A cornerstone of the film industry since its founding in 1936, the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation has been an invaluable industry resource built to address the cinema community’s greatest needs. The foundation is starting a new chapter in its storied history under the direction of Christina Blumer as its new Executive Director, the first woman to serve in the role since Lois Lewis in 1975.
Blumer first joined the foundation in 2009, moving up the ranks and serving as its director of development from 2017 until earlier that year. Since March, Blumer has served as the foundation’s director of operations, where she expanded industry relations and supervised ongoing programs and services for the charity.
As executive director, Blumer will oversee day-to-day activities, provide leadership to staff, ensure tax compliance, advise the board of directors on organizational programming and services, and maintain relationships with the motion picture industry at large. She is taking over the role of her predecessor, Todd Vradenburg, who recently stepped down after a successful tenure at the foundation to become NATO of California & Nevada’s new president and CEO.
Boxoffice Pro spoke to Blumer shortly after her appointment as the foundation’s new executive director, going over her beginnings at the organization and vision for its future.
We all know the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation for its charitable work, but I also have to highlight some of the under-the-radar work you do at industry events. At conventions, no matter how early I make it to the gym or go outside to do a run, I would always find you and Todd already in the midst of leading a group walk or workout.
I always joke that working for a health charity is both a blessing and a curse: itt really helps you stay focused on healthier habits in life. Todd, who first hired me as an intern at Will Rogers, is a former college athlete and football player, so he was very much into health and fitness—and it’s difficult to say no to the big guy. We were often up in the hotel gym, or walking up and down the beach, depending on what part of the country we were in, during conventions. It is part of an initiative to show people, look, you don’t have to do a lot. You don’t have to kill yourself in the gym, you don’t have to go nuts, and you don’t have to feel like you’re going to fall over at the end of the workout. Just get up and take a walk. That is how the Walk with Will concept was born: just get up and take a walk, move your body for half an hour, and take advantage of some of these beautiful places that we get to travel to. We get to go to some really cool places on this travel circuit, and oftentimes with the convention schedule, you find you never leave the hotel. That’s why we encourage people: to get up early and enjoy some of the beautiful places we get to see.
It really helps balance the day when you’re at a convention, and it also helps burn off some of those calories from the complimentary nachos that are often in the goodie bags.
You’re not alone, we all dig into those nachos late at night when we get back to our hotel room! Over the years we found there were people that were just doing these Walk with Will’s on their own. Even if we were at a show where we didn’t actually have one official on the schedule and weren’t doing the traditional Walk with Will in the sort of scheduled sense, we still had people come up to us and ask: “Hey, you guys walking tomorrow?” We’ve found it’s an organic way to get people networking and a nice way to be active every morning. So even if we don’t have one on the schedule at any given convention, I encourage you to find me or a group and walk at any event.
What are the other areas where the Will Rogers Motion pictures Pioneers foundation has been active lately?
The Will Rogers Institute, which is the one we run the Walk with Will inititative, is our pulmonary health program, the health charity side of our organization. It is an ode to the Will Rogers Hospital in Saranac Lake, New York, which is where we started and where our roots are as a tuberculosis sanitarium back in the late 1920s. To this day, we still fund pulmonary research at various educational institutions across the country and promote general health and wellness.
In addition to that, we have our Pioneers Assistance Fund program— which is probably what we’re most well-known for within our industry, particularly over the last couple years—which is our social services program. We provide financial assistance and supportive counseling to members of the motion picture industry, primarily those who work in exhibition, distribution, trade services, and vendors exclusive to the sector. We have two social workers on staff to provide one-on-one, individualized services to members of our industry who have fallen on hard times. We help with issues like health care expenses and medical concerns. Accidents, illnesses, and injury are the main reasons why someone would come to us. We’re there for the industry if someone needs our help after something traumatic happens, whether it be a natural disaster, hurricane, flood, fire, or (most recently) a pandemic.
Another program you recently launched is Film Row, which feels like an extension of Will Rogers in that it helps bring the industry together—particularly younger members of the motion picture community.
With Film Row, I have to give credit to my predecessor, Todd, for coming up with the concept and the vision of this. I helped with the execution and am proud to carry it on, but the idea came from him. It was modeled after YPO, the Young Professional Organization, and it is a training ground for the next generation of leaders to develop their skills and to provide a place where they can learn and grow and network.
Over the last several years, even pre-pandemic, the business has shifted a little bit in welcoming a new generation of young executives. The origins of the Film Row name comes from these film row depots around the country that would exist, where both exhibition and distribution would come together. It’s where the film reels would be delivered and where exhibitors would come and pick up marketing materials for their theaters. As those film rows and regional offices around the country closed, those natural opportunities for training, mentorship, and networking fell by the wayside. This came out of an idea to create a place where the next generation of leaders can network, learn, and grow with one another. Melanie Valera was Film Row’s first president. She was involved heavily with the Motion Picture Club in New York, which provides a similar social space there. She was able to expand on those experiences and provide a place for young leaders to develop.
It’s an invaluable resource for young professionals, especially because the motion picture industry still operates on a first-name basis. You have folks that have worked in the business for years, many of them from multi-generation families involved in either distribution or exhibition—oftentimes both—and it can be intimidating to start your career in that context. Did you have a similar experience when you first joined the industry?
I started as a college intern, so I was very green and didn’t know much about the way the film industry worked from the business side of things. One of the very first things that I noticed is how much people know each other so well and have known each other for so long. It is very much an industry that operates on a first-name basis. It was very overwhelming at first, to be honest because you feel like you’re jumping into this big family. Everyone knows each other. They know each other’s history, both professionally and personally, and how they’ve evolved in the industry. It takes a while to pick up on that and you really need to have someone mentor you through the process.
I was very fortunate to have landed at Will Rogers and have Todd there to guide me. I was able to come up through the ranks, slowly getting handed more and more things to do, up to being in the hot seat today. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so proud of Film Row, particularly their mentorship program.
You’re also on the hot seat for your first Pioneer of the Year dinner as executive director of the foundation. That’s coming up on September 21 in Los Angeles, coinciding with NATO’s Fall Summit, where you’re going to be honoring James Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.
The Pioneer of the Year dinner is something that we as an organization look forward to all year. We know that the industry and people who come to the event also look forward to it. These are very high-profile honorees and we are very honored to have both Barbara and Michael lend their names to this event. The Pioneer of the Year dinner is the major fundraising event for the Pioneers Assistance Fund, so it’s really important to us, not only in making sure everyone attending has a great time, but also to raise money for the Pioneers Assistance Fund. There is always an expectation and a little bit of pressure involved since we always want to put on a great show and knock the fundraising out of the park.
I think people can expect a great show this year, and we’re expecting it to sell out—so get your tickets early if you’re planning on attending. This is also going to be the first black tie Pioneer of the Year dinner in many years—if anyone can pull ut off, it’s Barbara and Michael, when we’re honoring the James Bond franchise. I’m really looking forward to it.
Now that you’re the executive director here at Will Rogers, what are some of the priorities that you’re looking at for 2023 at the organization?
One of our top priorities is to continue serving the people in our industry to the best of our ability. Now that the rush of the pandemic has slowed down, we’re taking the time to reassess and look back at what took place over the last couple of years. The topic of mental health is top of mind, not only in this business but across the board. We’re putting together resources and educational materials for people in this business to focus on their mental health: how to take care of it, and how to recognize if need a little help in that area. We’re spending the time listening to people in exhibition, people in distribution, and asking how we can serve them better.