In the era of “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” it’s clear that Hollywood has finally begun to prioritize making entertaining, big-budget films that acknowledge the cultural diversity of U.S. moviegoers. A 2017 CAA study found that across every budget level, films with diverse casts outperformed films with less diversity, and nonwhite moviegoers now account for half of all tickets sold in the U.S.

How can exhibitors build on these developments to continue cultivating diverse audiences? A panel at April’s CinemaCon, the annual exhibition industry trade show, will tackle the question directly.

For Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners (NATO), theaters can continue this progress by working to diversify their staff, especially on the management level.

“Having a workforce that looks like the customers we serve is important. We need to make sure there’s a clear path for people who are really dedicated to this industry, and you need to groom those people.”

Corcoran says that NATO recently developed a diversity and inclusion committee that is focused on issues of employment, management and data representation. “We are member-driven, and this is what our members want us to be doing.”

The committee chair is Moctesuma Esparza, the veteran Hollywood film producer (“Selena,” “Gettysburg”) who in 2000 launched Maya Cinemas, which brings first-run movie theaters to underserved communities, mostly in California, with locations in Salinas, Bakersfield and Fresno.

“It’s to the industry’s credit,” Esparza says of NATO’s initiative, “because they recruited me. I did not seek out being a member of this committee. The industry is committed to finding ways to be more inclusive, for the benefit of the communities they serve as well as our industry.”

Maya Cinemas’ business model focuses primarily on working-class Latino communities, bringing screens to places where moviegoers would otherwise have to drive a significant distance to access new movies. The geographic spread also opens up a diverse talent pool.

“We have a very broad, well-represented executive team,” Esparza says, “and certainly our theater employees, including management, are extremely diverse. We hire locally and we promote locally.”

Esparza’s theaters screen mostly mainstream releases, but he says that each multiplex has at least one screen focused on specialty or local programming. “We have to do it that way in order to support the development of an audience for the specialized fare. Part of what’s happened is with the absence of movie theaters in working-class communities over the last 40 years, that tradition of consuming movies every week, and having a broad taste, has been impacted, even though Latinos are the highest-propensity moviegoers in the U.S.”

Citing the MPAA, Esparza notes that Latinos represent a quarter of total box office sales, though they’re only 18% of the national population. “So there is a strong economic incentive to speak to that community. I think the industry has taken note.”

If the Maya Cinemas model cultivates diverse audiences by bringing the multiplex to where it’s needed, Nagra’s myCinema, a Content as a Service (CaaS) platform that launched at last year’s CinemaCon, brings diverse content to the multiplex.
MyCinema offers a one-stop shop for alternative content, enabling theaters to easily stream movies and live events from its catalog of titles, which can be packaged as special screenings and marketed to local interest groups. The idea is to give theater owners easy access to content that appeals to a diverse array of audiences.

According to Glenn Morten, myCinema VP, strategy and solutions, it’s not just theater owners who see the appeal of the service. “As we’ve grown our footprint, we’re finding it a lot easier to get content — people are bringing the content to us because we give them access to theaters that they’ve had difficulty accessing as independent filmmakers.”
MyCinema has partnered with USC’s Entertainment Technology Center for a study in Fandom Genomics, a data-driven attempt to match the right content with the right communities.

“We are mapping the various fandoms that exist within a reasonable travel distance to all of the cinemas in the United States,” Morten explains. “That includes ethnicity, religion and affinities. And we create this big data pool, and use that whenever we have a title. We run it through the database and that comes up with things such as, yeah, this is really going to play well in McCook, Neb., for some reason. And in particular, there’s three theaters in McCook and it’s this one that is going to have the market, not the one a mile down the street.

“As the model really gets built out, we can do things like say not just ‘you should run this film,’ but ‘you should run this film on a Tuesday afternoon at 4:30, and you should price it in this range because that’s the optimal price that you’re going to get for that particular film in your community.’”

He says that promoting cultural diversity was a founding principle of myCinema. “Cinelatino was a starting point for us. That was an area where we had a great strength, because we have a tremendous presence in Latin America as a company, and we were able to quickly get some quality films that haven’t had an opportunity to play in U.S. theaters.”
But he says the most recent myCinema success story is “Legend of the Demon Cat,” a big-budget historical fantasy from Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige. “We’ve done pretty well with that compared to the normal expectation for a foreign-language film. Ten theaters seems to be a decent showing for the bulk of foreign-language films. But we’re in about 70, and we continue to get bookings every day.”

As the world’s largest exhibition chain, AMC has decided to bring their strategic efforts to cultivate diverse audiences in-house. Nikkole Denson-Randolph, who has worked at AMC for a decade, recently became the VP of content strategy & inclusive programming.

In her previous role working with special and alternative content, she says the question was “how do we leverage our screens to diversify the content to reflect the communities that we’re in?” She says her current role is about “really strategizing and making even more aggressive efforts to be reflective of [diverse] communities. And not just from the top down, but from the bottom up, in terms of engaging with managers, so that we can learn from them what they’re seeing in their markets. Theaters essentially take on the sensibility of the community that they’re in.”

Corcoran says that NATO agrees with this approach. “There are things you wouldn’t necessarily think of unless you are part of that community and involved in knowing what the audience wants. So when you have that extra intelligence, you serve them better. In a lot of places, movie theaters are the only real community gathering places, and people can get very possessive of their local movie theater. You can certainly leverage that to make them happier, by getting to know them better.”

Along with every “Captain Marvel,” AMC regularly screens East Asian films in California’s San Gabriel Valley, and Hindi-language movies in cities including Santa Clara.

“The large tentpole films are not mine,” Denson-Randoph says. “They will take care of themselves. I am ‘everything but.’ I have a lot more fun. I’m essentially advising our buyers on which films [to get]. At any given time I’m negotiating with upwards of 50 different distributors in this space. Twenty of them are Indian cinema providers.”
Denson-Randolph says that getting to know local audiences helps AMC think strategically, and encourage people to show up for a theatrical experience. “We’re not programming these films everywhere. We’re smart enough to program them where we know these communities are.”

To see this year’s CinemaCon honorees, including Olivia Wilde and Charlize Theron, click here.