INTERVIEW: NATO’s John Fithian and MPA’s Charles Rivkin on the Cinema Recovery Effort and the Road Ahead

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 02: (L-R) Nato President & CEO John Fithian and MPAA Chairman & CEO Charles Rivkin pose onstage at CinemaCon 2019 The State of the Industry and STXfilms Presentation at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for CinemaCon. Used with Permission from CinemaCon)

The NATO and MPA Chiefs Discuss Synergies in Their Strategy for Cinemas’ Recovery Effort as the Movie Theater Industry Convenes in Las Vegas for CinemaCon 2021

This Interview Has Been Edited and Condensed for Length and Clarity. Listen to the Full Interview on The Boxoffice Podcast

This is an industry still dealing with the effects of the pandemic on a global level. Where are we in the recovery effort right now?

John Fithian: It’s been a rough road, this pandemic, for theater owners, as it has been for Charlie’s studio members as well. I think we’re almost at halftime of the recovery. We had hoped to be further along by this point in 2020, but there are some good signs. We’ve had big movies start to do very, very well—even during these times. We’ve seen customers’ interest in coming back out to the cinemas in growing numbers. We have to walk before we can run, and we’ll probably be well into 2022 before being back up to the level we were pre-pandemic. We’re encouraged by the progress, but we know it’s going to take a while.

Charles Rivkin: The future still feels a bit uncertain, of course, but we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons over the past year and gained incredible ground. We can expect some big wins going forward and some setbacks, but we’re going to come out of this stronger than ever. Our industry is facing one of the toughest ordeals in our 100-year history, and it’s going to take some time before we can look back and say we’ve made the ultimate comeback. 

What are the biggest lessons you’ve each learned over the past year that will help the industry navigate the pandemic’s ongoing challenges?

What are the biggest lessons you’ve each learned over the past year that will help the industry navigate the pandemic’s ongoing challenges?

Rivkin: In my opinion, we’ve learned valuable lessons about our ability to innovate while we face daunting challenges. We also recognize that we have to work together as an industry with the comeback spirit that’s defined our industry for the past century. These are the foundations of our past, present, and future. I’m not the first person to draw parallels from Covid-19 to the influenza pandemic of 1918, but I am really confident that we’ll be in the midst of another roaring ’20s because that’s what followed the 1918 pandemic. Back then, some of our members were in their infancy and just about to be formed. Paramount was around a decade old, while AMC, MGM, Warner Bros., Disney, were all founded in the 1920s. And the MPA was founded in 1922, so we are going to be 100 years old next year. Together, these companies grew rapidly and created an iconic industry. We’re on the verge of something great right now. We’re going to rebound and rebound strong.

Fithian: Building on Charlie’s reference of the pandemic of 1918, the strong recovery in people going out of their homes to seek entertainment during the early 1920s gives us all hope on coming out of this pandemic. We’ve learned so many things during this process, especially to be prepared for the unexpected, but, most importantly, I think we’ve learned these lessons together as an industry. And I give Charlie and the MPA great credit here; they’ve been with us side by side in every part of the relief and recovery process of our industry.

I would contrast that with what’s going on in the country, unfortunately, because I don’t believe we have worked together side by side as much as we should have. I think we’ve all learned from the pandemic that we really shouldn’t politicize things like science. That we should listen to our scientific advisers, health advisers, and our leaders, regardless of their political party, and we should work together to come out of this pandemic. I think we’re beginning to do that better as Americans now. But within our own little microcosm, our main lesson from this pandemic is to work together to recover from the challenges that we faced.

You are two of the biggest advocates for our industry, but a lot of your work isn’t always seen by general audiences. What were some of the things you pushed for, out of the public eye, that kept our industry afloat and people at work, over the last year?

Fithan: The first one I would cite is how to operate safely coming out of a pandemic. That covers how you produce movies, Charlie’s members’ jobs, and how you exhibit movies, our members’ jobs. We collaborated very closely on this and consulted with some of the same epidemiologists to share ideas on how to develop safety protocols. Charlie’s team got the studios back up and running with careful production protocols, and we got exhibitors back up and running with the Cinema Safe protocols. That partnership during the pandemic was essential. We also tremendously appreciate the support of our partners and, indeed, the entire creative community, that helped us seek relief. We had one of the most successful lobbying campaigns in the 30 years or so that I’ve represented theater owners to get recovery funds out to theater operators and get tax breaks in place. Charlie and top executives from his members, along with over 100 movie directors, working through the DGA and Russ Hollander’s team, came together to lobby behind the scenes to produce an essential lifeline to keep theater owners in business during the pandemic. The last of these examples I’ll cite is that I just love the way this industry always pulls together to help its own people. The Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, which is supported both by Charlie’s members and by ours, created a fund very early in this process to help furloughed employees on the exhibition and the studio side. Some of Charlie’s members made big contributions and so did ours in rallying to help the workers who didn’t have a paycheck coming in until the government passed unemployment compensations.

Rivkin: From our vantage point, I think the most impactful initiative that the MPA brought to the table was the health and safety protocols that we created. It was done in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, and it was a collaboration between the studios, unions, guilds, and public health experts. It made it safe for hundreds of thousands of production workers in the United States to come back to work. These protocols led to one of the safest work environments for anyone on set in the United States, resulting in some of the lowest positivity rates in the country. That took a tremendous amount of effort and a lot of coordination—and we’re proud of the result.

There are a lot of things we advocate for that make our industry as great as it is. From protecting free speech and rights of creators, to securing strong copyright protections so that they can profit from their creative work. These things aren’t really public; we do this every day. They’re not something everybody necessarily knows about. Last year mandated that we do even more. As John mentioned, together we knocked on every door that mattered, from Capitol Hill to state houses. I personally called 28 of the nation’s 50 governors to make my case. We advocated for liquidity for PPP loans and grants, the expansion of unemployment insurance, and also ensuring that cinemas were included in the Save Our Stages Act. NATO and the MPA worked very closely together to make sure that we made that happen.

Messaging a return to cinemas is a sensitive and challenging task. What was your strategy for developing efforts like Cinema Safe and joint campaigns like The Big Screen Is Back? Can we expect to see more of these collaborations in the coming weeks and months?

Fithian: Messaging is always important. It’s always a collaborative process between producers and distributors of movies and those of us that exhibit them. Careful messaging became all the more important during the pandemic, and it will be as we continue to come out of the pandemic. The MPA and NATO worked together on that, with epidemiologists helping set the right protocols so that we could introduce them to Charlie’s members and bring them to the plate by emphasizing those efforts.

Letting people know it was safe and time to come back out to the cinemas was an important part, but you can’t get people back out to cinemas unless you also have the right product. That’s why partnering on The Big Screen Is Back campaign was also important and rewarding. The team at the MPA and we at NATO were joined by some leaders at CAA, one of the biggest talent agencies in Los Angeles, in putting together a campaign about movies coming back and sentiments around it. We launched it in Los Angeles, and we’ve had some pretty good play off of that campaign. We’re not done yet. Obviously, the Delta variant created a change in consumer attitudes about safety in going to the movies, so the messaging challenges continue. Like I said earlier, we are at halftime in this recovery process.

Rivkin: NATO did a tremendous amount here to show that it is safe to go back inside of a movie theater. We did our best as well. Our individual member studios did PSAs and tried to get the point across. We’re grateful to the Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others who showed their love of the movies by showing up and reminding people what it’s like to sit in that audience and enjoy this unforgettable experience.

When it comes to a return to cinemas, a return to production, a return to our business generally, there is only one mantra: We’re all in this together. That includes the MPA, NATO, studios, theater owners, unions, guilds, independent filmmakers—it’s got to be all of us. We laid the groundwork, we created a safe environment for workers and audiences through Cinema Safe, and we’re showing audiences they can feel as comfortable returning to cinema as any other activity.

The Big Screen Is Back campaign, which I’m very proud of, as John pointed out was done with an enormous help from Bryan Lourd at the CAA and others in Hollywood. I think the worst is behind us, I really do. It’s clear the pandemic isn’t over, but until that time comes, you’re going to see more and more collaborations between all of us in the entire industry.

The pandemic has put extraordinary stress on this industry. You both have said that we’re all in this together, and clearly your efforts are collaborative. Can you cite some of your favorite examples of positive collaborations between the studios and exhibition that you’d like to see more of?

Rivkin: Is there anything better than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator himself, declaring the big screen is back to a rousing audience, who then chanted it over and over again? It was such an incredible moment, because we could feel the excitement of being in a theater waiting to see great stories told on the big screen and highlight the 1.6 million or so jobs that our industry supports.

CinemaCon, the show NATO puts on every year, is simply unmatched and is always extraordinary. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody again, in person, meeting exhibitors, seeing the studio programs, and of course, giving the address on the state of the industry.

Fithian: Charlie covered some of the bigger programs quite aptly, so I’ll talk more about the collaboration. The one that comes to mind is that New York City had us closed for a really long time, and so did Los Angeles. We developed these safety campaigns together, messaged them together, Charlie was on the phone with governors, and we were doing our lobbying for a safe return to both movie production and exhibition—but we still couldn’t get New York City open. What finally worked was a meeting with a bunch of the governor’s lead people and the mayor’s lead people, that included—and I’m not going to name names—a CEO of one of Charlie’s companies, the CEO of a major talent agency, a representative of exhibition, and theater people in New York. They described the importance of coming back to the movies as we come out of this pandemic. They described the health protocols. It was one representative from each sector of the industry, talking about how important it was for New York to open cinemas and get us going again. A week later, they opened cinemas in New York City, and that was the tidal wave that then led to the studios being able to release big movies again. It was a signal to the rest of the world that it was time to go. That’s just one little anecdote of the kind of collaboration behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily know about, where everybody was coming together to make the pitch about the need to return to movie theaters. 

Piracy has a massively detrimental effect on the members of both your organizations. How much has the pandemic exacerbated this problem? What can the industry do to redefine its approach to fighting piracy under the current market conditions?

Rivkin: We are absolutely committed to [fighting piracy]; it is one of my core priorities—reducing piracy and protecting the legal marketplace for creative content. Piracy really harms our economy. It has cost the U.S. economy about 230,000 jobs each year and about $30 billion. It hurts creators and it hurts audiences. Visiting a piracy website puts people at an increased risk of malware, which can lead to identity and financial theft. A study just came out showing that when a pirate steals a movie pre-release, it results in a 19 percent decrease in box office, so you can see where NATO’s and the MPA’s interests are aligned. That’s why in 2017 we formed something called the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, we call it ACE, turning it into the leading global coalition dedicated to reducing piracy and protecting the legal marketplace for creative content. Over the last year and a half there have been more people at home watching content than ever before, which obviously leads to an increase in piracy. In 2020, there were 137.2 billion visits to piracy websites around the world. Think about that number. The only way we can fight piracy is with an all-of-the-above approach. That means civil litigation, working with law enforcement, and a lot more. We know that the industry’s recovery requires us, all of us, to address piracy. And we’ve made tremendous progress. I’m very proud that our current coalition, ACE, has the six Motion Picture Association members—Disney, Warner, NBC, Universal, Sony, Paramount, and Netflix—and I also brought on board Amazon and Apple. The eight of these companies, the most powerful studios. are the core of the governing board of ACE. All in, there are 35 members that span the globe. It’s an endless fight, but I think we’re doing a good job.

ithian: The MPA have been the lead warriors in the fight against piracy for many years. The coalition Charlie just described is having a great impact as we tackle the scourge of piracy on our business. We play a support role in the fight against piracy in training and coordinating with our members and staff to try to defeat it inside movie theaters. It’s a great example of another way that we partner with the MPA leadership as we track where recordings are taking place. Through watermarks in the content, they let us know and we coordinate with law enforcement to track and try to stop and arrest people stealing the content off our screens. That partnership has been going on for four years, and it gets more sophisticated every year.

Another source of piracy, of course, is digital. And here is where I’ll make a pitch for the exclusive theatrical window. The pandemic necessitated that content be released in theaters and at home at the same time, because Charlie’s members could not monetize their movies purely on a theatrical run given the restrictions during the first part of the pandemic of going out to theaters. So, we understood why movies were released without windows simultaneously. The challenge as we come out of the pandemic is that it puts a digital copy in the hands of pirates on the first day of a theatrical release, which is much more damaging than a recorded copy from inside of a cinema. We’re happy that now that we are coming out of the pandemic, Charlie’s members are returning to release movies with exclusive windows. We think that also will help counter the digital piracy that’s gone on during the pandemic. These are issues led by the MPA, they have a tremendous team of technology experts and lawyers fighting the issue, and we’re very supportive of that cause because it affects the entire industry.

If you could each trade roles for a year, what would be the top item you’d like to address with each other’s membership?

Fithian: Well, I should not be able to influence Charlie Rivkin on how he would lead his organization. This is a man of an amazing political, diplomatic, and business career. He knows the business from his time as a CEO and is now a tremendous leader of the industry.

If I had to pick one thing, if I were in his shoes, it would be to continue something he is already doing, which is to broaden the tent and have more people involved in the causes of the MPA and the industry at large. He’s done that in a couple of ways, like by bringing Netflix into the MPA. A lot of people have the misconception that exhibitors don’t get along with Netflix. That’s not the case; we are working more and more with Netflix every day. By bringing them into the tent of the MPA, Charlie has broadened the reach and messaging about the importance of movies. I hope he gets Apple, Amazon, and companies like that into the MPA to join the great causes that he’s fighting on.

Rivkin: It’s obviously a theoretical question, because I’m certain there is no one better suited to running NATO than John Fithian. John has led this extraordinary organization, NATO, for three decades, and the reason they’ve kept him in and that he continues to excel is that he’s a diplomat, which is required. He is a fierce advocate for his industry and a tough negotiator. He’s also a really good person, and a good friend. It’s because we get along and trust each other, and try to work towards a common goal, that we have a better chance of solving problems for the industry at large. So, I guess I would answer the question in a highly theoretical way, since I don’t want anybody to take John’s job, even for a moment. But I would also do things that John is already starting to do: finding new ways to grow and enhance the theatrical experience. We’re in the golden age of content. We should all look for ways to champion the entirety of that content across a variety of business models in a way that lifts up the industry for everybody. That’s what John and I are challenged with and working towards every day.

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