When I ran into John Fithian, the CEO and President of the National As
When I ran into John Fithian on the third day of this year’s CineEurope he was wearing a pained expression. I figured, like me, the CEO and President of the National Association of Theatre Owners was jet-lagged and worn down from running all over the CCIB in Barcelona attending back-to-back meetings, seminars and studio presentations.
When I asked him how he was doing he responded, “I’m so done.”
“With CineEurope?” I inquired. “There’s just one day left so you’re almost done.”
“No, I mean I’m so done with this job,” said Fithian with a bit of mock frustration. Anyone who has attended a hectic cinema industry trade show can sympathize and has reached that same mental state on more than one occasion. Possibly even more than once at the same event.
Yet with Fithian there was many a truth being said in jest. We had spoken a couple of times over the COVID pandemic and he mentioned retiring in the not too distant future. Fithian explained that he hadn’t lost his love the of the cinema business nor had fighting for exhibitors during the pandemic worn him down. He wasn’t seeking a new career opportunity. He just wanted to retire while he was still young enough to enjoy life, his family and travel. Who could blame him?
So when NATO announced last week that Fithian would be retiring on 1 May 2023 it wasn’t a complete surprise to me or, as I soon learned, most of the cinema industry. His pending retirement had become a bit of an open secret in the business, even if everyone, like me, thought it would happen eventually, you know, at some point over the next five years. Next year was never really a serious consideration.
In announcing his retirement Fithian said he would leave it to others to summarize his career at NATO, so we thought we’d jump on what is sure to become a trend by next May listing but a few of his accomplishments at the risk of leaving just as many out.
A good percentage of us have never worked in the cinema industry when Fithian wasn’t the head of NATO. During his 30 year tenure the Motion Picture Association has had four different leaders, Disney has had three different chief executives, both Warner Bros. and Universal had three different owners, AMC has had three different owners and Regal was formed by combining three bankrupt circuits. During this same period, thanks to operators like Alamo Drafthouse, theatre owners went from selling popcorn, candy and soda at concession stands to serving burgers and beer at patrons’ seats.
When Fithian first started working with NATO the domestic market accounted for 70% of annual box office and international scooped up 30%, figures that are now reversed. Though maybe the biggest development came just seven years into his time at the organization, when in 1999 Texas Instruments introduced digital projectors which over the next decade would essentially replace the technology that had been used to show movies in cinemas for over 100 years. Fithian fought for exhibitors’ needs during the digital transition, helping make sure operators were able to get the required equipment and stay in business. In hindsight, change seems to be one of the major constants for Fithian during his reign at NATO.
Fithian was also instrumental in bringing NATO’s annual trade show back in-house in 2010 after it was managed by ShoWest for decades. He wisely put Mitch Neuhauser and Matt Pollock in charge of what would become CinemaCon.
This is not to say there weren’t a few stumbles along the way. Like the time Fithian went to the Art House Convergence conference in Utah to give an address to independent cinema owners, arthouses and non-profits; all constituents who, in the midst of the digital cinema rollout, felt NATO overlooked them. Fithian’s speech was not well received, but instead of letting the problem fester, he and his capable team at NATO swiftly went on a successful campaign to patch up the relationship.
The pandemic only served to prove NATO’s unwavering support for independent cinemas when, along with the Independent Cinema Alliance, Fithian’s team, including Jackie Brenneman and Esther Baruh, helped secure USD $5 billion in emergency funding through shuttered venue operators grants (SVOG). I’ll never forget how, while preparing to participate in one of our CJ Cinema Summits back in 2021 Fithian was glued to his phone. As he tapped away at a furious speed I asked what he was doing and he said, “Some of the language in the SVOG portion of the stimulus bill won’t work well, so I’m rewriting it.” Talk about multi-tasking.
The generally positive outcomes NATO has been able to orchestrate during Fithian’s time there is why, since news of his retirement became official, I’ve been asked repeatedly if I had any thoughts about who might take over his role in the organization. The good news is that there are plenty of capable candidates in NATO itself, including Brenneman. Of course, she was just made President of The Cinema Foundation and may not want to leave so quickly. Then there is always the current chairman of NATO, Rolando Rodriguez, who just retired from Marcus Theatres as its CEO.
Thankfully, the decision isn’t up to me, as it is in the hands of NATO’s executive board. The one thing I can accurately predict is that whoever the board selects will have some mighty big shoes to fill.
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