Theater Owners Chief John Fithian Prepares His Exit After 23-Year Run
For John Fithian, politics and the art of negotiation are second nature. He grew up in Washington, DC, as the son of longtime US Rep. Floyd Fithian of Indiana, and later began his career working as an outside counsel (code for lobbyist) for clients including the Major League Baseball Players Association. Ultimately, cinema won him over, and in 1999 he was named president of the National Association of Theater Owners, the start of a decades-long reign that will come to an end May 1, when he turns the title over to Michael P. O. ‘Leary.
Fithian guided the industry through the devastating COVID-19 crisis and unprecedented theater closures, enlisting top filmmakers and stars in convincing Congress to give billions of dollars to rescue theater circuits and their employees. He has spent a total of 30 years at NATO, including first as outside counsel before taking over as president in 2000.
“John has the vital combination of hard-nosed strategic thinking and empathetic listening ability necessary to intelligently and productively advocate for the theatrical experience in a changing world,” Christopher Nolan tells. The News84Media. “During the COVID-19 crisis, John’s dedication to minimizing damage to the exhibition community was extraordinary. He fought for theater owners and workers to be included in government assistance programs and he rallied exhibition to create effective and reassuring health protocols for theaters for when people were able to come back to the movies.”
Outside of the COVID-19 crisis, Fithian’s greatest challenge was the complicated transition to digital, which he spent years shepherding.
Nolan remembers calling Fithian to advocate for celluloid projection. “I was shocked by his unwillingness to revisit the painful issue of digitization that the previous generation of filmmakers had demanded, but grew to understand his desire to protect theater owners from the caprices of studios and directors,” says the filmmaker. “In the end I was able to make the case that film projection could still be a great asset for exhibitors in a predominantly digital landscape, and he became a great ally, but I’ve never forgotten his passion for protecting theater owners, particularly the smaller chains and independents.”
Fithian delivers his last state-of-the-industry address at CinemaCon on April 25. NATO took over running the annual gathering of theater owners in Las Vegas in 2011. CinemaCon, which runs April 24-26, has become a marquee event for Hollywood. studios, top filmmakers and talent plugging their upcoming films.
Here, the charismatic NATO leader offers up an exit interview on his time in the hot seat and where the industry stands.
What is your most memorable anecdote from your early days on the job?
I won’t say which trade publication it was — not yours — but I got a call from a reporter who said to me, “Are you Jewish or Catholic?” And I said, “Neither.” And they said, “How’d you get a job in Hollywood?” That was the first craziest thing. Number two was getting a call from NATO’s board of directors, someone who said, “I just want you to know you were not my candidate.”
Why leave now? The box office is finally rebounding and moviegoing is on the rise.
There are a few other things I’d like to do before I totally hang it up workwise. Perhaps not full-time gigs or running organizations, but helping people out by consulting and board work. And my wife’s Greek, and we have family and a place in Greece and I want to spend more time there — although I’ll still spend a lot of time in Los Angeles and DC as well. I used to represent the Major League Baseball Players Association. I was lucky enough to be in a room with a whole bunch of Hall of Famers, and one of the players said, “Don’t overstay your welcome.” And the pandemic was brutal, and so intense.
What was the biggest crisis before the pandemic?
Figuring out how to transition from film to digital was the biggest challenge — I wouldn’t say it was a crisis, but it was hugely complicated. And some in the studio community wanted to rush it as fast as possible because they stood to save a billion dollars a year in print costs alone. What we needed was for digital to be as good as or better than film, and it wasn’t when it was first proposed. That hugely transformative technical revolution was probably the biggest thing that had happened to the cinema industry since the advent of sound.
You haven’t hesitated to slam streamers for shattering theatrical windows. Now that Amazon and Apple are moving into the traditional theatrical space, including reporting grosses, will Netflix follow?
I wanted to get to the point where two out of three of the big streamers were taking theatrical seriously, and I got there. So that’s fantastic. When Amazon bought MGM, we were at first nervous that they might get rid of theatrical releases for the MGM movies. Instead — and we’ve had lots of conversations with them about this — they’ve had great success with theatrical titles coming out of MGM’s pipeline like Creedand now they’re going with Amazon’s Air. This is a very significant step.
Just days ago, veteran MGM distribution exec Erik Lomis, who was helping Amazon with Airdied suddenly…
And Erik was very busy meeting with exhibitors and talking about release strategies for Air here and around the world. Erik’s always been a gigantic champion of movies and theatrical releases. It’s just a devastating loss to the industry.
What are the biggest challenges for theater owners right now?
Getting back to pre-pandemic level of movie supply. All demographics are coming back to the movies. We just got back to the number of titles we need to be at. But it’s picking up now and 2023 is off to a pretty good start. Lots of movies are overperforming their initial expectations. So I am optimistic. You’ve got companies like Apple and Amazon looking at a theatrical model. You’ve got leaders like David Zaslav saying publicly that Warner Bros. is going strong back to a theatrical model, and Universal continues to pound out 20 to 25 titles a year. And Disney’s change in leadership is a good thing for us. I don’t think Bob Chapek was a big believer in theatrical, and I think he cared exclusively about Disney+.
What’s the worst thing a studio head has ever said to you?
Harvey Weinstein called me a Cro-Magnon once in The New York Times. There was a ratings dispute over the movie Bully, because there was so much bad language in it. Everybody told Harvey, “Just edit a little bit of the language and you can have it PG-13.” And he wouldn’t do it. He wanted all the free publicity. So I went public with a statement about how the integrity of the rating system is important and you have to respect it. And Harvey blasted me.
What about during your days working with lawmakers — what’s the worst thing someone said to you?
John McCain threw me out of his office once. Does that count? I don’t remember the issue. But I loved him even though I’m a Democrat. I have so much respect for McCain and his legacy. But yeah, he told me I was wrong and told me to get out of his office.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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