John Fithian, the President & CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), announced his retirement from the exhibition trade group, marking the end of a thirty-year tenure at NATO. His retirement will be effective on May 1, 2023. NATO’s Executive Board is currently active in the search process for his successor.
“It is nearly impossible to sum up a career of three decades in a few sentences,” said Fithian. “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.”
Fithian’s career at NATO began as outside counsel in 1992. He assumed the presidency of the association in 2000, during a transformative time for the movie theater industry. His early efforts as outside counsel to NATO included the protection of the voluntary movie rating system, working alongside the Motion Picture Association (MPA) in preventing the movie rating system to be codified into laws that could assess penalties and additional taxes penalties on exhibitors deemed to be programming “violent media.” NATO submitted amicus curiae briefs in several cases, and defended directly as a party in one case, in a successful effort to maintain First Amendment protections of the voluntary rating system.
Fithian’s work with NATO in collaboration with the MPA also includes a multi-year effort in fighting movie piracy. NATO coordinated with the MPA to create a network of safety officers to prevent camcording, and launched forensic tracking technologies to identify “camcorder thieves” and to aid in their arrest. NATO also lobbied for legislation at the state and federal level to impose criminal penalties on pirates, along with sharing best practices of anti-piracy techniques with global exhibitors.
As a lobbying group, Fithian’s tenure at NATO is also highlighted by efforts to save exhibitors money in tax, wage and labor, and licensing policies. Recently, NATO lobbied the Department of Justice to repeal the exemption domestic exhibitors enjoy from paying music licensing fees for music in movies they screen.
Fithian’s focus on increasing cross-industry collaboration and initiatives is best exemplified by the launch of CinemaCon in 2010-2011. Under NATO’s leadership of the event, CinemaCon has grown to become the world’s most important convention of the global cinema industry. The launch of CinemaCon coincided with the industry’s transition to digital cinema, the most important technological development in modern motion picture exhibition history. Fithian led the NATO staff and a team of member volunteers to work with studios and technology vendors to ensure the digital transition could benefit both distribution and exhibition. NATO’s role in the digital transition clarified the priorities and challenges of exhibitors during the digital transition and helped install fair business models that would make the technology investment viable for movie theaters. This effort culminated in the development of the Virtual Print Fee (VPF) model, where distributors worked with large and small exhibitors alike in financing the move to digital projection.
As an industry spokesperson, Fithian has been a visible representative of movie theaters’ interests in the press for the past three decades. His vocal support of protecting theatrical exclusivity windows has been a common theme in press and media appearances. Since taking on the role of President, Fithian has led efforts to expand the global reach of NATO—leading to efforts that re-opened the cinema market in Saudi Arabia and created the Global Cinema Federation. Today, the National Association of Theatre Owners is the largest exhibition trade organization in the world, representing more than 35,000 movie screens in all 50 states, and more than 32,000 additional screens in 101 countries worldwide.
Having helped unite the global exhibition industry, Fithian also worked with NATO’s Board, staff, and members to bolster the association’s finances in preparation for any unforeseen challenges. NATO’s reserve fund and other net assets grew by 1,200% in the period between 2000 and 2020, putting the trade group in a strong financial position to guide the industry through the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Once the pandemic disrupted the global cinema market, Fithian worked closely with NATO Chairmen Ellis Jacob and Rolando Rodriguez, along with hundreds of NATO member volunteers and the association’s staff, to help assure the survival of the movie theater industry. NATO’s reserve fund was spent on helping movie theater employees in need, developing epidemiologist-backed safety protocols for the re-opening of cinemas, and lobbying state and local governments both on re-opening cinemas and on tax and grant relief for exhibitors. NATO successfully lobbied the federal government to protect tax benefits as well as the creation of a grant program for smaller and mid-size companies during this period.
Among the latest highlights of Fithain’s career at NATO is the launch of the Cinema Foundation at CinemaCon 2022. The Cinema Foundation is poised to defend and promote the interests of the wider exhibition community at large, including technology companies, vendors, and all other professionals whose livelihood depends on the success of the movie theater business. The first cross-industry project launched by The Cinema Foundation was this September’s National Cinema Day, which offered deeply discounted tickets to moviegoers as a means to promote the return to cinemas.
“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.”