NATO Chief John Fithian Tells CinemaCon to Call Them ‘Movies’ Not ‘Content’

“We are not in the widget business,” the retiring president and CEO said in his final opening day speech in Las Vegas

John Fithian CinemaCon
John Fithian at CinemaCon 2021/Getty Images

The National Association of Theater Owners’ annual trade show CinemaCon is doubling as a retirement party for its president and CEO, John Fithian, who in his final opening day speech urged movie theater owners to not use the word “content” to describe what they put on their screens.

“The words ‘product’ and ‘content’ are still used far too often, and they diminish the value this industry provides,” Fithian said on Tuesday. “We are not in the widget business…Movies are fun, entertaining, and sometimes art. When we speak of that art, the art of cinema, let’s use that word.”

“Content makes something sound disposable. Content may have shifted during transit,” he continued. “Movies are about pleasure, and cinema signifies lasting power and cultural relevancy.”

Joining NATO as outside counsel in 1991 and becoming president and CEO in 1999, Fithian’s long career at the trade organization saw him tackle several crucial issues facing movie theaters, including the MPA ratings system, the transition from 35mm to digital projectors and years of debates over the length of the theatrical window system.

When the pandemic hit and thousands of theaters were forced to close, Fithian led lengthy lobbying meetings with federal and state lawmakers to create grants, tax relief packages and other financial aid packages to allow cinemas to get through the yearlong shutdown.

Fithian also spearheaded the creation of the CinemaSafe program, designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in movie theaters through safety protocols such as social distance between parties in auditoriums, deep cleanings between screenings and the updating of HVAC air filters. The CinemaSafe program was used in more lobbying meetings with government officials to convince them to reopen theaters with capacity restrictions in early 2021.

As he has usually done at CinemaCon over the years, Fithian gave the case for a hopeful view of the future of moviegoing, pointing to studios’ recommitment to releasing films exclusively in theaters while streaming-first companies like Amazon and Apple have begun plans to release more of its films like “Air” and “Napoleon” in theaters.

“One of the key words you will hear this week is ‘optimism,’” Fithian said. “It is now more irrefutable than ever that theatrical is the keystone of the movie industry. Releasing major films with massive budgets directly to streaming platforms is not a sustainable business model. The return on investment is non-existent.”

Fithian will make his farewell speech on Thursday night as he presents CinemaCon’s Spirit of the Industry Award to “Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan and producer Emma Thomas. You can read his interview with TheWrap on the future of moviegoing here.