An Army of NATO Member Volunteers Helped Save the Moviegoing Experience

John Fithian. Photo Credit: Ryan Miller

By John Fithian, President & CEO, National Association of Theatre Owners

During a NATO Executive Board of Directors meeting in early March of 2020, Cineworld’s Mooky Greidinger said to his fellow NATO leaders something like, “We’ve seen what this virus is doing to cinema operations in Europe and it’s headed to North America, so get ready.” At the time, none of us could comprehend what impact the Covid-19 pandemic would have on the moviegoing experience, nor the duration of that impact. Now, 14 months later, the exhibition business has experienced the longest tunnel and the biggest existential challenge of its history. But finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

In the last edition of this magazine, NATO’s Patrick Corcoran ably described many of the efforts undertaken by this trade association to help its members survive to the end of the pandemic tunnel, and to revive the business. This column offers another part of that story—in a shout-out to the army of NATO member volunteers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic on behalf of the entire industry. But first, a word of thanks to the NATO staff team.

No doubt this author’s extraordinarily talented association staff colleagues have had a huge impact throughout the pandemic. The “SVOG” queens Jackie Brenneman and Esther Baruh designed and guided a legislative and regulatory strategy that will result in several billion dollars’ worth of grants for the association’s midsize and smaller members in the U.S. The aforementioned Patrick Corcoran, along with Phil Contrino, oversaw a messaging plan that has helped restore confidence in the moviegoing business once again. Kathy Conroy, supported by Cheryl Dickson and Enid Palazzolo, managed the association’s operational and financial challenges through its most difficult period ever. Alex Rich, working with Esther, helped guide the various state legislative efforts across the country to enable cinemas to reopen once more, and to provide other forms of relief. While much of the team focused on the domestic crisis, Erin Von Hoetzendorff helped keep members around the world connected through the Global Cinema Federation. And the CinemaCon team of Mitch Neuhauser, Matt Pollock, Matt Shapiro, and Cynthia Schuler worked through the cancellation of one convention, the scheduling of another convention, the offering of online educational programming, and active support of NATO’s various grassroots lobbying campaigns. And in a vital group effort, nearly every NATO and CinemaCon staff person and consultant played a role in the development, execution, and publicity of the industry’s essential health and safety protocols—CinemaSafe. This author has never been prouder of the association’s team.

NATO’s staff and budget, however, are quite limited (particularly when no dues are being collected and no convention revenues generated.) A strong and dedicated army of volunteer members has indeed helped save the moviegoing business, and they deserve recognition.

At the top of the list stand NATO’s two “pandemic-era chairpersons”—Ellis Jacob of Cineplex and Rolando Rodriguez of Marcus. These two industry giants, who have also had their hands full with the extraordinary challenge of managing major circuits through the crisis, have literally dedicated a thousand hours or more to the cause of saving this industry. Their daily (including weekends and holidays) service has included the management of the association’s boards and membership, strategic advice to the NATO staff, lobbying of studio and government leaders, and countless other tasks that typically go unseen by the membership.

Joining with Ellis and Rolando has been the most active, and productive, Executive Board in the history of NATO. The 17-member board met weekly through the crisis, making strategic decisions about the direction of the industry. They reviewed and acted on countless strategic and financial proposals, accepted follow-up assignments, and communicated with their fellow NATO members, all while running their own companies. The current list of NATO’s Executive Board members can be found at the end of this column. They all deserve a round of applause.

But the NATO army has extended well beyond its Executive Board. NATO’s network of affiliated regional units mobilized immediately to address state and local theater shutdowns and eventual reopening, working tirelessly to educate key officials on theater operations and safety. The regionals also pressed for the creation of assistance programs for cinemas, achieving success in several jurisdictions and enabling theater operators to access bridge funding. Through the immense efforts of regional units and their members, nearly all movie theaters across the United States have been permitted to reopen to the public safely.

In addition to mobilizing on the state and local level, NATO members responded to our calls to action at the federal level. Theater operators in all 50 states built relationships with their representatives and senators, educating them on the financial impact of the pandemic and urging Congress to support favorable legislation for theaters. NATO members also galvanized their loyal guests to speak up on behalf of theaters, generating over 368,000 letters to Congress as part of NATO’s #SaveYourCinema campaign. Thanks to the collective efforts of theater owners of all sizes, we achieved $16 billion in grants for independent operators and preserved billions in tax provisions for companies large and small.

Though I risk leaving important names off the list, the following members deserve special recognition for their superstar lobbying efforts in support of the industry.

State and Local Lobbying

  • Russell Allen
  • Bobbie Bagby
  • John Curry
  • Mary Ann Frank
  • Marina Gephart
  • Dale Haider
  • Chris Johnson
  • Drew Kaza
  • Joe Masher
  • Art Murtha
  • Tom Ranieri

Federal Lobbying

  • Bobbie Bagby
  • Mike Bowers
  • Bo Chambliss
  • James Cox
  • Cory Jacobson
  • Ron Krueger
  • Bobby Levy
  • Cindy Ramsden
  • Steve Schoaps
  • Russell Vannorsdel
  • Mark Zoradi

Beyond the governmental lobbying effort, scores of NATO members have helped to develop and support the CinemaSafe program and have lobbied the movie distributors regarding movie supply during the pandemic. And of course, each and every NATO member has worked tirelessly to keep their company and operations going through the most challenging of circumstances, so that moviegoing would not die out.

Someday a book will be written about the NATO movie theater operators and their fight to preserve moviegoing. And hundreds of leaders deserve to be at that book signing.


National Association of Theatre Owners Executive Board

  • Adam Aron
  • Robert Bagby
  • Bo Chambliss
  • Eddy Duquenne
  • Don Fox
  • Moshe “Mooky” Greidinger
  • Daniel Harkins
  • Ellis Jacob
  • Chris Johnson
  • Ronald Krueger
  • J.D. Loeks
  • Joseph Masher
  • Joseph Paletta
  • Rolando Rodriguez
  • John Vincent
  • David Wright
  • Mark Zoradi

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