Exhibs suit up for combat

Fifthian becomes key voice as ShoWest confronts B.O. slump

ShoWest was once a place where studios came to tubthump their slates and vendors hawked everything from seats to popcorn poppers to ticket displays.

But, confronting a three-year downturn in admissions, the main commodity being sold at ShoWest this year is moviegoing itself. And John Fithian, head of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, has emerged as the industry’s main pitchman.

“This is a bizarre industry,” Fithian said in an interview during the Las Vegas confab. “Until I took this job, I didn’t really realize how unique the movie industry is. It is so highly publicized that it garners much more attention than any other industry of comparable size. It’s a good thing when times are good and a terrible thing when times are bad.”

Things were especially bad last year. As box office receipts dropped by double digits during the summer season — at the end of the year, the decline was 5.8% by the MPAA’s tally — nearly anyone with a gripe about their last trip to the movie theater offered it up as a definitive explanation for why moviegoing is no longer an American pastime.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the big proposals coming out of the exhib confab were aimed at PR: an advertising campaign that would do for theaters what “Got Milk?” did for dairy farmers and “Beef. It’s what for dinner” did for cattle ranchers.

The idea first was floated by Fithian in recent months, but it got the biggest support from Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

Also on the table is a proposal to push the FCC to lift the ban on jamming cell phones at movie theaters.

In some ways, last year’s poor summer couldn’t have come at a worse point for the movie industry. Hollywood’s most vociferous public cheerleader, Jack Valenti, had stepped down from the MPAA, and Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, was still trying to find his footing as an expert on the entertainment industry.

A creature of Washington, D.C., Fithian first moved there from Indiana after his father, Floyd, was elected to Congress in 1974. Before taking the top job at NATO in 2000, he was a lobbyist at the D.C. mega-law firm Patton Boggs for a variety of trade orgs, including professional athletes, the advertising industry and NATO.

For years, NATO had been accustomed to sitting in the wings while Valenti led the rah-rah chorus. But with theaters taking the brunt of the public criticism for the box office decline — complaints about noisy kids, cell phone chirps, pre-show ads and high ticket prices — exhibs began pushing for Fithian to start taking a more aggressive public stance.

“When the patrons read these stories in the newspaper and they start focusing on what they don’t like about the moviegoing experience and they talk about with their friends, it has to have an effect on the bottom-line decision of how often they go to the movies,” Fithian says.

The breaking point was the suggestion that studios should simply release their films simultaneously on DVD and in theaters. “(Walt Disney chief) Bob Iger says one thing in an analyst call and it starts to get picked up. And then Steven Soderbergh and Mark Cuban were very loud in their (“Bubble”) experiment,” Fithian says.

“We believed that the press and attention was focused on a small minority of the industry that thought these radical experiments were a good idea,” he says.

The windows debate was not a major theme at ShoWest, a convivial event devoted mainly to glitzy parties, celebrity junkets, rounds of golf and sneak previews of films like “Cars,” “Mission: Impossible 3” and “Superman.”

Most studio distribution execs at ShoWest — many of them former exhibs — are invested in maintaining the theatrical window, if only to preserve their relationships with film buyers. The key people driving the window discussion are homevideo execs and corporate higher-ups who see the long-term revenue potential of simultaneous release strategies.

Warner Bros. Distrib prexy Dan Fellman went out of his way during the studio’s product preview to pledge support for the theatrical window. “Warner Bros. will preserve that window and work with you and NATO to protect your box office,” he said.

The debate has nevertheless been a source of almost constant agitation to Fithian. He was stung by exhibs last year for not doing enough to protect their interests, though this year at ShoWest, exhibs expressed enthusiasm for his job performance.

“He’s just grown and developed,” says Peter Brown, CEO of No. 2 circuit AMC.

Fithian’s first step was to try to move the debate from the theaters to the movie studios. “Last summer was a bit of a response to several studio executives who were saying the theater experience is down because the theater experience is bad and blaming ads and blaming patron behavior,” he says.

“It was the middle of a tough year, and we shouted at each other for a while, and then settled down at the end of the year and said, ‘Now, let’s figure out how we can improve it.’ ”

Fithian is betting a big summer schedule will post the sort of box office numbers that will quiet those critics who believe Americans have lost their passion for going to the movies.

“We always anticipated that the media would be overly negative on the downswing of the cycle, but that we could return to some positive public perception when the numbers started turning up. And that’s what happened, and I think that’s going to continue,” he says. “I would be surprised if we weren’t substantially up at the end of the third quarter. We really have our fingers crossed.”