CinemaCon 2022: NATO’s John Fithian and MPA’s Charles Rivkin on Cinema’s Recovery

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)

In advance of the 2022 edition of CinemaCon, NATO CEO and President John Fithian and MPA CEO and Chairman Charlie Rivkin spoke to Boxoffice Pro about the industry’s continued recovery and the priorities of exhibitors and distributors moving forward.

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

As we gather for CinemaCon 2022, there have been some major changes to theatrical exhibition compared to last August’s show. Charlie, what have been some of your biggest lessons and takeaways from these past eight months?

Charles Rivkin:  I can’t wait to attend CinemaCon. It’s one of my favorite things to do each year. This industry has sustained a rebound in 2022 from one of the biggest challenges we faced in the past 100 years of our existence. And we’ve proven, yet again, how innovative and how resilient we are as an industry.

[The MPA] just came out with our THEME report, which is research for the global theatrical home entertainment market, and it showed that we made great progress last year, reaching almost $100 billion in in consumer spending and surpassing 2019’s value.

This industry remains as vital and as relevant economically and culturally as ever. Audiences are returning to theaters to see great movies. And at the same time, they’re watching content on streaming platforms. It is in so many ways—we’ve said this before–the golden age of content. And that’s because of the creativity and the innovation of this iconic industry. The economic benefits that we generate, the jobs that we support directly and indirectly, and the revenue we contribute to economies around the planet are rebounding. And they’re going.

John, from the perspective of the exhibitor over these past eight months, we’ve certainly had some big theatrically exclusive hits that prove that the industry is not, in fact, dead.

John Fithian: CinemaCon is coming at a very important time. For theatrical, it’s been a couple of really hard years. But we have seen bright spots coming toward the end of that pandemic. Spider-Man, third-biggest grossing film domestically of all time. And we’re seeing movies start to pop now in the family genre and in the older demographic, [both of] which weren’t really working well during the pandemic.

And so, as we look at CinemaCon, the last week of April is really a turning point where the schedule of films from now to the end of the year is dynamic. It’s chock full of blockbusters, but it also has some good mid- and small-budget movies in the schedule as well. There’s a film slate that appeals to every demographic in every genre.

We were so up and down, off and on, with films during the pandemic that the content—or lack thereof—really hurt us as much during the pandemic as the pandemic itself. Charlie’s members couldn’t make a lot of money theatrically during the pandemic, but now they can. And now all of Charlie’s members are coming back to theatrical releases from now until the end of the year, theatrical releases with exclusive windows. And we couldn’t be more excited about the resurgence of the industry for the rest of this year.

Charlie, what’s in store for the industry as we move further into 2022? What major events and trends are you looking at over at the MPA?

Charles Rivkin: What I’m looking at right now is a return to the global box office in a major way. We have a great lineup of studio films, and you’re going to get a taste of that, obviously, at CinemaCon. But you know what else I’m looking forward to? I’m looking forward to returning to these in-person, full-scale events. I’m looking forward to seeing the international exhibitors, whom I didn’t have a chance to see last year because they weren’t there last summer.

It felt great for me to be at the Academy Awards again and walk the red carpet. It was wonderful. I’m going to the [White House] Correspondents’ Dinner here in Washington, coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m going to attend the Cannes Film Festival in May, where I’m going to see a lot of my friends. So I’m just looking forward to a return to normal and a return to some amazing years ahead.

Last year’s CinemaCon was more muted, in terms of the attendees who could be there, the studios, the vendors. What are you looking forward to from this year’s show?

John Fithian: Well, first, thank you for coming back in August. That was a difficult show to host, as we weren’t done with the rises and falls into pandemic yet. We held it successfully. People had a chance to get together, but it wasn’t the full-throttle excitement about the business that we’re used to. The show [this] week looks like the full-throttle CinemaCon of the past, in every respect. We’ve got about 3,000 people signed up right now, with another week or two of signups to come. That’s substantially more than we had in August.

Every one of Charlie’s studios are bringing great content, they’re bringing talent, they’re bringing directors. High-level executives from the major studios are coming, at the highest level, to show their support for the return of the theatrical experience and to discuss how theatrical is an important piece in the pie for them. The trade floor is going to be bristling again with lots of vendors, with exciting innovative technologies [for] how we show movies. And we’re just so excited to have people back, optimistic, in great numbers, with a great show. So, again, it’s coming at a great time.

The last thing I would say is that it’s always great to have Charlie and the MPA there, as our supporting partners of this show. Charlie gets to meet with his teams, and the international [and domestic] exhibitors really enjoy coming and networking with the MPA crowd. And it’s just a privilege to take the stage together, when we can talk about the entire movie industry from beginning to end. Charlie and his team worked so hard through the pandemic to get the protocols to make movies again, and now they’re fully making tremendous movies again. Our members worked very hard to get those theaters open, and now they’re all open. We’re very proud that we kept exhibitors alive during the pandemic. And now they’re ready to make money again. So we’re so excited about next week.

Charlie, with this year marking the 100th anniversary of the Motion Picture Association, what are some of the landmark achievements the MPAA has introduced to the industry at large over the last century? And what are your priorities for the years to come?

Charles Rivkin: We’re really excited about this anniversary. We’re going to be celebrating all year. We have been the voice and chief advocate of the film, TV, and now streaming industries for a century. It’s funny—our physical location is a block away from the White House in Washington, D.C. That same location, largely, has been the home of the Motion Picture Association during that time. But the name of our company has changed. The physical building has changed. It was just recently renovated, soup to nuts. But the mission remains the same. Throughout a century marked by enormous dramatic global change, we’ve consistently advocated on behalf of the industry. We’re committed to protecting content creators and ensuring that all voices are represented around the world in that context.

Our achievements over 100 years are too great, too long, to mention in a short podcast. I’ll just throw out a couple. Number one: protecting copyright. We advocate for policies in every global market that safeguard creators and their work. We protect creators and ensure that they’re fairly compensated for their hard work. That’s a cornerstone of our mission. I’m really proud that the MPA and NATO, more than 50 years ago, created the Classifications and Rating Administration, CARA, the film rating system which thrives to this day. It lets families decide which movies are appropriate for them. It’s an amazing system. And it’s protected our creators from the grim specter, if you will, of government censorship. It’s been very successful that way.

Fighting piracy remains major, something we’ve done over the last century, and continue to do and continue to do well. In 2017, we expanded our efforts by creating something called the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment—or ACE, as it’s known—which has a comprehensive approach to targeting and taking down piracy operations that pose an existential threat to the creative economy.

And we improve the economic landscape for our industry. We advocate for production incentives in the United States and around the world that create good, well-paying jobs and generate tax revenues for states and localities. We support about 2.3 million jobs in all 50 states in the United States. We created a DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] program 10 years ago to make sure that all voices are heard and authentically represented.

And finally, we fight for global market access. Our industry is always going to win when there’s a level playing field. And so we advocate for free trade and low barriers to entry. And we do all of this consistently, in a global way, because our industry is absolutely global.

John, I’d like to get your take on piracy as well–but first, NATO has seen some recent changes, as well, like the creation of the Cinema Foundation. As a group, what are your priorities looking forward into this year?

John Fithian: We, like the MPA, have gone global in the last few years. Because, as Charlie correctly said, the industry has gone global. In 2019, the last full-grossing year of theatrical until next year, really, the industry grossed $42 billion globally, and the United States was about $11.4 billion of that. So we are indeed a global industry, and our trade body now represents members who operate movie theaters in 105 countries around the world.

As part of that growth, both at the MPA and at NATO, we’ve worked very synergistically on the key priorities of the broader industry. And piracy is clearly one of them. The work that Charlie and his team at the MPA do in fighting piracy is extraordinarily important. It’s one thing when a pirate camcords a movie out of a movie theater. That damages the industry. But when a digital release happens and a pristine copy comes out, it damages the industry even more. And so the work that Charlie and his team do to combat piracy and to reduce it every day is important to his members and to ours. They’ve taken the lead on that issue, as with others. We appreciate very much partnering on the rating system and lobbying governments together, that we’ve done so well here and around the world. But we are looking forward to some new developments on our side.

You mentioned the biggest development that we’re launching at CinemaCon, which is the creation of the Cinema Foundation. Many trade bodies have, in addition to their trade organization, a related foundation that supports the purpose of the trade organization but can broaden out its mission. NATO will remain the lobbying arm of the theater owners—it’s a 501(c)(6) trade body—but the foundation will take on many exciting new elements of service to the whole industry, such as research and development. And we’re going to spend a lot of time supporting Charlie’s efforts on fighting piracy, with research about piracy.

We’re going to research new innovations and technologies in the industry that can expand our business. What’s the best way to show movies in the future? What other kinds of content can we show in movie theaters? How are the food and beverage offerings being developed, which has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and we think they’ll continue to evolve? How can we support the industry’s charities better, to help out our own people in times of need? All of these things. How can we recruit jobs? We want to do the research and the marketing that describes what a great career working in the movie theater industry and the movie industry at large can be. Driving interest in careers in our businesses is a big part of the foundation, too. Lots of other elements, but we’re very excited. Here at CinemaCon, you can learn a lot more about the launching of the foundation. [The Cinema Foundation panel takes place at 7:45AM on Wednesday, April 27.]

Charlie, from your perspective over at the MPA, we know that piracy remains a persistent threat to the motion picture industry, both for member studios and for exhibitors, as well as consumers. What is the MPA doing to address this threat and protect the creative economy?

Charles Rivkin: It’s a huge problem, and I’m going to speak about it in my address at CinemaCon. When we fight these pirates, we also help exhibitors, obviously. To add to John’s comments: the six members of the Motion Picture Association, the six studios that make up our our association, the largest studios in the world, are the core of the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment. And we’ve added to that core Apple and Amazon. So it’s a very, very strong core. All in, we have about 40 companies around the world that are allied to fight this threat.

And we’ve just launched a live tier that involves sports programmers. We’re going to make a big announcement about our first member on that tier in the coming days. We’ve added members in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa. It is a global, powerful force. What we’ve also done is we’ve teamed up with Interpol and Europol. And we’re the first organization to have an embed with the Department of Homeland Security here in the United States, to make sure that we’re fighting these guys and we’re winning.

And just to give you a sense about about when I say we’re winning: In 2019, there were 1,400 illegal websites and streaming subscription services in North America alone. 1,400. That was reduced to 200 just last year. We’re hoping to get that down to zero, because of some of the laws that we were able to help get passed here in the United States make stream-ripping, stealing streams, a felony. So we’re getting closer, we’re getting stronger, we’re getting bigger by the day. We’re going to beat this. It’s too important to do anything but win here.

This whole industry has been through such a whirlwind, yo-yoing between the record-setting global box office that we had in 2019 and then, obviously, 2020 being a crisis year. It’s difficult to determine where we are in the recovery, because this is such an unprecedented situation, but we have seen some positive signs starting in 2021. By the end of the year, we hit $21 billion in global admissions, more than $4 billion of which came from North America. John, how do you assess those figures in the context of the industry’s recovery?

John Fithian: Those figures, though encouraging, don’t say much about the scope of the industry’s recovery. It’s remarkable to me that the numbers you just quoted actually existed in 2021, because of all the challenges that we faced. We were still facing cinema closures in some markets and capacity restrictions and other masking policies. And we didn’t have a full slate of movies, because it didn’t make sense to the studios to release traditional theatrical movies in the same vein during that context. And so, to me, those numbers are miraculous, that that happened during a pandemic.

The exciting thing now is we’re starting to see numbers in the period from just last month until now that are like the numbers we used to have in 2019. These past two weekends, we grossed about the same amounts that we grossed in those same weekends in 2019. And as we look at the schedule going forward, we think that’s going to accelerate. Of course, there are some weekends that are stronger than others. But the total list of movies that we’ve got coming out? I mean, it’s Doctor Strange, Top Gun, Jurassic World, Lightyear, Minions, Thor, Black Adam, Black Panther, Avatar 2. Those are the blockbusters just in this calendar year.

But it’s not just big movies. It’s also smaller movies that really will have traction. I’m really looking forward to Babylon from Damien Chazelle, from Paramount. The Fabelmans, which is Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical project coming from Universal. A Man Called Otto, which is Tom Hanks’s flick over at Sony. And then Don’t Worry, Darling by Olivia Wilde, which is a Warner Bros. movie.

My point, as alluded to earlier, is that we’re seeing the kind of content now that we couldn’t see during the pandemic. And so I think the numbers you’re gonna see riding out the rest of this year are going to be incredibly strong. And the slate in 2023 looks really strong, too. So as encouraging as those numbers were in 2021, I don’t think they’re relevant to predict where we’re going now that the industry is back.

Charlie, from your perspective, how are you assessing the industry at this point? How do you contextualize those 2021 numbers over at the MPA?

Charles Rivkin: Well, look, John said it well. There’s not much more I can add. I just will say a couple things. I agree with him that 2021 is just the beginning of the industry’s recovery. You can see it. John mentioned earlier that Spider-Man: No Way Home was the third-highest grossing box office film of all time. Take a moment and think about that: of all time, in the middle of a pandemic. That’s what people are going to see right now. I just read that The Batman crossed the $750 million mark worldwide the other day.

I’m confident that audiences are going to continue to flock to the theaters. Great stories drive box office. You heard John’s list. There’s some great stories coming up. And the only thing I would add on to John’s list is an interesting statistic. Last year, nearly 950 films entered production, which is a record high. It’s 16 percent ahead of 2019, pre-pandemic; it’s 40 percent greater than 2017; and almost double what happened during during 2020. We’re just at the beginning of one of the strongest recoveries ever seen.

Charlie, you mentioned a bit earlier about the changes that the MPA has seen through your 100-year history, things like how now you represent streamers and you’re looking at international markets as well. As the economic model around the film business has evolved, and as the MPA has evolved to keep pace with it, what role do you believe theatrical will play in the entertainment industry moving forward? And how do you think that theaters will look and feel in 10 years?

Charles Rivkin: Well, I just mentioned a minute ago two of the films, about Spider-Man: No Way Home and about The Batman. The entire entertainment industry is evolving, it’s evolving from production to exhibition. But theaters remain integral and essential and important to everything that we’ve done, as essential as ever. And so I would say that when you look at successes like the films we’ve just been articulating, obviously, there’s more of that to come. It’s clear that consumers want both. They want to have great entertainment that can watch it at home, they can watch it wherever they are, but they’re going to keep going back to the movies. And we’re thrilled about that.

John, from your perspective, all of the changes we’re seeing here in exhibition–from premium amenities to dynamic pricing—the economic model really is changing in ways beyond the theatrical window. How do you think theaters will look and feel in the next decade?

John Fithian: You’re right that we will change how we offer choices to consumers in the next decade. That’s a lot of what the Cinema Foundation is about: Looking for innovations and technologies and food and beverage services, as described earlier, but also looking at innovations of how cinema spaces are used. We will always have movies be our bread and butter. That’s why they’re called movie houses. But we’ll start showing other kinds of content. Some of those streaming companies might want to premiere their television shows in the cinema, and vice versa. We’ve got gaming growing. And we’ve got other ways that people come to watch live streaming of rock concerts or other types of content.

We’re looking at everything, as we emerge from this pandemic, that a movie house or cinema can do to entertain customers and bring them together. Because the one thing that hasn’t changed is that people, as human beings, always want to get out of their homes, gathered together in a shared collective experience, where they can hear and feel what their fellow human beings are hearing and feeling. The consumers have been starved for this during the pandemic. They are anxious and excited about coming back out and sharing in cultural experiences like movies at movie cinemas. The one thing that won’t change is that the shared collective experience has always been a great way to see a movie, and is now again. But the sight and sound and the food and the seats, and everything that we can offer to make it the most enjoyable experience like you can’t get at home, are what we’re going to continue to evolve.

To close out: What good movies have you seen lately?

Charles Rivkin: You know what, you’re asking me a tough question, because I love movies. I get to be a member of the Academy as long as I’m in this job. So I see Academy screenings in theaters. I see as many movies as I possibly can digest. It’s dangerous for me to talk about movies, because I have six members that make extraordinary movies and I hate to neglect any of them.

But literally off the top of my head, the films that just stayed with me? Dune, which I thought was extraordinary, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, King Richard, CODA, Encanto, Being the Ricardos, Spider-Man, The Batman. What I’m really looking forward to and I haven’t seen yet is Top Gun, which I think is going to be absolutely extraordinary. And Jurassic World: Dominion is going to be incredible. I can’t wait. 

John Fithian: Equally difficult for me as it is for Charlie, because you feel like you’re going to leave some out. So I’ll just use a couple as examples to prove different points. I thought that Spider-Man was one of the greatest action hero movies ever put together. The fact that Sony had the strength and insight to release that movie when it did and to claim a gigantic marketplace, with what was both—in terms of its story and in terms of its cast and appeal— just a wonderful, gigantic blockbuster.

But I’ll pick as my second movie the other end of the spectrum and go with CODA, which was a beautiful, meaningful movie. We would like that movie  to have been seen in even more theaters,. So [I’ll pick] both a big blockbuster from a big studio, and a smaller but really meaningful movie from the streamer, that are kind of the touchstones to me of where the art form has gone. And I love both of those movies.

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)

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