What began as a gig as outside counsel turned into a three-decade run at the National Association of Theatre Owners for John Fithian. For 22 of those years, he has served as president and CEO of the lobbying and trade association.
NATO announced earlier this week that Fithian will retire (yes, retire) on May 1, 2023. His last hurrah, so to speak, will be CinemaCon, the annual gathering of Hollywood studios, cinema operators, filmmakers and stars on the Las Vegas strip.
Fithian deftly led NATO and its members through the most challenging era in history for exhibitors — the COVID-19 crisis, which prompted unprecedented theater closures and the collapse of the box office. And even before the pandemic, the lobbyist (and witty orator) wasn’t afraid to go to battle when needed, including over the ratings system or theatrical windows. Recent moves under Fithian’s leadership included NATO’s new non-profit affiliate, the Cinema Foundation, hosting its first ever National Cinema Day, during which movie ticket prices dropped to a scant $3 at thousands of theaters across the country.
The search for Fithian’s replacement is already underway. He intends to work with his successor for some amount of time before officially handing over the mantle of leadership during CinemaCon in late April. The longtime NATO chief touched on a range of topics when speaking with The Hollywood Reporter on Oct. 13, including the reasons behind his exit and a new era of peace between streamers and cinema chains.
Why the decision to retire?
I always knew that I didn’t want to work full-time much past 60, which is how old I am. There are also personal reasons. My wife is Greek, and it is time to spend more time in Greece. I came to represent theater owners in 1992 because I loved what they did. 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 box office will fully recover by the time you depart?
The box office is back, but we just don’t have enough movies. By the end of 2023, I think we’ll will be at the same supply levels between the studios and streamers. So many movies were taken out of production during the pandemic, or movies that were in production got massively delayed by post-production challenges, which remain an issue.
Before COVID, none of the major chains would play a Netflix film, or even a studio film that tried to shorten the 74-90 day theatrical window. The pandemic saw windows shorten dramatically. And now, for the first time, the country’s three largest chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — will all carry Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which will play for one week in a total of 600 theaters over Thanksgiving. Your thoughts?
The industry is doing what it always should have done — talk. In pre-pandemic times, there was an antagonistic kind of back and forth, sometimes privately and sometimes publicly, in what was viewed as the “windows battle.” The right way to do business is to sit around a conference table and decide what works for everybody. There’s no one-size-fits-all model.
What is your biggest worry about the future of theatrical?
NATO’s biggest priority is to continue to grow the release of movies theatrically, whether from legacy studios or new players. Streamers are potentially an important potential supply of movies over the next few years. We at NATO and individual members have been in discussion with any streaming company that has movies for several years. Apple got a good taste of what the box office can do for a movie, such as CODA, which won the Oscar.
Do you believe Netflix and should report box office grosses for Glass Onion?
I think it would be helpful for anyone releasing movies theatrically to be transparent because it shows that the economic model works. A movie released theatrically first with some sort of a window establishes a brand. It pops bigger on the service as a result. You get two bites of the apple. Not all streaming movies should be released theatrically, but certainly the good ones should be.
I think it would be helpful for anyone releasing movies theatrically to be transparent because it shows that the model works. A movie released theatrically first with some sort of exclusive window establishes a brand. It pops bigger on the service as a result. You get two bites of the apple. Not all streaming movies should be released theatrically, but certainly the good ones should be.
What was the your first crisis at NATO?
The first big crisis actually happened at the end of my job as outside counsel, and it probably had something to do with me getting the job as president. After several mass shootings — including Columbine — Congress started looking at proposals to make the voluntary movie ratings system a law. We added protocols to enforce the ratings system in terms of theater operations, and lobbied Congress to not go down the path of legislating [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 with President Clinton, and we walked out in front of the reporters on the lawn and announced the agreement. And that’s what ended the legislative threat.
What has been the greatest accomplishment of your tenure?
We’re very proud that the pandemic didn’t kill exhibition. Theaters were shuttered by government decree. They were making no money. Tens of thousands of theater workers were left without jobs. NATO lobbied successfully for ways to help. We got help for the unemployed workers. We got tax benefits for our companies, both at the federal and state level. We got grant money. We’re very proud that, in the end, we only lost about 1,000 out of 42,000 screens in the U.S.
Hollywood rallied for us. The silver lining of the pandemic is that movie directors and studio executives who cared about the survival and revival of the cinema business helped us. I was on lobbying calls with governors and health officials with top executives from studios talking about how important it was to get reopened. But the biggest success of the pandemic was 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 don’t 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 are.
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 can’t remember any bad things that a studio head has said. (Laughs.)