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Movie Theater Industry’s Top Lobbyist Knocks Trump-Style Economic Policies

Variety logo Variety 3/28/2017 Brent Lang
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John Fithian, the top lobbyist for the movie theater industry, hit back at rising populism around the globe in an address to studio executives and distributors on Tuesday.

The film business is a globalized one, dependent on the free flow of talent and goods, the National Association of Theatre Owners head said at CinemaCon. His comments came in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across Europe and the United States.

All of these political changes signal a growing feeling in certain segments that their societies should become more insular. In turn, these movements, particularly in the case of Trump, have often been married to an economic protectionism that is openly flirting with enacting tariffs on imports.

Without naming Trump, Fithian said the exhibition community should embrace a world is flat view.

“Open and diverse societies can drive movie attendance,” said Fithian, noting that Hispanics represent a disproportionate amount of ticket buyers and that Asian and African-American audiences are on the rise.

He cautioned that any sweeping trade legislation could imperil the exhibition business. He noted that Mexican-based Cinepolis buys corn for its popcorn from Iowa and Indiana, and cheese for its snacks from Wisconsin. If free trade policies between Mexico and the United States are swept away, the company would have to buy more expensive corn from Argentina and find another source for its cheese, he said. Higher duties will also contribute to rising costs on projectors and other equipment, hurting the industry, Fithian argued.

Piracy has been a major issue for the movie business. Trade agreements have been used to slow the spread of illegal copies of films, Fithian argued.

“Exhibitors around the world lose billions of dollars each year to movie theft, and the losses would be much greater if not for a coordinated war on piracy,” Fithian said.

Fithian wasn’t just concerned with the movement of goods. He stressed that greater openness was an essential component for the creative health of the industry.

“The global nature of our industry encourages directors from around the world to bring their unique visions to major productions,” Fithian said.

The NATO chief didn’t just take on Trump-ism and its ilk. He also took issue with claims that millennials are fleeing the multiplexes for streaming services, gaming, and other forms of digital disruption. Changes in consumer behavior have roiled the home entertainment market, with revenues dropping 7% in 2016 to $12 billion. Yet Fithian noted that the domestic box office hit record levels last year and the global box office also eked out a new high-water mark. He stressed that millennials represented more than half of frequent moviegoers and that their percentage of ticket sales is growing.

“There has been disruption in the industry — just not in the movie theater industry,” Fithian said.

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