It’s been a year since Nickelodeon Board of Directors announced that Sumner Bender was coming aboard as executive director. She joined the team as it was facing a trio of big challenges:
- It still was far from fully open after more than two years of pandemic.
- Many doubted the future of the whole industry in a world in which people could stay at home and stream practically any film they wanted on large HD screens.
- It had experienced two years of internal staff conflict which had shaken the confidence of some in the community.
All three were daunting, but she, the staff she’s been building and the board have made a lot of progress. And they’ve succeeded in ways that set The Nick apart.
As The Post and Courier recently noted, The Nick is the only movie theater left on Main Street or anywhere in the downtown area. Not the only arthouse theater, but the only place any closer than Dutch Square where the general public can buy a ticket to see a film on the big screen.
There are a number of reasons for that. One is that The Nick is blessed with a loyal membership base. “When no one is coming to see movies, people are still paying for their memberships, because the membership base isn’t just supportive of The Nickelodeon,” Sumner told The Post and Courier. “They understand that The Nickelodeon is vital to the success of Columbia and Main Street.”
She says The Nick is one important reason Columbia has been so successful in drawing young adults to live and recreate downtown. To do that, she says, “You have to have a thriving arts scene.”
But the success of The Nick isn’t just about having a farsighted membership, as important as that is. It’s also about hard work by staff and board to include the whole community.
Over the past year, the board revised the personnel policies to place diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as core values, and Sumner has rebuilt the staff with those values front and center, in theory and practice.
It starts with the hiring process. Sumner has started by marketing openings in a way that would attract as diverse a pool of candidates as possible. This has led to as many as a hundred candidates at a time, and a rigorous internal screening process to ensure an inclusive result.
Each new staffer has participated in DEI training. “This is not performative,” says Sumner. “It’s something that needs to be done,” and it has been.
They come into an environment that is “worker-driven,” so that each staffer “knows we support them as people.”
Sumner came aboard last year with The Nick board already committed to “reset and renewal,” having set out in a “Living Statement of Values” that among other challenging ideals commits to “build and sustain a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and excellence that is reflected in the stories and themes we feature in our programming as well as in our policies, culture, and behaviors.”
Sumner sees her job as taking those values beyond the written word. “Everyone who works here had to have a conversation with me,” she says. She makes sure they know “that our culture is inclusive.” They “hear me talking about it,” and they see it in action.
Committing to serve the whole community, of course, involves more than in-house words and actions. It’s a much bigger challenge, and The Nick is rising to meet it. “We’re finally in sort of a stable situation, so we can look at what’s next,” says Sumner. “We can’t be everything to everybody, but we can talk to everybody.”
A lot of things are in the works:
- The Nick plans to have a Kids’ Series this summer, and show what the kids want to see. To accomplish that, a panel of young viewers will be assembled to offer its advice.
- To celebrate Juneteenth this year, The Nick will show the documentary “After Sherman,” in which the filmmaker, Jon-Sesrie Goff, follows his father, a minister, in the aftermath of a mass shooting at his church in Charleston. The film, in partnership with Dr. Bobby Donaldson and Project63, will be followed by a panel discussion.
- The theater recently started putting out some of its promotional material in Spanish, which has been well-received. Next step, more Spanish-language films.
- The Sierra Club is helping to sponsor a showing of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Oppenheimer,” in which Cillian Murphy portrays the “father of the atomic bomb.”
- The Nick recently hosted an affordable housing panel discussion that was well attended and well-received by the community.
- The recent showing of “Common as Red Hair,” a short film about just how frequently children are born with intersex characteristics.
- The Nick is increasingly working with folks at Benedict College on everything from getting out the word about staff openings to establishing summer arts courses.
- Physical accessibility is a goal much on the minds of the staff. Some shows now include subtitles for the hearing impaired, and the whole physical plant is being studied to find ways to help folks with other disabilities feel at home. It’s about doing more than meeting regulations; it’s about being proactive.
Serving everyone means working to address diversity and inclusion in a political sense, making sure no one is left out because of race, ethnicity, gender or ideology. But it’s broader than that. It means reaching out to offer something to suit all cinematic tastes in a changed era.
A generation ago, an arthouse theater had a relatively simple mission – to offer films that you couldn’t find at the multiplex. Less slam, bang, boom, and more thought and introspection.
But now, everyone has access via the Web to any and all kinds of film content, however specialized or esoteric, without leaving home. A big-screen theater retains advantages, such as the shared experience you can’t get at home. But to maintain viability, a theater has to broaden its appeal, while still providing what its traditional base is looking for.
When she came on board last year, Sumner “You have to respect the base that has gotten you to where you are, but make sure others feel represented and welcome.”
She and The Nick team have done that in the past year, and will do it even more in the future. Just watch.