What started as outside counsel turned into a three-decade run with the National Association of Theater Owners for John Fithian. For 22 of those years, he was president and CEO of the lobbying and trade association.
NATO announced earlier this week that Fithian will retire (yes, retire) on May 1, 2023. Its latest hurrah, so to speak, is CinemaCon, the annual gathering of Hollywood studios, cinema operators, filmmakers and stars on the Las Vegas strip.
Fithian deftly guided NATO and its members through the most challenging era in history for exhibitors – the COVID-19 crisis, which led to unprecedented theater closures and box office collapse. And even before the pandemic, the lobbyist (and witty orator) wasn’t afraid to go into battle when necessary, including over the rating system or theatrical windows. Recent moves under Fithian’s leadership have included NATO’s new non-profit organization, the Cinema Foundation, which hosted the first-ever National Film Day, with movie ticket prices dropping to a scant $3 in thousands of theaters across the country.
The search for Fithian’s replacement is already underway. He plans to continue working with his successor for some time before officially handing over leadership at CinemaCon in late April. The longtime NATO chief touched on a range of topics when he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on October 13, including the reasons behind his departure and a new era of peace between streamers and cinema chains.
Why the decision to retire?
I’ve always known that I didn’t want to work full-time long past my 60s, and that’s how old I am. There are also personal reasons. My wife is Greek and it’s time to spend more time in Greece. I came to represent theater owners in 1992 because I loved what they were doing. I was a First Amendment lawyer who believed in the power of cinema. I love this industry and would like to stay involved through consulting and board work.
Do you believe the cash register will fully recover by the time you leave?
The box office is back, but we just don’t have enough movies. I think we’ll be at the same level of supply between the studios and streamers by the end of 2023. So many films were taken out of production during the pandemic, or films in production were greatly delayed by post-production challenges, which remain an issue.
Before COVID, none of the big chains would play a Netflix movie, or even a studio movie that tried to shorten the theatrical window from 74-90 days. Due to the pandemic, the windows became drastically shorter. And now, for the first time, the country’s three largest chains – AMC, Regal and Cinemark – will all be Glass Onion: A Knife Mystery, which will play in a total of 600 theaters for a week over Thanksgiving. Your thoughts?
The industry is doing what it should always be doing: talking. In pre-pandemic times, there was a hostile sort of back and forth, sometimes private and sometimes public, in what was seen as the “windows battle.” The right way to do business is to sit around a conference table and decide what works for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all model.
What is your biggest concern about the future of theater?
NATO’s top priority is to grow the cinema release of films, whether from existing studios or new players. Streamers are potentially an important potential supply of movies for years to come. We at NATO and individual members have been in talks with every streaming company that has movies for several years now. Apple got a good sense of what the box office can do for a movie, such as: CODAwho won the Oscar.
Do you believe Netflix and should you report box office gross profits for? Glass Onion?
I think it would be helpful for anyone who releases movies in theaters to be transparent, because it shows that the economic model works. A movie that was first released in theaters with some kind of window establishes a brand. It therefore comes out greater on the service. You get two bites of the apple. Not all streaming movies should be released in theaters, but certainly the good ones should.
I think it would be helpful for anyone who releases movies in theaters to be transparent, because it shows that the model works. A film that was first released in theaters with some sort of exclusive showcase establishes a brand. It therefore comes out greater on the service. You get two bites of the apple. Not all streaming movies should be released in theaters, but certainly the good ones should.
What was your first crisis at NATO?
The first major crisis actually occurred at the end of my job as an outside consultant, and it probably had something to do with me getting the job as president. After several mass shootings — including Columbine — Congress began looking at proposals to make the voluntary movie rating system a law. We added protocols to enforce the classification system in terms of theater operations, and lobbied Congress not to go down the path of legislation [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 leading cinema operators to the White House to explain the new protocols on the exhibition side. We met President Clinton and we walked out on the lawn in front of the reporters and announced the deal. And that’s what ended the legislative threat.
What has been the greatest achievement of your tenure?
We are very proud that the pandemic did not kill the exhibition. Theaters were closed by government decree. They made no money. Tens of thousands of theater employees were out of work. NATO has successfully lobbied for ways to help. We have help for the unemployed workers. We got tax breaks for our businesses, both at the federal and state levels. We got a grant. We are very proud that we ended up losing only about 1,000 of the 42,000 screens in the US
Hollywood gathered in front of us. The silver lining of the pandemic is that movie directors and studio executives who cared about the survival and revival of the cinema industry have helped us. I was lobbying governors and health officials with top studio executives talking about the importance of reopening. But the biggest success of the pandemic has been coming together around safety protocols. We called it Cinema Safe and worked with epidemiologists to design those protocols.
Are you confident that Regal Cinemas, owned by Cineworld, 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 his wisest advice to you when you got the job?
Hire people who are smarter than you.
How do you deal with larger-than-life personalities, such as AMC’s Adam Aaron or Cineworld’s Mooky Greidinger?
I won’t comment on personalities either.
What’s the worst thing a Hollywood studio chief has ever said to you?
I don’t remember any bad things a studio head said. (laughs.)