John Fithian, the top lobbyist for the exhibition industry, will retire as the CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners on May 1, 2023. The group said it has already begun a search for Fithian’s successor, but he leaves big shoes to fill, having been a major force at NATO, as it is called, for 30 years.
Initially engaged as outside counsel to NATO in 1992, Fithian assumed the presidency in 2000. In that capacity, he helped guide the group’s members through some of the most tumultuous periods in the cinema business’ history, including its transition to digital projection, as well as the COVID-19 closures that brought the industry to its knees.
“It is nearly impossible to sum up a career of three decades in a few sentences,” Fithian said. “I will leave that to others. But my highest goal was always to leave this organization and this industry stronger and more effective than I found it — and more importantly — to ensure that it remains strong and effective after I am gone. The professional and experienced staff I leave behind and the culture of service we have built together is a legacy to be proud of.”
During COVID, Fithian worked with public health experts and theater owners to develop a set of safety measures and cleaning standards that enabled cinemas to reopen during the pandemic and before vaccines were widely available. He also lobbied the federal government to pass legislation providing federal loan guarantees, as well as expanded unemployment benefits and cash payments to the 150,000 cinema workers who were furloughed during the theater shutdown.
Fithian is a smooth operator, adept at navigating the corridors of power on Capitol Hill (his father, Floyd Fithian, was a congressman from Indiana) and the c-suites of Hollywood. And he could be a passionate, unvarnished advocate for the theater owners who comprise NATO’s ranks. That was never more apparent than in his fights with studios over their many attempts to shrink the theatrical window, industry parlance for the amount of time that movies appear exclusively in cinemas. He also was a notable skeptic about the push by media companies to grow streaming at the expense of theatrical as a way to compete with Netflix. In that, he may have been proven partly right. After shrinking windows to a matter of weeks in some cases, studios have been actually expanding the amount of time they are keeping films solely in theaters as a way to maximize their box office revenue. Monthly streaming subscriptions, it seems, do not pay as much as ticket sales, VOD rentals and other licensing opportunities.
“John’s impact on the movie theater industry is profound and lasting,” said NATO Chairman Rolando Rodriguez. “Whether in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., or internationally, NATO’s reach and effectiveness as an advocate for the movie theater industry has grown and sharpened under John’s leadership. We have big shoes to fill, and we offer John our profoundest thanks for all his years of service.”