are doing to solve that problem.” So we’re going to start back with step one to reassess what the new needs of the industry are given everything that’s been shifting so dramatically over the last couple of years.

What sort of things are kind of on your radar at this point, in terms of what the industry’s needs are?

With the Pioneers Assistance Fund—no one knows this better than the social workers who work on behalf of of the people who call the Pioneers Assistance Fund for assistance—most of the people who need emergency financial assistance, because they’ve encountered an unexpected hardship, it’s usually the result of a pattern of spending or saving, or financial management that hasn’t served them well up to a point. Therefore, when you have this emergency situation, you don’t have the money available to cover it. So I think financial literacy is a huge thing that our industry needs. We have people working in our industry that are in their senior and twilight years. And then we have a large percentage of our employees in the industry where it’s their first job, or one of their first jobs. And then we have people in between. So we really need, I think, financial literacy and money management education for people at all phases of their careers, so that they understand how to manage whatever amount of money they’re making.

Our industry is going through a tremendous period of change right now. And it will continue to do so. And that means that we need the strongest leaders available to help us navigate that change and to usher in the new wave of industry trends in the decades to come. So to your point, yes, mentorship programs. Do we have people who are ready to take those next steps in their careers? And do they understand emotional intelligence and how important that is in the workplace? And do they understand how to provide customer service that needs to be representative of the industry that we’re trying to foster and grow? There’s a number of things that we think the industry needs, but we’re also going to be reaching out to the people in our industry in all of the companies that we work with, on the exhibition and distribution and vendor sides, to see what they feel like their needs are—not only as a company, but also for their workforce, and how they would like to see us help with that. Because having their input is going to be crucial to determining how we move forward.

Image Courtesy Heather Morgan
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