Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek ‘Was Not Our Friend,’ Says National Association of Theatre Owners Chief

CinemaCon: Outgoing NATO CEO John Fithian says current Disney leaders value movie theaters more than their streaming-focused former chief

Bob Chapek John Fithian

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John Fithian, the retiring CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, is optimistic that the box office will soon be back to its pre-pandemic highs, and the recent exit of former Disney CEO Bob Chapek is one of the reasons why.

Fithian believes that the current state of Hollywood is very advantageous for movie theaters, as the vast majority of legacy and streamer studios are recommitting to releasing films of all budgets and genre films exclusively in theaters. This includes Disney, which Fithian feels wasn’t as good a partner to exhibitors when Chapek was in charge.

“Look, Bob Chapek was not our friend. I’ll just be honest,” Fithian told TheWrap in a wide-ranging interview. “He did not believe in the theatrical model. It was all about Disney+ and their investors were saying it was all about Disney+… until they looked at the money and suddenly Wall Street said, ‘Uh, theatrical is important.’”

The NATO chief pointed to Disney executives like co-chairman Alan Bergman and distribution executives Cathleen Taff and Tony Chambers — all of whom worked under Chapek — as examples of top names at the company who see theatrical as vital to raising a film’s financial success and who will be able to continue pursuing that mindset under CEO Bob Iger, who returned to Disney last November after Chapek was ousted and under whom Disney enjoyed record box office success in the late 2010s.

Under Chapek’s leadership, Disney released several of its most high-profile movies either exclusively on Disney+, with curtailed theatrical windows, or via a Disney+ feature called Premier Access in which films like “Black Widow,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Jungle Cruise” were released simultaneously in theaters and on streaming at a premium $30 price. That model led to a lawsuit filed against Disney by “Black Widow” star Scarlett Johansson that was settled out of court.

Even after Premier Access was phased out, Disney continued to experiment with shortening and eliminating theatrical windows. While the 2021 animated film “Encanto” grossed less than $300 million worldwide during its 30-day exclusive run in theaters, it set a then-record for the fastest Disney+ title to reach 200 million hours of viewing when it was released on streaming on Christmas Eve.

“We do not subscribe to the belief that theatrical is the only way to build a Disney franchise,” Chapek said on an earnings call following the release of “Encanto,” citing Disney+ as the “catalyst” for the film’s success.

In the wake of this success, Chapek and Disney moved forward with releasing the critically acclaimed Pixar film “Turning Red” exclusively on Disney+. The studio returned to a theatrical release strategy with the summer Pixar film “Lightyear,” but that movie flopped at the box office with just $226 million grossed worldwide — less than “Encanto.”

The studio’s animation box office woes grew in November with “Strange World,” which was released just days after Chapek’s ousting and became one of the biggest bombs in Disney history with a paltry $73.6 million grossed worldwide, costing the studio over $100 million.

Disney is hoping to turn things around in 2023 with the Pixar summer film “Elemental” and the Disney animated film “Wish” at Thanksgiving, both of which studio insiders say are intended to have a full theatrical window of at least 45 days.

Read TheWrap’s full interview with John Fithian on WrapPRO.