Started as a gig as an outside consultant at the National Association of Theater Owners for John Fithian. For 22 of those years, he served as President and CEO of the Lobbying and Trade Association.
NATO announced earlier this week that Fithion will be retired (yes, retired) on May 1, 2023. CinemaCon is the annual gathering of Hollywood studios, movie executives, filmmakers and stars on the Las Vegas Strip. .
Fithian deftly steered NATO and its members through one of the most challenging eras in history for performers – the COVID-19 crisis, which prompted unprecedented theater closures and a box office slump. And even before the pandemic, the lobbyist (and humorist) wasn’t afraid to go to war when necessary, including the ratings system or theatrical windows. Recent moves under Fithian’s leadership included NATO’s new nonprofit affiliate, the Cinema Foundation, hosting its first National Cinema Day, during which movie ticket prices dropped to $3 at thousands of theaters across the country.
A search is already underway for Fithian’s replacement. He intends to work with his successor for some time before officially handing over the mantle of leadership during CinemaCon in late April. The longtime NATO chief touched on a number of topics while speaking The Hollywood Reporter On October 13, the reasons behind his departure and a new era of peace between streamers and cinema chains.
Why the decision to retire?
I always knew I didn’t want to work full time past 60, which is how old I am. There are also personal reasons. My wife is Greek, and spends a lot of time in Greece. I came to represent theater owners in 1992 because I liked what they did. I was a First Amendment advocate who believed in the power of cinema. I love this industry and want to be involved through consulting and board work.
Do you believe the box office will fully recover by the time you leave?
The box office is back, but we don’t have enough movies. By the end of 2023, I think we’ll be at a similar level of supply between studios and streamers. Several films were pulled from production during the pandemic, or films that were in production were massively delayed by post-production challenges, which remain a problem.
Before COVID, none of the major chains would play a Netflix film or a studio film that tried to shorten the 74-90 day theatrical window. The epidemic reduced the windows dramatically. And now, for the first time, the country’s three biggest chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — carry them all Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which will play for a week over Thanksgiving in a total of 600 theaters. Your thoughts?
The industry is doing what it has always done – debate. In pre-colonial times, there was an adversarial back-and-forth, sometimes privately and sometimes publicly, in what was considered the “War of the Windows.” The right way to do business is to sit around the conference table and decide what works for everyone. Not all models are one size fits all.
What is your biggest worry about the future of theatre?
NATO’s biggest priority is to continue to dramatically increase the release of films from legacy studios or new players. Streamers will be a major potential supplier of movies in the next few years. We NATO and individual members have been in discussions with any streaming company that has films for several years. Apple got a good taste of what the box office can do for a movie, for example CODAIt won an Oscar.
Should you trust Netflix and report box office earnings? Glass onion?
I think it would be helpful for anyone releasing films theatrically to be transparent because it shows that the economic model works. A film that is released theatrically first with some sort of window establishes a brand. It will consequently be large in service. You get two bites of the apple. Not all streaming movies should be released in theaters, but good ones should be.
I think it would be helpful for anyone releasing movies in theaters to be transparent because it shows that the model works. A film that is released theatrically first with some sort of exclusive window establishes a brand. It will consequently be large in service. You get two bites of the apple. Not all streaming movies should be released in theaters, but good ones should be.
What was your first crisis in NATO?
The first big crisis actually happened at the end of my work as an outside consultant and probably had something to do with my work as president. After several mass shootings — including Columbine — Congress began looking at proposals to enact a voluntary movie rating system. We added protocols to implement a rating system in terms of theater operations and lobbied Congress not to go down the legislative path. [the ratings board is the purview of the Motion Picture Association and NATO]. There were also proposals to tax violent content.
I took three or four key cinema operators to the White House to explain the new protocols on the show side. We met with President Clinton, and we walked on the lawn in front of reporters and announced the deal. And that ended the legislative threat.
What is the greatest achievement of your tenure?
We’re very proud that the pandemic didn’t kill the show. Theaters were closed by government orders. They weren’t making money. Tens of theater workers were unemployed. NATO successfully lobbied for ways to help. We have helped the unemployed workers. We have secured tax benefits at the federal and state levels for our companies. We have received grant money. Finally, we are very proud that we lost 1,000 screens out of 42,000 screens in the US.
Hollywood rallied for us. The silver lining of the pandemic is that film directors and studio executives who care about the survival and revival of the movie business have helped us. I was making lobbying calls with governors and health officials with top executives of the studios, talking about how important it was to reopen. But the pandemic’s biggest success has been coming together around safety protocols. We called it CinemaSafe and worked with epidemiologists to design those protocols.
Are you confident that Cineworld-owned Regal Cinemas will emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in solid shape?
I do not comment on individual companies.
Your father, Floyd James Fithian, was a Congressman. What was the wisest advice he gave you when you got the job?
Hire people smarter than you.
How do you deal with larger-than-life personalities like AMC’s Adam Aaron or Cineworld’s Mookie Gredinger??
I will not comment on personality either.
What’s the worst thing a Hollywood studio head has said to you?
I don’t remember any bad things said by a studio head. (laughs.)