NATO Chief on Why a Pared-Down CinemaCon Is Important and How the Industry Is Slowly Recovering From Its “Biggest Existential Crisis”

John Fithian, the level-headed chief of the National Association of Theatre Owners, has grown accustomed to being in the line of fire — literally and figuratively. The organization’s president and CEO spends part of each summer in Greece. Earlier in August, devastating fires erupted in the Athens area, forcing Fithian and his Greece-born wife to flee to his sister-in-law’s house. They would be evacuated one more time before returning safely home. Thousands of miles away in the U.S., the delta variant was disrupting the box office recovery. In a series of Zoom calls with his board members, a majority agreed not to oppose a new rule in New York requiring people attending indoor venues — including movie theaters — to show proof of vaccination (kids under age 12 are expected to be exempt). Exhibitors — who will gather with Hollywood studios for CinemaCon in late August — are realizing that unless more consumers are immunized against COVID-19, ticket sales will continue to stall. In a recent interview with THR, Fithian talked about the challenges facing cinema operators and why it’s so important to hold CinemaCon this year, even though the show, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, will be a pared-down version without the usual star wattage or studio heads’ speeches.

How would you describe the impact of the pandemic on the theatrical business?

It’s been the biggest existential crisis of the industry’s history. We went through almost an entire year with theaters closed and no revenue, and that’s tough. It was tough on our workers, too, and thank God Congress gave some unemployment supplements to our workers because we had 150,000 furloughed employees.

We’re once again seeing studios shuffle their release calendars. How much has the delta variant hurt the box office recovery?

Well, I don’t think there’s a yes or no answer to what is a full recovery. To consistently be grossing every weekend the same kind of box office take we grossed in 2019, I guess, would be kind of a full recovery. We’re not going to get there in 2021, that’s for sure, but maybe in 2022. I don’t know. It just depends on people getting vaccinated. Come on, people. Do the right thing. Get vaccinated.

Some studios, such as Disney with Black Widow or Warner Bros. with its entire 2021 slate, are releasing titles day-and-date in the home and on their streaming services. Are hybrid releases here to stay?

We believe these are pandemic-era models. The only way that distributors could put significant movies into theaters was to release them simultaneously because they couldn’t monetize movies theatrically during a pandemic. We should be getting back to normal release models now. Some studios agree with that; some don’t. The issue of when we get back to more normal release models is a very important one to our members. It’s a work in progress.

Warner Bros. has committed to a 45-day theatrical window for its 2022 movies. What are your members hearing from Disney?

They’ve only announced two movies with a 45-day window, Free Guy and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Beyond that, they’ve made no announcements.

The theatrical window used to be as long as three months. How do you view 45 days?

I’m not suggesting that windows or the period of exclusivity between a theatrical release and a home release are going to be the same coming out of the pandemic because they’re not, but nor are they going to be the same as they were during the pandemic. It’s not appropriate for a trade association executive to talk about window lengths and what they should or shouldn’t be. It’s not for me to decide, but I think it’s fair to say that a robust period of exclusivity is an essential model for theater owners.

Why is it so crucial to hold CinemaCon right now when Nevada has been a hotspot for delta? I know you are requiring proof of vaccination or a test, but you can’t control a Las Vegas casino.

We’re also following Las Vegas’ new mask mandate. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people will need to wear masks, both inside our convention and in the casino. The mandate is having a very significant impact on lowering the rate of the virus in Las Vegas. The vast majority of our theater owners who have registered are comfortable with all these policies. We have had some who don’t want to come because they don’t like the mask policy, and that’s their own choice. I’m not going to single anybody out.

How would you describe the tempo of CinemaCon 2021 after having to cancel the 2020 show altogether? I know Disney isn’t sending any of its employees and will instead show Shang-Chi in full.

Is it going to be the same kind of convention we usually have? No. There’s not going to be a ton of star power, and the numbers are going to be reduced. But the footage will be great. We’ll probably have about 2,000 people come to the show this year. In a normal year, we’ve had between 3,000 and 4,000 knocking on the door. A lot of Europeans, plus people from Brazil and China, literally aren’t allowed to come to the United States right now. That’s unfortunate because the president should have allowed vaccinated people to come to the country, like other countries are allowing vaccinated Americans to go there.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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Marquee Award Honorees
Instead of a single recipient, NATO and AMC chair Adam Aron will spread the love.

Last year, maverick AMC Entertainment chair and CEO Adam Aron had been set to receive NATO’s highest industry honor, the Marquee Award. Then the pandemic struck, and CinemaCon 2020 was canceled. The convention in Las Vegas is back on this year, but instead of Aron accepting the honor a year late, he instead will present it to theater workers Aug. 24. Four of the five who will accept the award on behalf of their colleagues also are recipients of NATO’s new Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship: Kelly Allen, GM of AMC Theatres in Austin; Constance Camat, marketing manager of Tango Theatres in Dededo, Guam; Richard Martin, programming manager of the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta; and Benjamin Smith, GM of the Movie Place Inc. in Casper, Wyoming. The fifth person who will take the stage is Rachel Clawson, GM of Regal Cinemas Southwind in Lawrence, Kansas.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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