NATO chief Fithian on windows, piracy, ratings

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LAS VEGAS -- John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, chose this time of prosperity in the movie business to ask the Hollywood studios for their cooperation on three major issues: maintaining windows between theatrical and DVD releases, preventing movie piracy and upholding film ratings.

Speaking to a crowd of exhibitors, distributors and vendors Tuesday at the opening-day ceremony of the annual ShoWest convention at the Paris hotel, Fithian commended the major studios for not experimenting with simultaneous theatrical and DVD release. In fact, he said, the theatrical window for films grossing $100 million or more grew by 11 days in 2006. That is not the case for the lowest-grossing films, however, where the window shrank by 10 days.

While the average window remains in the four-month range, both Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures maintained longer windows last year than in 2005, a fact Fithian applauded. He cautioned studios to keep their current windows intact. "You don't want to train consumers that if they get the DVD fast, it means the movie sucked," he said in a departure from his prepared remarks.

Fithian's comments on the subject contrasted with those of Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the MPAA, which represents the studios. In his address, which preceded Fithian's, Glickman suggested that he could do nothing to control the windows between theatrical and DVD.

"I'm not going to tell you how the windows should be," Glickman said. "That is not for me to decide but for the marketplace to decide."

In Europe recently, governments have been stepping in to decide policy. Fithian said France has a law preventing DVDs from being released any earlier than six months after a movie bows in theaters. Spain is lobbying for legislation keeping windows theatrical and DVD debuts four months apart, and Denmark is looking at a similar agreement.

"It would be difficult to do a worldwide DVD release under four months if there are laws preventing it throughout the world," Fithian said during a discussion with reporters.

During his public remarks, Fithian applauded NATO members' efforts to combat film piracy, citing their watermarking technology on all the prints. He also acknowledged federal and state legislation to help with the prosecution of piracy and the joint MPAA/NATO campaign to train employees to spot and intercept camcorders in theaters.

Asking essentially for a quid pro quo, Fithian said: "Simply put, we ask our studio partners to continue their support of the theatrical release window as we continue our efforts in the fight against movie theft. Coupling these two vital alliances ensures a robustly healthy and growing movie industry."

Fithian also asked again for the non-MPAA signatories to stop releasing films unrated. Arguing that more use should be made of the adults-only NC-17 rating, the Washington-based executive took the time to debunk some popular myths about NC-17. He said that most theater companies will play NC-17 films in appropriate markets and most newspapers will run advertisements for those films. He added that while NC-17 movies on average make $3.9 million, unrated films earn $1.8 million.

Fithian also targeted the common studio practice of releasing DVDs "unrated," calling attention to the fact that they are unrated in their marketing. He contends that such strategies could undermine the ratings system, which the studios use for their theatrical releases.

"We know that unrated DVDs -- unlike unrated movies in our theaters -- can do brisk sales," Fithian said. "But it is frankly galling to see marketing campaigns designed around the very fact that a movie is 'unrated and uncensored.' "
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