Michael P. O’Leary will be starting his term as the new president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) on May 1, following the retirement of his predecessor, John Fithian, upon the conclusion of CinemaCon 2023. O’Leary, an attorney and lobbyist, has served in several senior leadership positions across the entertainment industry and in government, with experience at the Entertainment Software Association, 21st Century Fox, the Motion Picture Association. In Washington, O’Leary has more than 25 years of leadership experience in the legislative and executive branches and in the private sector. As deputy chief of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the U.S. Justice Department, he successfully prosecuted and supervised multiple complex, multidistrict and international criminal cases. Boxoffice Pro spoke with O’Leary following the announcement of his appointment, when he discussed, among other things, his personal connection to the movie theater industry.
Will this be your first CinemaCon? What are you expecting, and looking forward to, from this year’s event?
I have been to CinemaCon in the past, while I was with MPA. It is a terrific showcase. John and Mitch and the team create an unapparelled experience, and I am excited about returning in April. Obviously, it will be different in my new capacity, but I am looking forward to meeting many of the industry’s leaders and reconnecting with old friends. I will also have the chance to work closely with John and see how it is done. I am very fortunate in that regard. John has been very helpful during this transition.
Let’s talk about your background—you’re trained as a lawyer and have valuable experience in Washington, both in government and as a lobbyist. You’ve also worked at other important trade groups, like the MPA. What attracted you to this role at NATO? And what do you think your prior experience brings to the role?
I was attracted to NATO for a number of reasons. First, I believe in the importance of the cinematic experience. It is an important part of the American cultural landscape. Second, I love the motion picture industry. It is exciting to be back. Third, I want to be a part of the next chapter of this industry. The history of theatrical exhibition is one of evolution, innovation, and perseverance. Challenges lie ahead, but there is no doubt in my mind the theatrical experience is going to thrive in the years ahead. I want to be a part of that.
I have had the tremendous good fortune during my career to work in many amazing places, and each of those experiences has shaped me professionally. As the lead advocate for this industry, [I have] the ability to understand how the industry works, understand the challenges and opportunities we face, understand how to solve complex issues, and drive consensus, [which] are all critical to our success. I have done these things in different contexts throughout my career. That gives me a foundation for success at NATO. Of course, the process of learning and improving never stops, but having that experience can be very helpful.
I know it’s still early, but have you been able to have any conversations with members so far? What concerns or priorities have arisen from those conversations?
I have spoken with many of the NATO members, all of whom have been generous with their time and support. Across the membership, there is a sense of optimism about the years ahead. The passion and enthusiasm they have for theatrical exhibition is contagious. In the short term, the number one priority is getting movies into theaters. The public is eager to go to the movies, and we need to work with our partners in the creative community to provide them with the compelling stories and characters they want to see.
What would a successful first year at NATO look like for you?
A successful first year will be earning the complete confidence of members in NATO’s leadership and organization to advance their priorities. Success will include a clear set of priorities, messaging, and an effective strategic approach to accomplish those goals. It will also involve NATO having a meaningful presence in capitals across the nation and in Washington, D.C. From that foundation, NATO will be well positioned for years to come.
Let’s talk about your life as a moviegoer—do you have a childhood theater or moviegoing moment that sticks out for you, personally?
I grew up in Missoula, Montana, and recall two important theaters from my youth. One was the Wilma on Higgins Ave. I believe I saw Star Wars there, which was one of my earliest cinematic memories. The other was the Fox Theater, which was memorable because it had a very tall marquee that had flashing lights running from the ground to the top where “FOX” would light up in bright neon lights. A special memory was seeing MacArthur with my grandfather in Knoxville when I was about 9. Despite having Gregory Peck in the lead role, the movie wasn’t particularly memorable, but my grandfather, who was a career Army, knew and worked with General MacArthur during World War II. For a young boy, seeing an important portion of your grandfather’s life on the big screen, while sitting next to him, was special.
What are your moviegoing habits like—how often do you make it out to theaters, what do you like to watch, and are there any movie theater experiences (premium auditoriums, dine-in, etc.) that you seek out? And what’s your usual order at the concessions stand?
I am not sure my habits fall neatly into a category. I go to movies at all times in all types of theaters. One of the key points that I think we need to be better about making, is that there really is an option for everyone at the cinema. I embody that. I enjoy going on a Friday night, but I also enjoy stealing away on a Tuesday afternoon to watch a matinee. I have taken some heat lately for saying that licorice is my favorite concession stand item, but I will take Twizzlers every time. A close second would be buttered popcorn and a nice glass of wine.
And now for the tough question: do you have a favorite movie? and if there’s a movie that you could watch on the big screen that you’ve never had the chance to, what would it be?
My favorite movie is The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s treatment of that franchise is amazing. Christian Bale will always be Batman to me, and Michael Caine as Alfred, unbeatable. I have also always loved the movie Patton. It is one of those big sprawling epic pictures with the incredible acting of George C. Scott driving the story. I was 3 when it was released, and despite having seen it many, many times in my life, I have never seen it on the big screen.