Theater owner group CEO: Blaming theatrical windows for piracy is 'completely crazy'

Theater owner group CEO: Blaming theatrical windows for piracy is 'completely crazy'
John Fithian is president and CEO of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. (Michael Tran / FilmMagic)

The head of the group representing the nation's cinema operators voiced support Tuesday for potentially groundbreaking talks between theater owners and studios to deliver movies sooner to the home.

"Let's stop fighting publicly about the future of our release dates. This is about growing the pie for everyone," John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, told reporters at the annual CinemaCon gathering in Las Vegas.


But Fithian fired back at suggestions from some studios that the current business model — in which movies are made available on home video about 90 days after their release in theaters — encourages copyright theft. He called that idea "completely crazy."

Fithian said the vast majority of piracy happens when a movie is released in theaters and when it is made available digitally. "All you're doing is accelerating the second wave of piracy," he said.

Studios including Warner Bros., Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox have been talking with cinema owners for months about cutting down the 90-day wait period. Previous efforts have met with backlash from theater owners worried that shorter so-called theatrical windows would cannibalize movie ticket sales.

Studios hope that shorter windows will help reverse years of steep declines in home entertainment revenue. Major theater owners now support that goal.

"Finding a way to grow the home market is important for us as well as the studios," Fithian said. "It's tricky, but it's doable."

Virtually every studio except Disney has been pushing for a new windowing model of 45 days or less, but the studios disagree on the details. They're legally prohibited from negotiating among themselves, making it virtually impossible to come to an industry consensus on the length of the window or the price of early home video. Many executives want to charge people $30 to $50 for early home video. Some want a even more truncated window of 17 days.

Fithian would not comment on the specifics of the talks, which is a topic of deep discussion in the halls and conference rooms of CinemaCon at Caesars Palace.

In his opening speech to theater owners, Fithian touted the industry's growth over the last decade and disputed the idea that younger patrons aren't going to the movies. He noted that tickets sales in the U.S. and Canada are up 2.3% this year over last. Thanks to hits like "Logan" and "Beauty and the Beast," the industry is poised to gross $1 billion in March, a first for the month.

Dave Hollis, executive vice president of theatrical distribution for Disney, also cheered the record results. However, he sounded a more sobering note when addressing long-term stagnation in attendance, especially among social-media-obsessed millennials.

"It does feel like the changing lives of our consumers are having some impact," Hollis told the audience of cinema owners. "The great news, obviously, is box office is up, but our goal has always been to stay ahead and look for new opportunities to drive it forward and keep it as healthy as it can be."

Apart from box-office trends, Fithian also addressed the trend of economic protectionism growing in countries around the world and the importance of maintaining a "global worldview." Though he did not name specific world leaders and governments, the Trump administration has made protectionist comments about Mexico and China.

As the cinema industry becomes more global, especially in China, Fithian said free trade, free immigration and diversity among filmmakers and moviegoers have been essential to the industry's growth in recent years. Latinos are an especially large demographic of moviegoers, making up 21% of theater audiences in the U.S. and Canada.

"Open and diverse societies can drive movie attendance," Fithian said in his speech.



5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Fithian.

This article was originally published at 3:20 p.m.