Toronto: Theater Owners Urge Netflix to Play Theatrically

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National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian

NATO president and CEO John Fithian argues that Netflix should follow Amazon's example and give their awards hopefuls longer periods in the theater.

Theater owners on Friday urged Netflix to follow the lead of rival Amazon and show their movies at the local multiplex.

"Our model can work for their movies, too," National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian told the Hollywood Reporter while attending the Toronto International Film Festival. Holding out an olive branch to Netflix, Fithian welcomed the streamer's success in bringing more content to more audiences.

"But if you want to play theatrically, come play theatrically. There's a model that works, and it works for Fox, Amazon and all these companies, because a theatrical movie is different," he added. Netflix is aggressively embracing A-list directors to make movies for its streaming service, but which also could have a profile in the awards season race (the Oscars require at least a short theatrical run for films to be eligible).

To do that, Fithian cautioned that Netflix should not consider token short runs in the cinema for its movies before quickly shifting them to its digital platform. "It has to be a substantive commitment to theatrical, not just a marketing play," he argued.

At the Venice International Film Festival, the Coen brothers said their upcoming Netflix Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will get a theatrical release. But Fithian said a limited theatrical release to boost word of mouth in a home market won't play with theater owners.

"It's not just a little dip into theatrical. You have to give [a movie] a chance to work," the exec insisted.

Fithian pointed to Alfonso Cuaron's upcoming Roma, which Netflix is apparently interested in putting into theaters before it debuts on the streaming service, as a prime example of a film that will play well on the big screen.

Fithian's comments followed a panel on movie exhibition at TIFF where NATO chairman Ellis Jacob, who is also CEO of Canadian exhibition giant Cineplex, defended the theatrical experience as it increasingly competes against Netflix and other digital alternatives.

"As the biggest exhibitor, our preference is always to have movies play on the big screen," Jacob told the festival panel. But, he added, the theatrical business can exist alongside evolving streaming giants. "Things are always changing, but we've seen companies like Amazon giving their movies the proper theatrical release and they have respected that window."

TIFF runs through Sept. 16.