All good things must come to an end.
After serving more than two decades as president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, John Fithian is departing the post on May 1 when he turns over the job to Michael P. O’Leary. He leaves on a high note as the box office shows signs of moving beyond the COVID-19 crisis after a number of fits and starts.
“One of the key themes that will emerge this week is optimism. Our industry is off to an incredible start in 2023. And why are we off to such a great start? Well, the explanation is a simple one: we have more movies to play,” Fithian said in his final state-of-the industry speech at CinemaCon, the marquee show hosted by NATO. “In 2022, we had 71 movies open on 2,000+ screens. This year, we will have more than 100, and new titles are being added at a steady place.”
James Cameron beamed in from New Zealand via video to offer a special thanks to Fithian for his years of service and preserving the theatrical experience. “I’m delighted to participate in a momentus and bittersweet week as this makes the last leg of working with our great friend John Fithian. I thank John on on behalf of the worldwide creative community,” said Cameron before introducing a tribute video of famous movie clips.
Fithian, who has long said that streaming services can never replace the theatrical experience, returned to that theme. “It is now more irrefutable than ever that theatrical is the keystone of the movie industry. Releasing major films with massive budgets directly to streaming platforms is not a sustainable business model. The return on investment is non-existent,” he noted.
According to The Cinema Foundation’s first annual report, nine out of 10 people are aware when a movie was released theatrically, and 50 percent are more likely to watch theatrically released titles when considering their options on streaming platforms.
Fithian said that’s why NATO is so encouraged by Apple and Amazon’s new-found commitment to theatrical. On Monday night, Sony touted Apple’s Ridley Scott epic Napoleon, which will get an exclusive theatrical release in theaters across the globe later this year. Ditto for Apple’s Martin Scorsese Western crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon, which Paramount and Apple open this fall. Both films will eventually launch on Apple TV+.
He also praised Amazon for giving Ben Affleck’s Air an exclusive berth in theaters before it heads for Prime Video.
“The words product and content are still used far too often, and they diminish the value this industry provides. We are not in the widget business. We are in the movie business, and movies are what we bring to our audiences,” Fithian said. “Product is something that you use to keep your hair styled. Content makes something sound disposable; content may have shifted during transit. Movies are about pleasure, and cinema signifies lasting power and cultural relevancy.”
Fithian has shepherded NATO through momentous changes, including the digital transition, the rise of streamers and the devastating COVID-19 crisis, that resulted in unprecedented theater closes. NATO enlisted top filmmakers and talent in pushing lawmakers to provide more than $2 billion in aid for theater circuits and theater employees.
He has spent a total of 30 years with NATO, first as outside counsel before taking over as president-CEO in early 2000.
“One of our greatest allies in this mission, and such an integral part of this global family, has been my friend John Fithian, whose impact and influence in the industry have been truly immeasurable,” said Motion Picture Association President chair-CEO Charles Rivkin of Fithian in his CinemaCon speech.
“Under his leadership for almost a quarter century, NATO has worked side by side with the MPA through critical challenges, like the industry’s transition to digital cinema, a pandemic that shuttered theaters across the world, and our continuing fight against piracy,” Rivkin continued. “And during my time at the MPA, I’ve relied regularly on John Fithian’s counsel and his unwavering belief in the theatrical experience.”
Both Fithian and Rikvin welcomed O’Leary — who previously worked at the MPA — to the fold. And in his speech, Rivkin assured that the MPA is doing everything it can to bring movies for both the big and small screens (along with the five major studios, Netflix is a member of the MPA).
Throughout the week, the major studios and Lionsgate will present their upcoming slates. On the eve of CinemaCon, leading analytics firm Gower Street upped its global box office revenue for 2023 from $29 billion to $32 billion after the blockbuster performance of The Super Movie Bros. Movie and other titles.
The mood at this year’s show is expected to be upbeat overall. No one expects moviegoing to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or beyond when there are roughly the same number of releases as before, but there is steady progress. Global revenue hovered around $26 billion in 2022, up 23 percent from $21.3 billion in 2021 (and if Gower is right, this year will again be up 23 percent).
More to come.