A movie-theater veteran has launched a company that seeks to jolt the industry with AI and a new production studio

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A movie-theater veteran has launched a company that seeks to jolt the industry with AI and a new production studio
John Fithian, former head of The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), has launched The Fithian Group.Chris Pizzello/AP
  • John Fithian, former head of NATO, formed The Fithian Group, which aims to improve movie production, distribution, and exhibition.
  • The group is overseeing the building of a high-tech production studio in Europe and a data-infused direct distribution platform.
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Three months after John Fithian retired as the head of the movie-theater-lobbyist group The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), he was ready to get back to work. What he didn't realize was how much work needed to be done.

Fithian worked for over twenty years fighting to keep movie theaters relevant in the constantly changing worlds of entertainment and technology. He was on the front lines for issues ranging from theaters changing to digital projection, to the advent of movies released via streaming, and theaters suddenly shuttering due to the pandemic. Now, Fithian is taking on perhaps his hardest challenge yet: making it easier for more movies to be made and theatrically released.

When he announced the formation of The Fithian Group in November, many thought Fithian — along with fellow former NATO execs Jackie Brenneman and Patrick Corcoran, who are founding partners — would be doing an extension of the work they did at the organization: being advocates for the theatrical experience. However, the three have much more ambitious plans.

"The basic concept is there's a lot of things that we think we can help do to improve production, distribution, and exhibition of movies, things we could never really do at NATO," Fithian told Business Insider in an interview alongside Brenneman and Corcoran late last month. "At NATO, you're representing the entire industry, so you can't take on competitive issues. I think all three of us enjoyed our careers there, but getting the band back together and focusing on business models and competitive things that we think can really improve the business is very exciting."

Fithian Group hopes to put a jolt in the industry with the launch of a production studio in Europe and a direct distribution platform

Though just over four months old, The Fithian Group has found immediate interest from companies seeking assistance within the movie-theater business in everything from mergers and acquisitions to consultation.

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But there are two projects in particular that Fithian, Brenneman, and Corcoran hope to be the main pillars of their company.

A movie-theater veteran has launched a company that seeks to jolt the industry with AI and a new production studio
The Fithian Group founding partners (L-R) John Fithian, Jackie Brenneman, and Patrick Corcoran.Iah Bearden-Vrai

One is overseeing the building of a state-of-the-art production studio in Europe that can handle both virtual and traditional physical production. Fithian would not divulge where exactly the studio will be and would not name the partners involved, only saying they are European investors. But he said the plan is for the studio to rival that of UK's famed Pinewood Studio in its capabilities to take on any size of production.

"Major studios are way below the level of releases that can sustain this industry," Fithian said. "We want to get more of those mid-range and independent movies out to exhibitors and, therefore, out to audiences. Having the latest and best in virtual production technologies will help the moviemaking process be cheaper."

The studio is in the early stages of development with no projected construction start date.

The other major project is an AI-assisted, data-infused direct distribution platform that filmmakers, independent distributors, and theaters can use to get more movies screened in theaters at reduced costs. For decades, theaters — through bookers — have had an endless dance of negotiating with distributors and studios for titles to play in theaters with little more than, as Fithian put it, "a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of phone calls." This has caused the business to often rely heavily on relationships over data.

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The platform The Fithian Group is overseeing, which is in the early stages of development, will update that process and provide both sides with more informed decision-making capabilities, the group believes. A theater can use specific data through the platform to show a distributor why a particular type of movie should be played in their house. A filmmaker or distributor can also use the platform to show data to a theater about why their movie should be played there.

"A distributor in the past would say, 'We never book in that market, we never book that kind of theater,' but the theater now is going to have data showing this audience is here for this kind of movie. Book it," Corcoran said. "We want to take away a lot of the gatekeepers, a lot of the mystery, and open up and democratize the system using technology."

A movie-theater veteran has launched a company that seeks to jolt the industry with AI and a new production studio
The Fithian Group is looking to get more movies into theaters and satisfy more audiences. AP

More data to better program for audiences would be a welcome tool, one movie theater executive says

Dylan Skolnick, the co-director of Cinema Arts Centre, an arthouse in Long Island, New York, said new releases in his theater haven't consistently filled his house the way they did pre-pandemic. Having more data that shows what titles work best in his market would be beneficial, he added.

"It's important to draw on data to develop the audience of people who really want to come," Skolnick said when Business Insider told him about the platform The Fithian Group is developing. Skolnick is also the booker of his theater and said there's never much talk about data when having conversations with distributors. "We can slice and dice the internal data we have to some extent, but they will presumably have a lot more data, and a lot more computing power, so it could be great to use that platform — if we can afford it."

The founders said the upcoming platform will be available free of charge for movie theaters. A fee and percentage of the box office will be charged to filmmakers and distributors who use the service.

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Fithian, Brenneman, and Corcoran said they believe the endeavors they are undertaking will put a jolt into the movie business, which since the pandemic has suffered from lackluster box office, fewer titles being released, and not enough variety in the kinds of movies being made.

"We're not just thinking about sustaining the business the way it is and just participating in helping companies achieve the status quo and breaking in and doing the things they have always done," Brenneman said. "We are at the dawn of a new age of cinema where it doesn't cost almost anything to distribute a film. So there's a promise of digital cinema, which is more movies, more flexibility, more understanding of our audiences, and we're just there right now. There's lots and lots of AI out there to really help target the right movies for the right audiences, and we think we can really work with companies and individuals to get more movies into the theaters and satisfy more audiences."

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