NATO’s Jackie Brenneman Talks…

By Helen Budge | May 25, 2022 12:25 pm PDT
Jackie Brenneman

Like everyone in the world, Jackie Brenneman has had quite the couple of years. It’s fair to say that the COVID pandemic pushed her and the – talented yet small – National Association Theatre Owners (NATO) team to its limits. After a promotion to Executive Vice President at the end of 2021 and in addition to her role as General Counsel, Brenneman has plenty on her professional plate, as well as being a married mother of two small children. 

Most weeks, in “normal” times, include travel to domestic and overseas events, meetings with NATO members and wider industry colleagues, and dealing with any complex, unexpected legal issues (see: all the financial and other legislation that got passed during the pandemic). 

But now that life is more resemblant of “normality” (whatever that means anymore), we sat down to talk about the whirlwind of the last couple of years, her achievements and her career to date.

Always An Entertainer
Brenneman originally studied musical theatre and anthropology at New York University, showing a clear desire to be in the entertainment industry. But after being saddled with the obligatory college debt, she made the decision to attend law school as a way to pay it off. Assuming it would be a temporary measure, Brenneman moved to Orange County to attend Irvine School of Law at the University of California with every intention of moving back to New York. Her first law job out of law school for a big corporate firm was, however, by her own admission “awful.” But by this point the west coast had stolen her heart so she began to look for non-lawyer jobs – any jobs – in the entertainment industry.

Enter: an advertised legal role with a small, non-profit organisation in the cinema exhibition industry, also known as NATO. Brenneman applied despite some of the requirements being unfamiliar, but – ladies, take note – she wrote a cover letter explaining what she could bring to the role and was called in to the Los Angeles office – a five minute walk from her house. NATO’s CEO and lawyer-by-trade, John Fithian, and former-actor-turned-Chief-Communications-Officer, Patrick Corcoran, interviewed her. She recalled, “It was like sitting across the table from two sides of my personality and background.” Needless to say, Brenneman was given the job and the flexibility to make it her own. 

In 2018 Brenneman stepped up into the General Counsel role, with the understanding and agreement that she wouldn’t “just be a lawyer” – her request – but soon after, a small legal issue came up, known as the termination of the Paramount Consent Decrees, which required rather a lot of focus.

A Jack(ie) of All Trades
In her constantly shifting role to match the ever-evolving needs of the industry, Brenneman is used to change. But when the COVID pandemic hit no one could know just how seismic a change the industry would see. Her role quickly became CinemaSafe, PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), SVOG (Shuttered Venues Operating Grant) and, later, The Cinema Foundation

With her promotion to NATO’s Executive Vice President (EVP) at the end of 2021, she is now essentially second-in-command under Fithian, and is part of the bigger NATO picture, with a hand in strategy, budgeting, government regulation, all while continuing to report to the Executive Board. 

But journeying back to when life flipped upside down during the pandemic, in March 2020 the thought that many of us had was that whatever played out would be a sprint, and surely would be over in a short space of time. But how it all unfolded, particularly for Brenneman and colleague Esther Baruh, was a marathon run consistently at a sprint pace. Initially, the job became 24/7 – multigenerational companies were suddenly plunged into darkness. Brenneman and the NATO team did whatever they could in whatever capacity possible to help their members. So, for Brenneman, this meant becoming an expert in PPP and SVOG, and quickly, reading complex legislation, offering advice to desperate people and often their family businesses, while finding herself on the phone to banks, explaining complicated government loan programmes.

Jackie Brenneman became NATO’s General Counsel in 2018

Some Silver Linings
Although Brenneman would rather not go back to the hellscape of 2020 – a feeling many of us share – a couple of positives floated to the surface. The resulting deep relationships she formed with exhibitors was one, lots of whom she now calls friends. 

And, of course, the deeper relationship Brenneman developed with (now former) colleague, Director of Government Relations, Esther Baruh, is a highlight, “Our skill sets were very complementary and [Baruh] became someone to cry with, be depressed with, but she also spurred me on. She’d come up with these ideas that made me want to do the same. She made me think more positively and be more proactive.”

As a testament to the work they put in during those bleak months, and particularly on the SVOG program, Brenneman and Baruh became recent recipients of the Ken Mason Inter-Society Award. And while it’s always an honour to receive such recognition for your work, the execution of these payments is the achievement she’s also proudest of throughout her career so far, “SVOG [payments] literally saved thousands of businesses and it’s really good to be part of that.”

Madam President
Brenneman’s newest role, of many, is that of President for The Cinema Foundation (TCF), or, as she put it, “The beating heart of research and development (R&D) in the industry.” 

TCF came about as a result of the sheer appreciation felt by the industry for the work the NATO team did throughout COVID. Brenneman explained, “During COVID we reduced our membership fees but our members wanted to give us something back for the work we were doing. It felt wrong to take donations so with the historic level of goodwill among our community and the vast amount of work yet to be done, we channelled it into setting up the foundation.” 

The most recent CinemaCon saw the first official board meeting of TCF, as well as many private meetings and a private event celebrating their founding donors (those who have pledged an amount equivalent to 1% of their SVOG).

The aim of TCF is to always promote NATO’s work and positive messaging, while broadening its reach but with a very different focus. Broken down into five sections, TCF covers the following areas: 

  • Careers, Education & Diversity
  • Moviegoing Promotion & Creative Community Involvement
  • Centre for Innovation & Technology
  • Data & Research
  • Industry Charities
The Cinema Foundation had its first official outing at CinemaCon 2022
The Cinema Foundation had its first official board meeting at CinemaCon 2022

CinemaCon 2021 & 2022
When I ask Brenneman for her favourite memory of being in this industry, she doesn’t hesitate to respond, “CinemaCon 2021. It symbolised the industry coming back together. We believed it could be done safely, and we didn’t care if it made money or if it wasn’t an international show. During our State of the Industry calls we’d have 500-600 attendees and they could see us but we couldn’t see them, so catching up at CinemaCon 2021 was very moving.”

Fast forward to 2022 and the recent April trip to CinemaCon in Las Vegas, when asked to describe the event in three words, Brenneman replied, “Energetic. Optimistic. Normal”. A particular highlight for her was the first official meeting of TCF’s Board, “There is nothing I love more than thinking creatively and optimistically about the future and the whole TCF Board is brilliant and strategic.”

Run the World
For those of you unfamiliar with the Beyoncé song title subheading here, Brenneman is one of those women from whom you just get a sense that you’re in safe hands if she’s running things. As we chatted on the phone, she multitasked her way through several tasks without skipping a beat (apart from to apologise for bringing me on her multitasking journey with her). 

It’s easy to see why she’s so forthright in her ambition to be running a major trade association in this industry within the next 10 years of her career. Despite being a small, blonde Californian in a heavily male industry, she’s tough when she needs to be and she’s happy to be the token woman in a room because then she knows that she’s the most qualified to be there and her perspective is the one that’s missing (her words).

And her message to the industry? “Cinemas matter – we’re more human in the cinema than in a lot of places. But we have to show why they matter, this industry has never been stagnant. If you look at movie theatres 50 years ago they’re not the same as today. It’s time to reinvent ourselves.”

Helen Budge