UNIC Initiative: Laura Houlgatte and Edna Epelbaum look to empower women in exhibition

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“While women make up more than half of the cinema audience, they are still very much underrepresented in senior management roles.”

Laura Houlgatte Abbott and Edna Epelbaum, in their respective roles as chief executive officer and VP of Europe’s International Union of Cinemas (UNIC), certainly qualify as exhibition leaders and senior-level executives, but they know much work remains to be done.

“The need to address this issue is rooted in business rationale as much as it is in equity,” Houlgatte continues. “We believe our industry misses opportunities due to a lack of women’s involvement in decision-making processes at the highest level. For that we need more female role models and support mechanisms to encourage and empower emerging female professionals in cinema exhibition.”

Initiated during CineEurope 2016, one such mechanism is designed to “address this head-on,” says Epelbaum. “Our UNIC Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme provides opportunities for ‘up-and-coming’ female professionals to learn from the best in the industry.”

Epelbaum describes the program’s inception under the heading of “Equity and Growth: Towards Gender Balance in Cinema”: “UNIC first organized an internal meeting that brought together senior executives from leading cinema companies, heads of national associations and representatives from the European Commission to exchange views on the challenges the industry faces in achieving a more equitable balance between male and female leaders. One of the key issues discussed at the meeting was the need for greater support for women making their way in the sector, both through mentoring and the identification of key role models. Following the meeting, UNIC decided to take things a step further, and this is how the Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme was born.”

Two years later, the ability to introduce the second round of mentors and mentees, once again in Barcelona, is a strong indication of everyone’s commitment to the job at hand. “At UNIC we are very much dedicated to reinforcing the commitment of cinema exhibitors towards promoting more gender-balanced leadership within the industry.” Houlgatte also calls upon her personal experience to provide an example. “As a female professional working in cinema exhibition myself, this is an issue I feel very strongly about. I was lucky to have great mentors in my life who have helped me—and continue to do so—in my career and you should never underestimate the value of role models and guidance.”

She was equally fortunate, Houlgatte says, in joining our industry in the first place. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of film and cinema lovers and to have teachers who took their classes to see films in the screening room a lot. I fell in love with the big-screen experience very early on and this love has never left me. I am very lucky to be able to combine my professional background—lobbying—and one of my passions—cinema. It is the best of two worlds, really.”

Having grown up in the world of exhibition, Epelbaum didn’t have that much of a choice when developing her passion. She “has cinema in her blood,” as Celluloid Junkie put it in their recent salute to “The Top Women in Global Cinema,” calling this “a prerequisite for juggling as many responsibilities in this field as she does.” In addition to her role on the UNIC board, Epelbaum is the president of the Swiss Cinema Operators Association and third-generation owner-operator of her family’s exhibition business across five cities (Cinevital, Cinepel, Cinemont, Quinnie). “We need to work for the next generation in our cinemas,” she emphasizes. “Diversity at the management level is one way to represent our audience. The Women's Mentoring Programme is a first important step to go in this direction. Now studios would need to follow to provide the right content to attract the diverse audience of tomorrow.”

Houlgatte agrees on the “need to come together as an industry to promote a culture of change that values growth and equal opportunities.” The UNIC mentoring scheme is all about “prompting our industry to be more engaged and aware of the business value of having more women in leadership roles. Furthermore, together with our mentees and mentors we co-create a community of support and action within the industry, with these outstanding young women involved today as mentees becoming mentors in the future. Our key long-term objective is to broaden and deepen the talent pool for leadership in our industry and to transform the exhibition sector into a healthy environment where everyone can realize their full potential.”

What did organizers learn during the first round of mentorship? Epelbaum reminds us that the program was a pilot. “It has certainly evolved and was adjusted throughout the year,” she reflects. “We had frequent calls with our mentors and mentees to discuss what UNIC can do to facilitate the program. For instance, we created a Facebook group to facilitate interaction among participants and also elaborated a library with topics and articles they could use as an inspiration for their sessions.” During workshops in Brussels, “when the whole group got together to share their experiences and learn from each other,” much appreciated opportunities for networking were created. “We also involved inspirational speakers outside the industry to share their thoughts and expertise. Our participants pointed out how liberating it was to acknowledge that all women, no matter their career level or industry they are working in, shared and still share many of the same struggles. We will continue these exercises, as we believe they are truly empowering.”

In addition, all participants liked the flexibility of the program, Houlgatte has observed during the first year. “We want to give them enough room to tailor the program to their own needs and profiles. We are also aware that people’s days only last 24 hours and we wanted to make sure that it did not become a burden.” Going forward in the 2018-19 edition, this flexibility will be maintained, Houlgatte assures. “On our side, we provide guidance and assistance and recommend some activities they can undertake during the year, but we leave it up to each mentoring pair to decide how to approach the scheme and what works best for them and their mentor/mentee relationship.”

At press time, information on the second group of participants was not ready for sharing. Epelbaum did confirm repeat performances, however. “The second edition will be very much in line with what we had as part of the pilot and will include workshops, one-to-one career advice and networking opportunities for six up-and-coming female professionals from cinema exhibition and their respective mentors for the duration of one year. Similar to the pilot, we will maintain the cross-company, cross-sector and international dimensions of the scheme. We also secured outstanding women leaders from across the industry as mentors in the program and equally inspiring mentees. We just do not want to give it all away now.”

What the UNIC women will give away, however, is the launch date for the second mentorship round on Wednesday, June 13, as well as an award during the closing night of CineEurope. “In addition to the mentoring scheme,” Epelbaum confirms, “this year, together with our partners from Film Expo Group, we are introducing for the first time the ‘CineEurope Gold Award’ to give recognition to those individuals who—while sometimes in a role which would not ordinarily command the spotlight—have made outstanding contributions to both the ongoing success of their company or organization but also to the wider European cinema industry. Value your talent—that is what we want to communicate.”

“This will also mark the closing session of the pilot program,” Houlgatte notes. She foresees conducting a final evaluation to see whether mentees are closer towards their set objectives. “We will also hold a private reception for current and new participants on Sunday before the convention starts, in line with our commitment to create a vibrant community of female professionals across the industry.”

Closing one door and opening another is also an opportune time to reflect. How does Laura Houlgatte measure success? “At the beginning of the mentoring process, each pair identified some individual goals for their 12-month journey,” she responds. “Some of them focused on building self-confidence or gaining more of a voice and visibility in their companies; others focused on tackling some individual professional challenges they were experiencing. On our side, we are in constant touch with our mentees and mentors to get their feedback on how their relationship evolves.”

A mid-term survey UNIC conducted showed that the entire process “has been a very rewarding experience for our participants. Some mentees pointed out that the support they received during these months has accelerated their professional growth and that they feel more inspired and confident to take action. This is already an important success for UNIC.” And the best sign of success, Houlgatte declares, “would be to have our mentees of today become our mentors of tomorrow!”

The industry is on its way, Laura Houlgatte and Edna Epelbaum concur. “We believe that our industry is getting more committed in achieving more gender-balanced leadership, but there is still so much yet to be done.” Houlgatte adds, “This is not only about having more women in leading roles but also more diversity in general—be it gender, age or social background. We need to become more inclusive as an industry if we want to attract and retain talent—and be even more successful! Promoting more diverse leadership is high on UNIC’s agenda. Join us for the journey!”