April’s CinemaCon will be the first with Michael O’Leary at the helm of the National Association of Theatre Owners. The NATO boss talks opportunities and challenges for the exhibition sector, and what’s in store at the Las Vegas event.

'The Fall Guy'

Source: Universal

‘The Fall Guy’

Michael O’Leary arrives at Cinema­Con for his first edition as president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) with the industry looking to capitalise on a successful Oscars for the studios and bounce back after six months without studio production due to the Hollywood strikes.

Washington DC-based O’Leary has spent much of his career in public policy and government affairs in the entertainment business, having held senior executive roles at the Entertainment Software Association and 21st Century Fox.

Michael O'Leary_Credit Amy Graves-NATO

Source: Amy Graves / NATO

Michael O’Leary

He has also served as senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America and launched a public affairs consultancy. Early in his career, O’Leary worked as a lawyer at the US Department of Justice in legislative affairs and the criminal division.

On the eve of the annual exhibitors conference in Las Vegas, O’Leary talks to Screen International about how theatres can thrive, the international market and support for independent cinema owners. CinemaCon runs April 8-11. 

What is your view on the state of cinemagoing and exhibition?

I feel positive about the direction this industry is going after talking to as many exhibitors and our friends in distribution around the world as I possibly can. The most important takeaway from 2023 is consumer demand for the theatrical experience is very high and we know studios and distributors are committed to making sure motion pictures remain as strong as ever.

Six months of no production and no promotion [due to the 2023 Holly­wood strikes] is going to impact any industry and it’s certainly impacting ours. But just looking at the last few months we’ve had, Bob Marley: One Love did really well and [so did] Dune: Part Two, which is an amazing, epic movie. We’re in a good place.

What is your agenda at NATO?

My strategy is based on engagement and proactively telling the story of the people who own theatres in the US and around the world. It is critically important that we talk about the large circuits but also the regional circuits and the independents, as well as theatres all over the world.

One example you will see at Cinema­Con is we are focusing a lot of our energy on independent cinema owners — who run anything from one or two screens up to 75, 125 screens — and elevating the work of the Independent Theatre Owners Coalition [ITOC].

We have also been doing outreach with the studios and the creative community. I’m excited that we are going to have Bill Kramer from the Academy at CinemaCon. [The CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is due to take part in a panel discussion on April 11.] 

How will you raise awareness of independent cinema owners?

We’re going to talk about them more. We recently took a group of independents and spent a week in Los Angeles meeting the studio heads of distribution and marketing and the sales teams. I would like to incorporate theatres from the international marketplace in those discussions.

We’re trying to do programming which will be of practical value, like ways you can access capital to upgrade or refurbish your theatre. [ITOC has scheduled NATO member-­only panels and presentations for one of the days at CinemaCon.]

The strike-induced production halt has resulted in a leaner release slate this year. What are your constituents telling you as they look to 2024 and 2025?

It’s been a slow start to 2024 but people are candid about it and at the same time we’re looking at how we can make the most of what we have. This is an optimistic group of people who look to the future and constantly think about how to provide the best experiences for theatre­goers.

Last year proved that people want to go to the movies, and the people I represent are doing their level best to make sure that when those people get to the theatre, they have the best possible experience. I mentioned movies in the past few months have done very well and we’re excited about what’s on the immediate horizon like The Fall Guy, Deadpool & Wolverine and beyond.

Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan referenced cinema’s “incredible journey” at the Oscars. How does theatrical thrive when streaming and other forms of entertainment are placing demands on the audience’s time?

Christopher Nolan has been an unrivalled advocate on behalf of the theatrical experience. Everybody in exhibition was cheering him and Emma Thomas when they received the best picture Oscar. If our industry working collaboratively with the people that believe in motion pictures and movie theatres get it right, we will ensure the theatre has a place on the entertainment landscape for generations to come.

There are only 168 hours in every week and there are more companies competing for a piece of that than there were decades ago, so we have to compete. We have a unique product which cannot be replicated on your phone, couch or television.

How important is alternative programming?

You saw it with Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and other concert movies. It’s a constant responsibility within our industry to try to find new, innovative and interesting things that audiences will want to go see. During the work stoppage in some places, foreign-language films were brought into theatres and people went to see those movies. There has been a tendency in our industry to categorise audiences that go to this movie or that movie, but we learned with ‘Barbenheimer’ that people saw two wildly different movies on the same day. People want to be entertained. 

The average US exclusive theatrical window is 45 days. Do you see a significant change on the horizon?

Everyone assumed the pandemic signalled the end of windows and everything would become day-and-date. That was proven largely to be false. Where we are right now, in the US at least, is that the marketplace is deciding where the window sits. This will be a continued evolution. If you put a motion picture in a movie theatre for a specified exclusive window and support it with a marketing campaign, that movie is not only going to be successful in the theatre, it’s going to be more successful downstream than it other­wise would have been had it not had theatrical exclusivity.

There are around 38,000 screens in the US and only 5% went out of business in the pandemic. Will more fall by the wayside?

The history of our industry has been one of expansion and contraction. The last four or five years have been interesting with Covid, a tough global economy and the labour situation. The number will go up and down over time, but if we have the product to get into the theatres then the number of theatres in this country are sustainable. 

Are you encouraged by the vibrancy of the international market­place?

Everything about it is exciting. If you look at the [recent 96th] Oscars, you had Anatomy Of A Fall, Godzilla Minus One and The Zone Of Interest and others winning awards, so my hope is there will start to be greater recognition that the theatrical market­place is truly a global one. The countries that did better during the work stoppage in the US were those that had a vibrant domestic film community. I was told a long time ago that movies are the way America speaks to the world. I actually think movies are the way the world speaks to itself.

Does the US federal government need to do more to help exhibition? Are there any US government proposals on the table coming up that may impact exhibition?

So many of the circuits that I represent are small businesses, and the preference is to have the marketplace work so we avoid government over-­regulation or government involvement. At the same time, there is a role for government when there’s an uneven playing field.

Just to give one example, there’s legislation out there right now which would reduce credit card swipe fees to create greater competition and reduce the cost to NATO’s small business theatre owners of running their theatres. That benefits everyone.

The US government has an opportunity to play a more proactive role in the fiscal or tax policy that recognises the value of having small businesses and businesses of other sizes upgrade or modernise.

What about the exhibition sector keeps you up at night?

I am quite optimistic about this industry so fortunately I have been sleeping pretty well. Having said that, we need to get more films and we need production to get back to where it was. And we need sufficient marketing so people are aware what’s out there. Exhibition has a responsibility to be a part of that as well as distribution. We have a shared goal.