Theater Owners Chief John Fithian Doubles Down on Streaming Debate: ‘Simultaneous Release Does Not Work for Anyone’

John Fithian, the chief of the National Association of Theater Owners, is here to reiterate one thing: Moviegoing is not dead.

Yes, it’s been a bleak 28 months since CinemaCon, the annual exhibition trade show in Las Vegas, last took place. In that time, the pandemic brought on unprecedented challenges for the industry, including shuttered cinemas, shortened theatrical windows and a growing focus on streaming. They may be down, but they’re not out. 

Greeting a crowd of cinema operators at Caesars Palace, Fithain took a moment to praise the members of the creative community who have thrown support behind the big screen experience.

“I applaud artists who refuse to accept the false narrative that movie theaters are a thing of the past and that the future will be one in which every movie is consumed at home,” Fithian said. “These leading creatives know better, and they are on the right side of history.”

This year’s convention has been noticeably lighter in attendance as fewer studio executives, Hollywood stars and media members opted to make the pilgrimage to Caesar’s Palace to wax poetic about the virtues of watching movies in cinemas. MPA chairman Charles Rivkin, AMC’s CEO Adam Aron and Sony’s film chief Tom Rothman were some of the industry figures present at the four-day event.

“It feels really great to be back on this stage surrounded by friends again,” Fithian said. “Technology kept us connected during the pandemic, but nothing can replace meeting face to face. Humans simply need to be together. That’s why our business will thrive again.”

After praising the exhibition industry for rising to overcome the threat of COVID-19, he added, “There’s no denying that our industry has changed during the last 18 months.”

That would be an understatement.

This year’s CinemaCon is taking place after a devastating stretch for the movie theater business, one that has resulted in potentially lasting changes in the way people watch new films. Given prolonged theater closures, studios shrunk the theatrical window and opted to put many of their biggest titles on streaming services or digital platforms. After the pandemic abates, several Hollywood players have indicated they will converge on a 45-day period of big-screen exclusivity, which is down considerably from the 90-day frame that was commonplace prior to COVID-19.

“Exclusive release periods remain vital to the survival and success of the theatrical experience,” says Fithian. He maintains that simultaneously opening a movie in theaters and on streaming isn’t financially beneficial for studios or theater owners.

NATO and Fithian have made no secret of their distain for day-and-date releases, referring to movies such as “Black Widow,” “The Suicide Squad” and “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” which premiered on their studio’s respective streaming platforms on the same day as they debuted in cinemas. In July, after “Black Widow” dropped nearly 70% at the domestic box office from its pandemic-era record opening weekend, NATO released a fiery statement blaming the movie’s “collapse in theatrical revenues” on Disney’s decision to make it available to rent simultaneously on Disney Plus. Star Scarlett Johansson later sued Disney for breach of contract, alleging that the hybrid release plan cost her millions in bonuses.

“What the future holds is up to our members and distributors to decide, but let us be clear about one thing: Simultaneous release does not work for anyone,” Fithian said. “A steady flow of strong movies released with exclusive windows is essential to exhibition’s recovery, and to the profitability of the entire movie ecosystem.”

It’s up to theater owners and studio executives, Fithian says, to help redefine the theatrical experience after a year in which consumer habits shifted dramatically.

“This is a historic turning point for our industry. We are about to enter an era of great experimentation that I believe will only bolster the importance of the big screen experience,” he said. “Cinema is much more than a passive form of entertainment. It’s immersive and life-changing. Cinema is not meant to exist on the same digital playing field as funny cat videos on YouTube, or endless TikTok scrolling.”

It’s not only preserving an art form. There’s also financial advantages to the big screen experience, Fithian says. Multiplexes are good for local business. After all, what’s a movie night without going to dinner first? He cited an Ernst and Young study commissioned by NATO that found in addition to the $18.3 billion in direct movie theater revenue, people who went to nearby restaurants and retail stores before showtime contributed $5 billion in spending in 2019.

“We will return to that level again,” Fithian said.

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