Global Strength: NATO's John Fithian sees passion for cinema across the board

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The world welcomes the movies. And CinemaCon welcomes the world. “One of the major new themes this year for CinemaCon is the globalization of our industry,” notes John Fithian, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). “Last June in Barcelona, 12 of the largest exhibition companies in the world, along with our counterparts at European trade body UNIC, launched the Global Cinema Federation. Many more companies are now signing up to join, and International Day at CinemaCon will provide further opportunity for exhibitors from around the world to learn from each other. Our key issues are now global, such as preserving theatrical exclusivity and fighting movie theft, as we are working with our content providers to achieve the best technological presentation of their movies in our members’ cinemas.”

At press time, there were “almost a thousand delegates for our international programming alone,” Fithian reports. Attendees from more than 90 countries are expected at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the full week. As this will certainly result in another record-breaking number of registrations, just as the product-presenting film companies at CinemaCon 2018 reach eleven for the first time, Fithian points out that the tradeshow floor is fully booked as well, including new products from abroad. “That’s a pretty good sign that the market has gone global.”

Another sign of the global times is that “the NATO Marquee Award, which is what we consider our most significant honor…is going to a non-American for the first time ever.” Alejandro Ramírez Magaña, chief executive officer of global exhibition powerhouse Cinépolis and board chairman of the Global Cinema Federation, is “such a terrific guy,” Fithian says, but he feels the recognition “also shows that we are mindful of the global nature of the industry.”

Equally exciting is the opening of an entirely new market to moviegoing. Fithian is talking about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, of course. “With everything happening in our space right now, I think the most historic is welcoming a country that has not had cinema for over 35 years.” Reminding our readers that he and a seven-strong NATO team were invited to Riyadh back in December and “helped with a training program for the government,” Fithian is pleased to return the courtesy. “We are very excited that one of the key officials of the agency that will be regulating cinemas is coming to speak at CinemaCon”: Redha Al-Haidar, president of the General Commission for Audiovisual Media in the Kingdom. Having back-to-back panels with such high-profile and world-spanning discussions “signifies important historical aspects of the globalization of our industry.”

Another top-of-mind topic is the ongoing consolidation on both the exhibition and distribution sides. From our end, Fithian views circuit mergers and screen acquisitions “as a sign of strength of the marketplace. Big international operators, who know this business well, are investing here in the United States. While that is certainly a good sign of confidence in our local market, we also view the fact that several of these companies are consolidating operations around the world—and in some cases on multiple continents—as a sign of the strength of this business everywhere. As the issues at hand go global, and are similar everywhere, it just makes sense that our operators go global as well.”

By way of example, Fithian brings up “the biggest, most recent transaction in our business”: the acquisition of Regal Cinemas by Cineworld that is creating the second-largest exhibitor in the world. “That may sound like, ‘Oh, it’s just another corporate raider, further consolidation.’ However, exactly the opposite is the case. The Greidinger family has been in the exhibition business for three generations,” going back to one movie theatre in Israel, sometime around 1929, then expanding and building across Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom. “They run great cinemas, and they know what they are doing,” he assures. “There is always turmoil and changes in an acquisition like that and some of the most highly respected executives will not be at Regal anymore… I do not worry about the people acquiring this company, they are passionate about the business.”

Of equal note, Fithian recalls that “when Wanda took a majority ownership share in AMC, everybody thought that the Chinese cultural wars are invading America. Again, that is not what it was. Here is a company engaged with passion in the cinema business in China that…wanted to learn more from the American perspective.” In view of the size of those deals, we should not forget that both Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Theatres planted their roots in much smaller soil. “Out of their passion for this business, Mike Campbell and the people around him grew Regal from an independent into the biggest company in the United States for a time. AMC was founded by the Durwood family [in 1920], and Lee Roy Mitchell started Cinemark as small discount theatres.” Beginning as a family-run business and growing into national players by acquisition and/or organic expansion “has been in the DNA of the industry from the beginning,” Fithian knows.

“These acquisitions are positive,” he continues, “because they are led by people who care about the business and who show confidence in the business. And at the same time as we are heeding globalization and consolidation in exhibition, this industry also remains very diverse and broad-based in terms of company sizes and makeup. There are mid-sized companies, small companies, and we represent some 400 companies with under ten screens, and all of them remain a strong and vital part of the industry. While most of our membership is made up by companies that are quite small, the top three members have over 50% of the business across the country. Yes, there is consolidation at the top, but then there are hundreds and hundreds of small independent companies as well.”

What all of them have in common is being a strong part of their communities, Fithian asserts. “It is about something that people love doing. We talk about this all the time: At the end of the day, we represent an industry whose main task is giving people a good time. And that is just a great job to have, and the people that are in the industry all feel the same way. They are passionate about movies, and they are passionate about their local communities. NATO has some 600 members. Located in every state in the country, they operate in major cities and small towns. That is the nature of our business and it will continue to be. I think that some of the small and mid-sized operators will pick up theatres and grow into larger companies over time. At the same time, we will also see new companies arrive in the marketplace who are starting up because they love the business, and they too will grow. Others will sell their family businesses to other payers who love the movie theatre business as well. That is just the history of the industry as it has developed from the beginning.”

The world is waiting, not just at CinemaCon 2018.