Empowering Independents and Shaping the Future of Cinema

Colleen Barstow, Vice President, ACX Cinemas and Chair, Independent Theatre Owners Coalition

As CinemaCon 2024 takes center stage, the Independent Theatre Owners Coalition (ITOC) is excited to welcome the global community of movie theater owners, operators, and industry leaders to the world’s premier gathering dedicated to celebrating the magic of the moviegoing experience. This year, the spotlight shines brightly on independent exhibitors with NATO’s renewed commitment to ITOC’s mission to champion this vital community, ranging from Main Street and drive-in cinemas to nonprofits and art houses.

Every year, the first CinemaCon event for independents is the ITOC pre-convention gathering that sets the stage for a week of insightful discussions, learning, and networking that engages the entire motion picture industry. I want to thank the fantastic CinemaCon team, whose efforts have allowed our event to return to Caesars Palace in 2024.

This year’s ITOC gathering is designed to give members actionable insights to bring back to their theaters and communities. Highlights include an industry data presentation, a panel on securing capital for growth, and strategies for leveraging community engagement to boost revenue. We are incredibly grateful to Michael O’Leary, NATO president and CEO, and Chris Aronson, Paramount’s president of domestic theatrical distribution, for their insights on the future of cinema distribution and strategies for independents in a transforming industry landscape.

CinemaCon also serves as a platform to celebrate the contributions of exceptional NATO volunteers, with Chris Johnson of Classic Cinemas receiving this year’s Marquee Award—a well-deserved honor for his unparalleled commitment to the cinema industry. Just as exhibitors enrich communities, NATO is shaped by incredible volunteers like Chris, spanning from major circuits to Main Street cinemas. Independents serve as the foundation of that volunteer spirit. Nearly 90 percent of NATO’s members are independents with fewer than 75 screens: Their substantial presence highlights their crucial role within the association and our industry. Independents, however, come in different shapes and sizes. Recognizing this diversity in scale and scope, ITOC has expanded its membership to include independent owners and operators beyond the 75-screen mark, fostering broader conversations and strengthening our collective efforts.

Representing such a diverse and vibrant sector of the cinema industry, ITOC’s mission has always been to advocate for the interests of independent theater owners and operators across North America. Under ITOC’s new rebranded direction as a coalition, we are focused on creating a more dynamic, interconnected, and supportive independent community that is better equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities in today’s rapidly evolving cinema landscape. Our recent series of meetings with leading studios was a significant milestone in our advocacy efforts. For the first time in more than five years, ITOC sat down with the heads of theatrical distribution and their marketing and sales teams for constructive discussions to foster collaboration on pro-growth policies that drive innovation, build communities, and enhance the moviegoing experience.

As ITOC embarks on this new path of strategic advocacy and initiatives, we invite you to join us in reinforcing the vital role independent cinemas play in culturally and economically enriching communities worldwide. Together we will continue to champion the importance of independent cinemas to the motion picture industry.

Once again, and on behalf of my fellow ITOC leaders—Joe Masher, Randy Hester, Paul Gunsky, and Emelyn Stuart—welcome to CinemaCon 2024. Let’s shape the future of cinema together.

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