5 March 2023
This past week the cinema industry witnessed something it hasn’t seen in almost a quarter of a century; the National Association of Theatre Owners named a new president and chief executive officer. When it was announced in October 2022 that the trade organization’s current President and CEO, John Fithian, would be retiring on May 1st of this year, NATO’s Executive Board commenced a search process for his successor. On Thursday, the non-profit announced the results of that search, appointing Michael P. O’Leary to fill the role.
This decision came as a surprise to many who thought that the position would be filled from within NATO or perhaps with an exhibition industry veteran. Many assumed Jackie Brenneman, NATO’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, as well as President of The Cinema Foundation was being groomed for the position and would naturally step into Fithian’s shoes (even if they will be hard to fill).
Brenneman, along with her colleagues at the organization, was instrumental in assuring that Shuttered Venue Operators Grants (SVOG) were a part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. These grants were responsible for saving hundreds of small, independent cinema operators throughout the United States from the financial disaster caused by the COVID pandemic. The grants were available to most movie theatre operators as long as they weren’t a public company. In addition, last March Brenneman was named as President of NATO’s newly formed The Cinema Foundation, which was founded to promote and expand the exhibition industry while helping solve some of its existential problems.
Since last October when Fithian revealed he would be retiring I have been asked a single question so many times I stopped counting; who will take over as the President and CEO of NATO. This question was asked rhetorically at times by those, who like me, wished Fithian wasn’t retiring from NATO. It was also asked by those wanting to know if I had some inside scoop about the selection process or who I thought the Executive Board might pick. My answers were always the same; I don’t know, I don’t have any NATO insider whispering secrets in my ear and I have no idea who the board might pick.
Heading up NATO is not just about working with exhibitors in 101 countries around the world representing over 70,000 screens. It goes beyond speaking with studios about partnerships or lobbying government legislatures about laws pertaining to the exhibition business. It’s also entails all the intricacies of running a non-profit organization. The executive board had to think about all of this and more when making their decision.
The moment NATO sent out it’s press release on Thursday my inbox started filling up and incoming text messages kept my phone vibrating for the remainder of the week with everyone asking two questions; how did the board select someone other than Brenneman and who is Michael O’Leary?
In regards to the former, I’v already mentioned I have no inside information or knowledge of NATO’s decision making process. Like everyone who reached out, I can only speculate. NATO’s Executive Board has eight automatic seats out of approximately seventeen filled by the heads of the top eight North American exhibitors by screen count. At least five of those eight circuits are public companies and one of them is in Canada. Meaning that all the work NATO did on SVOG didn’t really benefit them. Maybe that played a part in the board’s decision-making. Maybe they wanted someone based on Washington D.C. with a background in lobbying Congress. Maybe they wanted to give Brenneman more time to get The Cinema Foundation off the ground (and absolutely nobody doubts she will).
The list of maybes is endless. There are really only a few things we can answer with any certainty. The first is that NATO should be thankful it has Brenneman in any position whatsoever as she is seen as a leader in the exhibition business no matter what her current title is. The second is that, much like the upcoming Oscars, no matter who you or I or some film critic wants to win Best Picture, it isn’t up to us (except for those readers who are Academy members). Those of us who don’t own and run movie theatres don’t get to decide who the next President and CEO of NATO will be. NATO’s Executive Board does. It is their decision to make based on their own requirements and priorities as well as
The third thing I am certain of pertains to Mr. O’Leary. I have never personally met him or spoken with him. We have asked NATO for an introductory interview so that, like you, we can begin to learn who he is. What I can say is that, just like many of our readers, I personally care a great deal about the health and future of our industry. Over the past 30 years Mr. Fithian built NATO into the world class trade organization it is today. Speaking for everyone at CJ, we look forward to hearing how we might help contribute to the success of NATO’s initiatives under Mr. O’Leary’s leadership.
So who is Michael O’Leary? Let’s all find out together.
The National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents movie theatres in 101 countries, announced the appointment of Michael P. O’Leary as President and CEO of the organization beginning 1 May 2023. John Fithian, who currently heads up NATO, will be retiring from the position on the same day.
NATO’s Executive Board began a search for Fithian’s successor when his retirement was originally announced back in October. O’Leary, who is lives and is based in Washington D.C. just like Fithian, has served in senior positions at The Entertainment Software Association, 21st Century Fox and the Motion Picture Association. Starting in 1993 spent five years as the chief council for United States Senators Dennis DeConcini, Russell Feingold and Joe Biden (who, of course, is now president). He then went on to work in the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the Justice Department for six years.
O’Leary will officially begin his tenure at NATO on 10 April with a public transition to occur at CinemaCon in Las Vegas later that month. He will join the executive team of the Global Cinema Federation. Fithian leaves NATO after a 30 year run, having been appointed President and CEO in 2000.
The reporting of corporate earning figures for several Hollywood studios, cinema operators and vendors seems to have inspired a new-found confidence in the theatrical experience amongst US investors. This welcome change comes after several years of pandemic-induced focus on direct-to-consumer streaming propositions by the largest media companies. The likes of IMAX are now affirming that customers are willing to pay a premium for the best large screen experience to see films like “Top Gun Maverick” and “Avatar: the Way of Water”.
Direct-to-streaming and day-and-date release strategies are being increasingly abandoned by Hollywood studios and media companies, with the sole exception of Netflix. Warner Bros Discovery CEO stated in the company’s recent earnings call that direct-to-HBO Max movies provided “no value” to Warner Bros and that the re-booted “Lord of the Rings” franchise will go to cinemas with “real windows to optimize those products.” A similar message had been coming from other captain’s of the film and cinema industry:
A day before, Imax’s Richard Gelfond touted his company’s $98 million in fourth-quarter revenue, up 44% from the prior quarter, and $850 million at the global box office over the last year. And on Friday, Cinemark reported fourth-quarter revenue that exceeded analyst expectations, albeit with a larger loss, and saw its stock rise further. CEO Sean Gamble struck an upbeat tone about the number of movies coming to screen in 2023 — not just from traditional studios, but from streaming-first outfits like Amazon Studios and Apple Original Films hoping to capture some box office magic.
Scott Mendelson, The Wrap
Lionsgate’s stock saw a recent uptick on the strength of what is perceived as a strong 2023 theatrical slate. Meanwhile Disney’s Bob Iger has dropped hints about theatrical releases of sequels and franchises to popular movies. Only Netflix is sticking to a short or no theatrical window. However, the change of co-CEO has led for calls to re-evaluate this strategy. Not least after the success of the limited cinema release “Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery”.
Of all the film and cinema companies, the most attention has recently been lavished by Wall Street on IMAX. The large format operator is seen as a strong growth prospect for 2023, not just thanks to a steady slate of Hollywood films, but also Chinese and Indian films such as “The Wandering Earth II” and “Pathaan”:
“Imax is our top theater pick for 2023,” said Macquarie senior analyst Chad Beynon, calling it an “insulated technology company.” Gelfond is hedging his bets, having acquired a streaming video tech firm last year, but he signaled confidence in the global box office in the coming year on a Wednesday call with analysts. And as studios reprioritize theatrical revenue over streaming subscriptions, the kind of films favored by studios and moviegoers are those that tend to play best for Imax.
Cinema operators such as Cinemark are leaning heavily into the premium formats, not least after figures for last year’s biggest hits showed a clear consumer preference for premium options such as IMAX, in-house PLFs, 4DX and more. Audiences “experiencing films in a shared cinematic environment develop stronger emotional bonds with stories and characters that helps build bigger brands, franchises and cultural moments,” said Cinemark’s CEO Sean Gamble on his company’s recent earnings call.
Concessions & Dining
AMC Entertainment announced it is collaborating with big box retailer Walmart on an exclusive launch of AMC’s all new lines of microwave and ready-to-eat popcorn items, named AMC Perfectly Popcorn, in hundreds of Walmart locations around the United States. The launch is set for 11 March so that AMC Perfectly Popcorn varieties will be available just in time for the Academy Awards, which airs on 12 March.
AMC’s Popcorn line includes six total new items, including three flavor varieties of microwave popcorn and popped popcorn: Classic Butter, Extra Butter, and Lightly Salted. The microwave Extra Butter variety comes with buttery topping packets, allowing consumers to replicate that ultimate movie theatre experience of adding even more butter flavor to their popcorn.
The microwave popcorn varieties available at Walmart are expected to retail for USD $4.98, plus tax, for a 6-count package. The ready-to-eat popcorn varieties, available in a 4.2 – 5.2 oz bag, are expected to retail for USD $3.98. Following the exclusive launch at Walmart locations this spring, AMC anticipates broader distribution channels for its new line of microwave and ready-to-eat popcorn later this year.
Bobbie Andrews has been hired as the new Senior Vice President and Managing Director of EMEA for CJ 4DPLEX, which specializes in premium film formats and cinema technologies. Andrews joins the company with more than 15 years of theatrical industry experience and will lead strategic growth and marketing efforts across EMEA for the cinema technology company’s premium formats, ScreenX and 4DX.
Before joining CJ 4DPLEX, Andrews spent the last seven years at RealD, where he served as the Vice Presidnet of Marketing & Commercial EMEAR for the theatrical 3D technology company. Prior to RealD, he worked at 20th Century Fox, helping manage its commercial and exhibition relationships across EMEA. Before that Andrews worked for Cineworld Cinemas where he managed busines-to-business marketing, branding and media.
CJ 4DPLEX has already had a record-breaking 2023. Earlier this year, the team announced that the Oscar-nominated “Avatar: The Way of Water” has become the company’s highest- grossing release of all-time, bringing in over $95 million at the global box office from its 4DX and ScreenX formats.
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