New Theatre Owners President Michael P. O’Leary on Challenges Facing the Movies and Why He Remains Optimistic

Michael P. O’Leary certainly has a tough act to follow. He’s taking over as president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners from John Fithian, who has been a major force for two decades as the top lobbyist for the exhibition industry.

And, he’s assuming the job at a trying time for the movie theater industry, which was battered by — and has yet to fully recover from — the pandemic. Attendance and ticket sales haven’t returned to pre-COVID levels and major theater chains, including the CineWorld-owned Regal have been forced to file for bankruptcy, while roughly 2,000 screens across the industry have shuttered. Exhibitors that stayed in business have suffered from a supply shortage.

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Still, O’Leary, who previously worked at 21st Century Fox, the Motion Picture Association, on Capitol Hill and at the Department of Justice, believes there’s reason to be hopeful that multiplexes aren’t a relic of the past.

Already in the initial months of 2023, Blumhouse’s killer-doll thriller “M3GAN,” the octogenarian comedy “80 for Brady” and Michael B. Jordan’s “Creed III” have crushed box office expectations. And several blockbuster-hopefuls, like “Super Mario Bros,” “Fast X” and “Mission: Impossible 7,” are scheduled to be released — and to rake in big bucks — in the coming months.

Perhaps most importantly, Hollywood is expected to increase its output of new movies compared to the past two years. Ideally, that will keep up moviegoing momentum by giving audiences a reason to go to theaters in between major tentpoles.

Before he officially takes the reins from Fithian in May, O’Leary spoke to Variety about leaving his post at the Entertainment Software Association, which is the video game industry’s main trade organization, and what he plans to make his first priority when he assumes his new position at NATO.

What was the process of getting this job? Did you reach out to NATO? Did NATO reach out to you?

It was a little bit of both. People at NATO had asked me about it, and I had made inquiries. I don’t know who reached out first. Once we got in the process, the more I learned, the greater my interest became.

Why did you want the job?

To be clear, I was happy in the job I’m leaving. A couple things kept rising to the surface for me. One, the theatrical experience is important from a cultural standpoint. Obviously, there’s an economic impact. Second, it’s a product I believe in. I enjoy the movie industry. I spent a number of years at the MPAA. I learned a great deal about the different facets of the industry. I was excited to be working back in that space. The third part is the entertainment landscape is in a state of flux. Coming out of COVID, there are some challenges. It’s exciting to be part of the next chapter of the theatrical business.

Did NATO’s outgoing president John Fithian give you any advice?

I actually didn’t talk to John until I accepted the position. In the time since then, he’s been incredibly helpful to me. I have tremendous respect for him. He’s been doing this for a while. I’m following in his footsteps. I’m not trying to replace him. We haven’t had a chance to sit down over a beer and get the peek-behind-the-curtain advice.

What will be your first task as president?

It’s hard for me to predict what my first substantive priority will be. I’m focusing on three things: One is to absorb as much as I can, to learn as much as I can, to listen more than I talk. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s the best way to get my feet on the ground. I’m also talking to members, getting a sense of what’s important to them, how they want to see NATO operating. And then I’m starting to get to know the NATO team and learn about them as individuals and how they fit together as a group.

What’s the biggest obstacle facing movie theaters?

The biggest obstacle is getting more movies to show, making sure there’s enough product. People want to come back to theaters. You saw big numbers in 2022 for different movies. I’m excited to see what happens in 2023. I think you’ll continue to see a positive trend there.

You’ve worked in government, lobbying and media. How does your background prepare you for this job?

At this point in my career, I’ve had a lot of different experiences and I take something different from each of them. Whether it’s understanding the movie industry generally, understanding how to solve difficult problems, understanding the value of relationships and working with people, trying to build and drive consensus. If you master those things, you can have success whether it’s in the private sector, the government, wherever.

It’s been a tough three-year stretch for exhibitors. How are NATO members doing? What are their balance sheets like?

I’m not in a position where I can talk about their overall sense of their balance sheets yet. My takeaway throughout the interview process and in the handful of conversations I’ve had with exhibitors since I took the job is that there’s optimism that people are going to return to the theaters. Movies are going to draw people in, and the consumer experience is going to draw people in. Transitioning out of the global pandemic is not without its hurdles, but my general sense is one of optimism.

Movie theaters have a reputation of being slow to innovate. Is there anything they haven’t gotten enough credit for doing?

There are a number of members who are working diligently to create a more enjoyable consumer experience. There are innovations in the theatrical space, like more comfortable chairs or different types of food. I recently went to see “Women Talking,” and I was able to have a glass of wine and popcorn. It was an enjoyable experience.

Will you encourage streaming services to put more movies in theaters?

I will be a strong advocate of all creators using the theatrical experience because it’s beneficial to both parties in the long run.

What’s something that Hollywood may not know about the inner workings of D.C.?

Washington, to some degree, is a little misunderstood. If you’re a successful industry, like theatrical, I believe in the approach of engagement with elected officials. You don’t want to show up on their doorstep in the middle of a crisis for the first time with your hat in hand. That’s just not a path to success. There’s a lot of noise in Washington. It’s incumbent upon us to constantly be reminding decision-makers and lawmakers that our industry has a positive economic impact and a positive cultural impact.

What is the reception in Washington toward entertainment-based trade organizations?

This is an industry that brings joy and entertainment to people. We have to keep reinforcing that narrative. When I was working for the MPAA, Dan Glickman was chairman and he would go up to Arlen Specter, who at the time was a senator from Pennsylvania, and they would talk at the beginning of almost every meeting about their experience growing up in Kansas and going to the movies. Going to the movies is something that everybody can identify with, and it brings back positive memories. That’s an aspect of representing this industry that is positive. Now, we have challenging, difficult issues. But when you go in from the starting point of, “We’re here representing the movie theaters,” people like to talk about going to the movies. Everybody has an experience. So, that’s something we can’t lose sight of.

Before we go, I wanted to ask a few rapid-fire questions. What is your favorite movie?

“The Dark Knight.”

Movie you’ve seen the most?


Movie you wish was longer?


Movie you are embarrassed to admit you have never seen?


First movie you saw in theaters?


Favorite concession snack?


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