Living Their Brand: Exhibitors forge bonds with their communities by giving back

Cinemas Features

Back in my growing-up years in Rochester, New York, the Liberty Theatre was just down the street. It opened in 1927 and was demolished in 1959. Although always a “third-run house,” it saw itself as a small neighborhood theatre that tried to be a good neighbor.

Beginning in 1929, the theatre began offering free use of its space to local schools and other community groups. At Wednesday evening performances during the winter of Depression year 1931, one lucky ticket holder won a ton of coal. During the ’40s, The Liberty offered reduced admissions for those who purchased war stamps. In the ’50s, to lure kids from television, the theatre gave away roller skates.

Times have changed. There are now national philanthropic organizations to work with, local and regional causes to support. But theatres are still stepping forward to bring fresh ideas that help their communities. Below, several members of the exhibition business discuss how giving back enables them to “live their brand.”

Lynne McQuaker (Senior Director, Public Relations and Outreach, Studio Movie Grill): Studio Movie Grill’s mission is to open hearts and minds, one story at a time; we look for outreach opportunities that are consistent with that purpose.

Sarah Van Lange (Director of Communications, Cineplex, Inc.): A lot of our business is about empowering youth. We provide the first job for countless Canadian youths and WEis a charity that’s fully aligned with that; they’re dedicated to inspiring and empowering young people to make positive change both here in Canada and internationally. As our national charity partner, WE fits perfectly with who we are and what we do.

Melissa Boudreau (Chief Marketing Officer, Emagine Entertainment Inc.): We stand for innovation; we want our guests to be immersed in an amazing experience. In some ways, that’s what’s also behind our charitable partnerships—especially those involved with our grand openings. Working with charities, we try to make theatrical premieres into unique immersive experiences, special and different, innovative in their own way.

Mark Mazrimas (Marketing Manager, Classic Cinemas): We brand ourselves as “Your Hometown Theatre” and because many of our theatres are historic and have been in the community for a long time, a lot of people think of our theatre as their theatre. That leads us into doing community events, working with local organizations, doing fundraisers, school shows. We believe these are things we should do.

Annelise Holyoak (USA Marketing Manager, Cinépolis): Our mission is to contribute to our communities and to provide entertainment to disadvantaged youth and others in the neighborhoods we serve. Children are our special focus—and we’re also using the power of what we offer and who we are to promote visual health in children through the cinema.

Van Lange: Cineplex operates 163 theatres across Canada, and for the past seven years we’ve hosted a Saturday morning of free movies for Canadians to enjoy in all of them. We call it “Cineplex Community Day” and in addition to providing a free movie, we work with our concession partners to have discounted concession items like popcorn, pop and select candy. All proceeds from the day go to WE, our national charity partner, and since we began working with them, we’ve raised $3.5 million to support the cause. In support of this effort, over 175,000 students and others—including Cineplex employees—have contributed over four million volunteer hours.

Holyoak: “Let’s All Go To The Movies” initially started out in 1998 with our parent company, Cinépolis, in Mexico; we brought it to the U.S. in 2015. It’s our initiative to bring groups of children—including disadvantaged and underprivileged kids who couldn’t afford the experience—to the theatre and to give them a fun and enjoyable day at the movies. We have mariachis, we have clowns entertaining them—so it’s a whole mini-adventure with a movie at the heart of it. Our parent company offers this program in 13 countries; to date, Cinépolis has hosted 4.5 million children worldwide. In 2015, we had about 600 U.S. children involved; in 2017, we brought in 2,000 children. Our program is still in its infancy here in the U.S., so there’s room to grow. In the U.S., we’ve partnered with the Mexican Consulate; they’re a great supporter, but we’re also finding additional resources and establishing smaller partnerships that make these events special. Our plan is to be able to hold one of these events each year at all of our locations.

McQuaker: Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman inspired us to find and celebrate “Real Life Women Superheroes” who are making a difference in our theatre communities. We spread our net wide and found some wonderful women doing some amazing things. On our website we shared their stories; it was a true challenge to try to pick one special woman from each community. Finally selecting 12 very special women, we flew them to Dallas to honor them and celebrate the opening of Wonder Woman. We held an opening-night premiere; they walked the red carpet, we introduced them and created a special tribute video; we presented them with our “Opening Hearts and Minds Award” and made a donation to their charity of choice to support their work. It was a wonderful evening, a great way to bring our teams together and show how we try to live our mission and leave a positive wake at Studio Movie Grill. We’re continuing the relationships we’ve built with these women, because how wonderful that we now have a female superhero in all our cities for every one of our teams to celebrate!

Mazrimas: For the past ten years, we’ve donated our Tivoli theatre for a live musical review for a group called SEASPAR—an organization that provides activities for handicapped and challenged youths in 12 surrounding communities. In Oak Park, we’ve worked with the Women’s Guild since their inception; they provide funds for people with ongoing life-threatening and financial challenges, and with our support they’ve raised $55,000. Elk Grove was celebrating their 60th anniversary and to support that, we ran a free movie a month for six months. On the first weekend in February, in Woodstock, Illinois, for more than 20 years we’ve been donating our movie theatre to show Groundhog Day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday free at 10 a.m. as part of the community’s events. This year is the 25th anniversary of its release and it was filmed there in Woodstock; we’ll probably have 500 or 600 people a day show up. We seem to work with countless organizations; some events are challenging, but they’re all important to the organizations doing good work for a cause.

Boudreau: Every time we open a new location in a new community, we do a grand-opening party in partnership with a local charity. They sell the tickets for a semi-formal event—that includes a movie and a really nice meal; we host a beautiful event—and 100 percent of those proceeds go to their charity. It’s such a great way to meet people—and for people in that community to know that we support causes that are important to them. Over the holiday season, we also partnered with a radio station in metro Detroit where we’re based. We donated $25,000 and they picked families who aren’t able to afford gifts for the holiday season. During the morning radio show, they went “live” to knock on a family’s door and surprise the family with food and gifts. One particular family—where I participated—had a little girl who was three years old and had just been diagnosed with leukemia. Because of the expense of her medical treatments, her family wasn’t able to afford Christmas. So, we knocked on their door—and because of what Emagine donated we were able to provide gifts for all their children. Everyone was crying; it was an unforgettable experience.

McQuaker: We’ve long admired Big Thought; they do an enormous amount of good with young people by igniting their imaginations and engaging the whole child through accessible educational programs. For the movie Wonder, we worked with them and other groups to show the movie to over 13,000 students on 113 screens to create an impactful learning experience focused on the themes of the movie, like acceptance, belonging, empathy and kindness.Mazrimas: Wonder was a wonder. As of early February, we’d done 91 school shows, often with someone from the community introducing the movie or hosting a discussion afterwards. We had one class that came to see Wonder and now they’re studying the Vietnam War and they want to come back to see The Post and have a reporter here to talk about the movie.

McQuaker: Our next project with Big Thought will be A Wrinkle in Time. Movies have the power to change lives and to ignite the imagination. 

Boudreau: We do so many things with so many organizations. At all of our locations starting on February 1, we’ve been selling pins to raise money for the American Heart Association—and to raise awareness of heart disease and stroke. As part of that, last year we trained all of our theatre managers to perform CPR as well.

Holyoak: For 2018, we’ve partnered with the Vision Of Children Foundation. It’s a national organization dedicated to curing hereditary blindness in children and bringing awareness to vision disorders in children. We’re currently running a PSA for the Foundation on our screens; it’s an emotional piece that helps people think of children who cannot see the screen—and enjoy the movies. It mentions that if guests are able to do so, donating is a great way to support cures for visual disorders.

McQuaker: For Patriots Day last year, we provided tickets to first responders. Again this year, we’re collecting prom dresses and donating them to young ladies who perhaps otherwise might not go to their prom because they don’t have a dress. And we’re supporting the efforts of Chance the Rapper in Chicago by donating a portion of ticket sales to Social Works during Black History Month and hosting their Black History Month Film Festival.

Van Lange: WE is our national charity partner, but we also have local activations in particular communities. For example, last year we workedin partnership with the IWK Health Centre and the IWK Foundation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to build the O.E. Smith Auditorium. This special auditorium is a movie theatre in the hospital itself and it’s a place where patients and families can enjoy movies and hopefully a much-needed break from their health challenges.

Boudreau: We want to make each community we’re in a better place—not only by bringing a theatre, but also by doing our part to support the community’s efforts to make it a better place to live, to work and to raise a family. We live in the communities where we have our theatres, so when we make them better, we’re improving life for us all.

Mazrimas: When we receive a request to help out, to work with a school or other organization, to support a cause in some special way, our philosophy is to try never to say “no”—because that’s too simple. We try to listen, to figure out a way.

Holyoak:  Our goal in giving back is to share the magic of cinema entertainment with people who wouldn’t normally have the access or the opportunity to do that.

Van Lange: Giving back is very ingrained in what we do—from a management perspective, from an employee-engagement perspective and from a charitable giving perspective.

McQuaker: We’re very fortunate, because what could be better than having movies and meals to work with? What’s better than offering a gathering place for our neighbors? We have a gift and we want to use it for outreach with a sense of purpose, so that we can leave a positive wake.