Top Women in Global Exhibition 2019: Valerie Shortall and Wanda Gierhart, Cinemark

Earlier this year, Boxoffice partnered with Celluloid Junkie to present the fourth annual list of Top Women in Global Exhibition, published in our CinemaCon issue. Throughout 2019, Boxoffice will continue to honor the women who have an immeasurable impact on the exhibition industry with a series of in-depth profiles.

Cinemark recorded its fourth consecutive year of record earnings in 2018, exceeding $3 billion in revenue for the first time in its history. The circuit enjoyed the success of its subscription service, Cinemark Movie Club, the first such service launched by a major chain in the United States; since its debut, the program has already accounted for over 13 million tickets. Through their efforts in 41 U.S. states and 15 Latin American countries, Shortall and Gierhart have been crucial to Cinemark’s current success.

What is the biggest challenge facing exhibition in 2019?

Valerie Shortall, Vice President of International Marketing: From my perspective, the biggest challenge the exhibition industry faces is convincing consumers to choose to go to the movies rather than choose another form of “out-of-home” entertainment. People’s free time is precious, and there are endless disruptors and options for consumers when it comes to capturing their attention and time. For Cinemark, the key is finding a way to break through those disruptors. It’s not easy to engage consumers, but when we do, Cinemark has curated an experience that they’ll appreciate. 

Wanda Gierhart, Executive Vice President and Global Chief Marketing Officer: There are so many competing forms of entertainment that theaters face daily. From restaurant food culture and live entertainment to sporting events, consumers are bombarded with options. In order for theaters to survive, we must evolve our experience to meet our customers’ entertainment needs and create memorable moments, all the while maintaining engaging, memorable, and frictionless interactions. Our industry is about making memories, whether it is with family, a first date, or friends. At Cinemark we have pushed the envelope with new entertainment concepts such as our virtual reality experience, the VOID, and our new dine-in concept, CUT! by Cinemark. We constantly look for ways to help our guests customize their experience, from offering uniquely crafted, innovative food and beverage options to Cinemark Movie Rewards, where our digital subscription program allows members to earn points in order to make their moviegoing experience that much more memorable. 

Valerie, before you were vice president of international marketing, you served as the director of domestic marketing. What lessons from your earlier position have you been able to take to the domestic side of things?

VS: Ten years ago, when I was in the U.S. domestic sector, our marketing focus was mainly on theater growth and strengthening studio partnerships. Cinemark was opening anywhere from about 8 to 10 theaters (depending on the year), forcing us to be very agile in our marketing strategy in order to keep up with the fast pace. There was also no one-size-fits-all market, which meant our team had to evolve our efforts for each new market based on their demographic. The core business is very similar between domestic and international. However, how to promote a new theater, program, or amenity has nuances based on Latin American regions and markets. Having worked in so many U.S. cities while we were rapidly growing, I was able to take those key learnings and effectively apply them to the different cultures and markets within Latin America. 

What’s your proudest achievement from your time so far at Cinemark?

VS: After 20 years in this industry, there are many moments that I’m proud of, but the achievements that meant the most are the programs and initiatives I’ve been able to put in place when I was in the domestic sector that are still in use today, including the marketing activations around new locations and partnering with the studios. I am also very proud of the number of successful theaters my team has opened over the years while in the domestic sector. During my tenure, my team opened at least 70 theaters domestically. My team was able to adapt to not only a fast-growing company, but a rapidly expanding industry and demand from modern moviegoers. Regarding international, we are moving quickly into an evolving e-commerce and loyalty space, anticipating our customers’ needs. It has been great to implement new initiatives, but also to see grow what was already put in place by an amazing team around the region.

WG: One of my proudest achievements is allowing myself to dig in to learn and understand a new industry and bring my own knowledge and experience to build upon its success. Throughout this journey, I am proud that I’ve been able to develop and grow an already good team to a great multidiscipline department of marketing experts by driving a digital transformation and bringing new thinking to how our organization perceives digital marketing. I’ve also been able to spearhead the growth of an already robust e-commerce experience. The month before I started, Cinemark team developed Movie Club, an innovative first-to-market exhibition-led subscription program. When I began my role, I was able to lead the team to drive the growth and be a part of relaunching the loyalty program with Cinemark Movie Rewards in May of this year, which includes a rebranded free tier Movie Fan and the paid tier Movie Club. The initiatives have truly made our loyalty program more cohesive, understandable, and robust, which in return creates a valuable experience for our customers.

How would you evaluate the progress women have made in the exhibition business in the past few years? 

VS: We are seeing more female executives in the exhibition industry, especially over the last several years. However, I believe there is still progress to be made overall. There are still inconsistencies in male versus female roles across all levels. The industry is beginning to move in the right direction by promoting women into leadership roles. Cinemark is focusing in this area and identifying top female talent inside and outside the organization. Our industry’s consumers are so diverse. Industry leadership and company makeup should be as well, including women of all different backgrounds in more high-level decision-making conversations from the start.

WG: I believe that there has been great progress the past couple of years, but there is still progress that needs to be made—not only on our industry, but across all industries. In the last few years, I’ve witnessed more positive changes and shifts happening that have helped lead the way for more change. Here at Cinemark, we have made recent significant women hires, including three women to our board of directors and myself as a C-suite executive. We’ve also developed a mentorship program, launching this summer, to provide high-potential women associates at Cinemark with a senior mentor, with the goal of developing them for potential leadership positions within the company. Outside of Cinemark, there have also been recent changes with our studio partners who have begun to promote women to the C-suite positions as well. Ultimately, the tides are turning within our industry, and I look forward to witnessing the continued growth of female leaders here at Cinemark and elsewhere. 

Tell us about your mentors in this business.

VS: I have been in this business for 20 years and have had some great mentors along the way, inside and outside of Cinemark. When I was on the U.S. side, one of the best pieces of advice I received came from my colleagues at the studios. I considered them (and still do) my work family, and we would consistently bounce thoughts and ideas off each other. We contributed to each other’s growth, whether we realized it or not. As my career developed, one of my former bosses from the U.S. side, Terrell Falk, taught me a lot about managing a team. She also taught me that making mistakes is OK, and what’s important is learning from them. She taught me patience and not to expect people to work at the same pace or with the same style. 

More recently, Valmir Fernandes and Wanda Gierhart have, from the day I met them, been great mentors to me in my current role. I feel extremely lucky to be working for two strong leaders who give sound advice, not only in business, but personally as well. I’m grateful to have learned immensely from people with various backgrounds and areas of expertise. As I am now helping spearhead the development of the mentorship program at Cinemark, I am hoping to pass my own knowledge and that of other senior leaders along to others starting out in our industry.

WG: Since my time here at Cinemark, I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from several veterans of this industry. In particular, Cinemark’s CEO Mark Zoradi has been extremely supportive and willing to take risks and invest in my team and our work. Not only is he a great listener, but he also encourages my team by being our biggest cheerleader. He knows we will fail at some things and grow wiser from them. 

Additionally, all of our studio partners have been extremely supportive of my transition to this new role and have been great partners in helping me learn this industry. Before coming to Cinemark, I came from 25 years in omni-channel retail, where I also had industry icons as mentors, such as Karen Katz from NMG [Neiman Marcus Group], who taught me universal truths I’ve carried with me throughout my career. These universal truths include always prioritizing the customer experience by being able to spot trends, catering to customers’ needs, and being able to reach them how they want to be reached. I’ve also developed relationships with a great group of women C-suite leaders in different industries; together, we challenge ourselves in our professional and personal lives. 

What advice would you give to women just entering the movie exhibition business?

VS: I would tell women entering this business that it’s an exciting time for them to be in this industry and they should feel empowered to take their seat at any table with confidence. I would also advise that it takes diverse thoughtfulness to make an impact on consumers. I want them to know that their thoughts, viewpoints, and experience are valuable, and they should not be afraid to try and fail, because failing is how we learn and not a true reflection of someone’s competence or ability. Lastly, I want women in exhibition to believe that there are many leaders, men and women, rooting for them to succeed, so don’t be afraid to find someone you admire and ask for advice.

WG: I would tell women entering this business that this is a very exciting and fun industry that’s transforming before our eyes. Women have a needed and valued seat at the table, not just within the C-suite but in all levels and roles across this industry. Half of our customers are women, and it’s important to include leaders who are can represent their needs and ensure that their unique perspectives are heard. I would also tell them not to be afraid to challenge the status quo. The customer is ever-evolving, and we need to stay ahead of their wants. So do something that makes you uncomfortable and you’ll learn something that you’ll be able to bring back to your day-to-day role. I would also remind women to be a lifelong learner, listen and respect your teammates, and deliver on what you say you will do. Most importantly, I would tell anyone entering this business to remember to be passionate and enjoy what you do.

What are the key accomplishments you would still like to make during your time at Cinemark? 

VS: Currently, I am part of a small team heading up a new mentorship program at Cinemark for women. My main goal for this program is for it to, of course, be successful, but also to become very robust by extending itself into not only Cinemark’s domestic sector, but the international sectors as well. Additionally, I would like to continue refining and developing personalization for our consumers by creating a very specific entertainment experience for them each time they come to our theaters. 

WG: I would love to continue building a personalized journey for our customers. From the time you think about what movie to see this weekend to the time you get home, your Cinemark experience should be tailored specifically to your needs and frictionless at every interaction point.

Describe your ideal moviegoing experience.

VS: My ideal moviegoing experience would be going to see a showing with my husband and kids at Cinemark (naturally). We have four boys, and I get a lot of personal joy witnessing their excitement when we arrive at the theater. I love watching them laugh, pick out their favorite snacks, and enjoy themselves. Now, with Luxury Loungers in almost all of our theaters, they bring their blankets with them to add extra comfort. We also try to experience the VOID before the show for some virtual reality fun. For my family, the theater is dedicated time together that lasts well into conversations about the movie when it’s over.

WG: My ideal moviegoing would be with my daughter for a girl’s night out. We would get our popcorn, Twizzlers, and favorite drinks and watch the latest blockbuster from the comfort of our heated Cinemark Luxury Lounger seats. Afterwards, we would talk about our favorite moments all the way home. This is a tradition that brings many fond memories to mind, from watching Disney films with her as a little girl to now watching romantic comedies with her as a teenager.

Can you describe a formative moviegoing experience from your childhood?

VS: I remember seeing Rocky II with my dad at a small theater in Dallas called Casa Linda when I was around six years old. This theater was a traditional-style theater built in 1945, with the red velvet curtains. I remember he took me out to the hallway during some of the boxing scenes, so he must have been up and down a lot. Everyone was standing, cheering, and applauding at the final scene, and since we had been out in the hallway at the time, I recall running back in with my dad cheering and feeding off of the audience. It was one of the most vivid memories I have as a childhood movie experience, and it will live with me forever as a special time with my dad. I also believe that experience is one of the main reasons why I love nothing more than seeing a movie with an audience, where we all have a common reaction to what’s on the screen. 

WG: I grew up on a ranch in South Dakota, and I remember one summer my mom took my brothers, sisters, and me into town to watch the Summer Kids Movie matinees with some friends. Our local theater was a single-screen theater with a balcony. I remember pushing those big red velvet curtains aside and trying to find my friends in the dark. We’d immerse ourselves into another world as we watched the film together. 

Another memory is that my grandfather ran a one-screen theater, the only one for miles in Crofton, Nebraska, in the late ’30s and ’40s. My mother has so many stories of his theater—when she and her sisters working the box office had to wear bright red Chanel lipstick, and during Prohibition, when he put a speakeasy in the basement! He was clearly an early innovator in the food and beverage category.

What can companies like Cinemark do to encourage diversity within the exhibition industry? 

VS: It has to start from within each organization, and especially from the top. I believe Cinemark prioritizes diversity, which is very important to our CEO, Mark Zoradi. We have a Diversity and Inclusion Committee that represents different lifestyles within that umbrella, such as work-life balance and Pride (LBGTQ and allies). I was one of the first members of the D&I program when it first started, and it’s great to witness the continuous actions put in place by the company to date. Our industry curates such diverse products to an even more diverse consumer base, that our business demands diversity of thought in all sectors in order to be successful long term.

WG: All the executive leadership, especially at the top, must live and breathe Cinemark’s core values and encourage all groups to act openly and with equality. Our CEO, Mark Zoradi, is leading this charge within Cinemark. Since his tenure, he has appointed three women to our board of directors, started a Diversity and Inclusion Committee that celebrates many cultures and beliefs, and instituted a women-focused mentorship program to grow and encourage women leaders at different levels within our organization. 

With so many chains now investing in premium amenities—luxury seating, PLF screens, expanded dine-in options and the like—what can Cinemark do from a marketing perspective to set themselves apart? 

VS: I believe a combination of branding, customer service, and experience sets Cinemark apart from the rest. Our loyalty programs, both domestically and internationally, provide rewards for customers and build from a foundation of personalization. By utilizing consumer data from our programs, we can create a targeted experience for loyalty members, with offers based on their specific preferences. By making personalization one of our main priorities, we’re able to connect with our consumers where they are, which truly sets us apart.

WG: Understanding what’s important to our customers and creating programs based on their needs is very important to Cinemark. In the past few years we’ve created loyalty programs such as Movie Club and Movie Fan—all of which live under the Cinemark Movie Rewards umbrella—and other surprising and delightful experiences for our customers throughout their purchase journey. We strive to make every touchpoint frictionless and intuitive, from researching a film and buying a ticket to how our lobbies and theaters make them feel. I view marketing’s job as the “chief customer advocate.” We need to be there guiding the best experience possible across disciplines and interactions. 

What does Cinemark do to promote local films in Latin American markets? How important is the performance of local films to Cinemark’s overall international strategy? 

VS: Cinemark fully supports local films, as they are an important component to our international business. We promote key local films the same way we would any other, with a marketing strategy that targets the right audience for the film. In Latin America this year so far, local product represents 6 percent of the total attendance, with more great films still to come. For example, last year Nada a Perder in Brazil was the second largest film in the region behind Avengers: Infinity War, so we are looking forward to Nada a Perder 2 later this year. 

Ultimately, there is a huge focus to bring innovation and spot-on customer experience to our Latin American markets. By prioritizing personalization, just as we do in the U.S., we’re able to promote local films that our communities would be invested in along with other blockbusters that draw customers into the theaters. 

Cinemark has a reputation as a trend-setting chain, particularly (but not exclusively) when it comes to two things: early investment in a subscription program and energy sustainability. How does that affect the way you and the team do your jobs? 

WG: Cinemark prides itself on putting the customer first. It was really invigorating during my onboarding to hear that message so consistently throughout all levels and roles. When you put the customer first, you do the right thing. You put yourself in their shoes and make changes to give them what they actually want. For instance, our subscription program Cinemark Movie Rewards provides tremendous value to moviegoers. Additionally, we listen to what issues matter most to our customers, which is why we invest so much in sustainability. My team is charged with leading with heart, understanding human trends happening, and creating ideas to deliver and exceed customers’ expectations. 

Wanda, before Cinemark you were at the Neiman Marcus Group. At first glance they seem like wildly different industries. What skills transfer, and what about Cinemark have you found unique? 

WG: I have spent my entire career in omni-channel retail, including the exhibition industry. While traditional retail and movie theaters may sell different products, at the end of the day, whether through online or in-store, we are creating a great experience for our customers. I often joke that at Neiman Marcus we had all the designers like Chanel, Gucci, and Prada, each with their own business needs, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. Now, at Cinemark, we have major studio partnerships with companies like Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal, each with their own product, personalities, and nuances. I won’t disclose how they match up, but you can imagine. 

The biggest difference in the exhibition industry and retail is that movie theaters don’t have to buy inventory. That is the greatest challenge for retail: collecting inventory and managing the markdowns. In the exhibition industry, the movies go away and the candy and popcorn don’t need markdowns. While the products are vastly different between retail and the exhibition industry, the most significant similarity is predicting how each of those products, whether that’s the latest designer line or the next big blockbuster, will appeal to the modern consumer. Additionally, at the end of the day, both retail shopping and moviegoing are forms of entertainment. 

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