John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, is presiding over the organization at a time when theater owners are looking to expand the demographics they're reaching at the movies. Fithian says he's confident this year will be better than the last, which saw a six percent decline in tickets sold — the lowest level since 1995.
Fithian stresses that the schedule of upcoming releases includes quality movies spaced throughout the year — especially family films and movies with women in leading roles.
"Last year, the research showed that only about 12 percent of the movies had women in leading roles, even though women buy about half of our tickets," Fithian told the Frame. "This year we have women leading in virtually every genre across the map, and that's really an exciting thing to see."
Fithian noted that the actress Geena Davis has started an entire foundation and institute to argue the point — which he says is being made effectively — that more women in front of and behind the camera will bring more women of all ages to the movies. While studios have been making more efforts to expand their reach when it comes to racial diversity, Fithian says getting them to do more about women in film is a big priority for theater owners.
Meanwhile, family films are attractive to theater owners, Fithian says, but not the cool thing for top filmmakers, leading to too many R-rated films being turned out.
"I have this feeling that some of the really cool moviemakers in Hollywood and New York, they want to be the next Quentin Tarantino," Fithian says. "And they want to make the cutting-edge, hard, R-rated adult picture that sets a new trend."
Those R-rated films can be limiting, says Fithian, particularly in middle America:
"As theater owners, we don't just exist in Los Angeles and New York, we exist in Omaha and Des Moines and places where that hard adult fare doesn't sell quite as well — where families want to go to the movies, and they want to take their kids to see content that's appropriate for them. And so when we see a year like this one, with every major studio releasing family titles, we get really excited."
One thing that makes family films particularly appealing for theater owners: families spend more money.
"Families come in groups," Fithian notes. "They come often when there are good family movies, they buy lots of concessions, they are great customers if we have the movies to show them."
Every year, theater owners take a hard look at the demographics of what's selling tickets, then present those stats to the people who make the movies.
"Each year, the movies rated PG and PG-13, and G, do much better than the movies rated R, on average," Fithian says. "And so we take that data, we show it to our distribution partners, and we say, 'Please, please, give us more family titles.'"
What he'd do as a studio president
Fithian says if he were put in charge of a studio, there are two areas he'd look at: mid-range movies, and movies that appeal to a broader set of demographics.
"First, I wouldn't shoot for a blockbuster tentpole with every single gamble. And what's happening with a lot of the majors right now is that they're reducing the number of movies that they release, but they're increasing the amount they spend producing and marketing those movies. That's great for the tentpoles — that's why we'll have four, five or six or more billion-dollar blockbusters this year, but what's missing are the movies in the middle."
Fithian adds that some new production companies are shooting straight for that mid-range level.
"The second thing I would do is look for genres that appeal to all demographics, mindful of what those demographics have in them," Fithian says. Beyond women, he added: "We also need more minorities on screen. We need more African-Americans and more Hispanics. If you look at the demographics of our moviegoers, Hispanics are far and away the best. They go more than six times a year to movies on average."
That audience proves to be significant for movie theaters for a variety of reasons.
"Hispanics go in groups — multi-generational outings — they buy lots of concessions, they buy lots of movie tickets, they're very sophisticated consumers of movies. And yet if you look at the percentage of the actors and the directors on camera, behind the camera, it doesn't reflect the reality of the marketplace. And when you take a movie like 'Furious 7,' or the whole 'Fast and Furious' series as a whole, that cast reflected the diversity of the world, and that's part of the reason why it's doing so extraordinarily well."
Fithian says talking to studios and distributors about what kind of movies should be being made can be a touchy subject.
"It's always a tricky conversation, because studio and distributors do a good job with their business, and our cinema operators do a good job at our business," Fithian says. "They probably don't like it when we tell them how to make and distribute movies, and we don't like it when they tell us how to run cinemas."
One attempt to challenge theater owners has come from Netflix, which has started making deals that involve debuting movies on streaming at the same time as they're opening in theaters:
"The Netflix model on movies is not a good model for the cinema business, or, for that matter, the entire movie business in Hollywood. It's only good for Netflix. Subscription models of giving movies to the consumer for an all-you-can-eat price once a month is the worst return on investment you can possibly have in this industry."
Directors leaving for TV
There's also been a bit of a brain drain from the movies, with great filmmakers leaving to produce projects for TV. Fithian says it's happening at a faster rate than previously, due to the large number of outlets currently making quality TV. He says he's had conversations with some of those very filmmakers, noting two directors who've left for TV who theater owners would like to see back at the movies: Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher:
"We are having discussions with them about how we can get them to come at least partially back to making movies for the cinema. And I'm encouraged. I think there are lots of things that could help. The digital age makes it much easier to put movies into more cinemas and makes it much easier to distribute them."
Fithian says that could make making movies a more attractive prospect, along with marketing now being easier.
Unlike a lot of businesses, films come at a flat rate to consumers for any sort of movie. Fithian says while theaters do have different prices based on time and the age of moviegoers, movies are too subjective to make tiered-pricing based on quality a reasonable prospect:
"We do not know really until Friday night — or, more often now, Thursday night — what movies are going to sell well and what aren't. And so for someone to decide ahead of time this movie's a $10 movie, that movie's a $6 movie, is a really difficult thing to do in something that is so subjective as what movies are good and what movies aren't."
So, no matter what you may think, don't expect to be getting big discounts for B-movies — or high-budget flops — anytime soon.