Laura Houlgatte Abbott is CEO of the Brussels-based International Union of Cinemas (UNIC), which looks after the interests of cinemas throughout Europe, and lobbies the European Union on their behalf. It also co-organises with Film Expo Group the annual trade convention CineEurope in Barcelona.
France-born Houlgatte Abbott joined UNIC in 2015 as EU affairs executive, taking over as CEO in August 2017. She was previously policy adviser for the Federation of European Publishers.
What is your office like?
It’s on the 10th floor with huge windows, great views, a lot of light and right in the centre. That’s the great thing about Brussels — it’s a European capital but it’s still affordable to have an office in the centre.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive each day?
I’ve read all my emails on the train, so I’m able to start with coffee and take time to read industry and world news.
What was your first job in the film industry?
It was at UNIC: I started as a policy adviser in 2015. I was coming from the book publishing industry.
Who helped you most when you were first starting out?
I was lucky to have a great boss when I started, Jan Runge, my predecessor at UNIC. Also Phil Clapp from the UK Cinema Association. And then my members, which are both national cinema bodies and cinema operators. They knew I was a policy geek, I have a law background. They said, “Leave that aside, we’re going to teach you what this industry is.”
What was your favourite film growing up?
Disney’s Robin Hood — I was in love with the fox. Also, my dad was a big Charlie Chaplin fan and The Great Dictator remains one of my favourite films.
What do you like best about your job?
The diversity. At UNIC, we work on issues that are both industry and policy. I can be working on a copyright directive in the morning, and then early afternoon talking about retail, and then two hours later looking at the box-office data coming from a territory.
What’s the most impressive answer you’ve ever had in a job interview?
We were recruiting for a traineeship and the applicant gave a complete thesis for 15 minutes on why The Lion King was one of the best films ever made in the history of cinema.
What is the biggest challenge facing the business today?
Wondering what our world is going to be like post-Covid and understanding what the landscape is going to look like. I believe that cinemas are not only going to remain but they will go back to where they were pre-Covid. The question is: how long is it going to take to go back to where we were, and possibly go beyond that?
What job would you do if you didn’t work in the film industry?
During Covid I discovered gardening. We have this amazing communal garden where I live, where you give some of your time and then you share the harvest between you. Now I fancy myself thinking that’s something I could do.
What book are you currently reading?
JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. I’m also trying to make an effort to read in French as I read 90% of the time in English. French is my first language, and I realised how much vocabulary you lose if you stop reading in your mother tongue.
Where do you go to unwind?
I visit my parents. They live about 100 kilometres west of Lyon in a very small village in the middle of nowhere.
With whom would you most like to take a meeting?
Kristin Scott Thomas. She’s an amazing actress and just very witty.
What’s the biggest professional mistake you’ve learned from?
Trying to do everything. You need to prioritise — not just for your own mental health, but for the good of the company and the good of your team.
What are you working on now?
I’m presenting a European perspective at CinemaCon and I will also be with French colleagues to talk about the new French media chronology. Cannes, where we are going to work with other organisations and see if we can co-organise a conference to talk about the future of the European film industry. CineEurope, that’s the big one. And then there’s all the policy work we do here in Brussels on geoblocking, piracy and so on. We have also been working with the European Parliament to launch a campaign called My Favourite Cinema, where we asked its members to tell us about their favourite venue and their first memory at the cinema.
Who would play you in the biopic of your life and who would direct?
Could I be played by Jean Seberg in a film directed by Stephen Frears?
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