NATO Chief John Fithian On Retiring, the Fate of Theatrical and a Streaming Detente

NATO Chief John Fithian On Retiring, the Fate of Theatrical and a Streaming Detente

After starting as an outside counsel, he became a three-decade veteran of the National Association of Theatre Owners 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. CinemaCon, the annual gathering for Hollywood studios, cinema operators and filmmakers, will be Fithian’s last hurrah.

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. Even before the pandemic, Fithian, a lobbyist and witty orator, was not afraid to fight whenever necessary, including over the ratings system and theatrical windows. Fithian’s leadership has seen recent moves, including the Cinema Foundation, NATO’s non-profit affiliate. This event saw movie ticket prices drop to $3 at thousands across the country during the first ever National Cinema Day.

Already, Fithian is searching for a replacement. He plans to work for a while with his successor before officially handing over the leadership role at CinemaCon in 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 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 I feel it is time to spend more of my 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 cinema had the power to change lives. I love the industry and would like stay involved through board work and consulting.

Do you think the box office will recover fully by the time that you leave?

The box office is back but we 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. Many movies were pulled out of production due to the pandemic. Movies that were still in production were also delayed by post-production problems, which are still a problem.

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 caused windows to shrink 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. What are your thoughts?

The industry is now doing what it should have done all along — talking. Pre-pandemic, there was a lot of back and forth between people, sometimes privately, but mostly publicly. This was called the “windows war.” Now, it is better to have a group of people around a table and discuss what works best for everyone. There is no one-size fits all model.

What is your greatest concern about the future of theatre?

NATO’s top priority is to increase theatrical movie release, from legacy studios as well as new players. Streamers could be a significant source of movies in the coming years. NATO and its members have been in contact with any streaming company that offers movies for many years. Apple got a good taste of what the box office can do for a movie, such as CODA, which won the Oscar.

Does Netflix believe in you? Do you think Netflix should be reporting box office grosses for Glass Onion ??

It would be beneficial for any movie release theatrically to be transparent. This shows that the economic model works. A movie that is theatrically released first with some kind of a window establishes a company. As a result, it pops up bigger on the service. You get two bites of this apple. While streaming movies may not be appropriate for theatrical release, the best ones should.

It would be beneficial for any movie release theatrically to be transparent. This shows that the model works. A movie that is theatrically released first has an exclusive window. This establishes a brand. As a result, it pops up bigger on the service. You get two bites of this apple. While streaming movies may not be appropriate for theatrical release, the best ones should.

What was your first crisis at NATO

My first major crisis was actually at the end my time as an outside counsel. It probably had something to do the fact that I was elected president. After several mass shootings, including Columbine, Congress began to look at legislation to establish a voluntary movie rating system. We created protocols to enforce the ratings system for theater operations and lobbyed Congress not to go down the path to legislating [the rating board is under the control of the Motion Picture Association (NATO)]. There were also proposals for taxing violent content.

I brought three to four of the most respected cinema operators to the White House to discuss the new protocols for the exhibition side. We met with President Clinton and announced the agreement in front of reporters on the lawn. That was the end of the threat to the legislative legislation.

What was your greatest achievement during your tenure?

We are proud that the pandemic did not kill exhibition. By government decree, theaters were closed. They were not making any money. Theater workers were left without work for tens of thousands. NATO successfully lobbied for ways to help. We were able to get assistance for the unemployed workers. We received tax benefits for both our companies at the state and federal levels. We received 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 behind us. The silver lining to the pandemic was that movie directors and studio executives cared about the survival of the cinema industry and helped us. I was on lobbying calls to governors and health officials, along with top executives from studios, talking about how important it is to get the cinemas reopened. The greatest success of the pandemic was the collaboration around safety protocols. Cinema Safe was our name and we worked with epidemiologists to create 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 the individual companies.

Your father, Floyd James Fithian was a congressman. What was your father’s wisest advice when you got the job?

Hire people smarter than yourself.

How do you deal with larger-than-life personalities, such as AMC’s Adam Aaron or Cineworld’s Mooky Greidinger?

I won’t comment about personalities.

What’s the worst thing that a Hollywood studio chief ever said to you?

I don’t recall any bad things that a studio director has said to me. (Laughs. )

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