NATO CEO John Fithian On End Of COVID-19 Relief Negotiations: “This Can’t Wait Until After The Election; We Need Help Now”

The Senator Theatre in Baltimore, which reopened September 4. Ulysses Muoz/The Baltimore Sun via AP

Donald Trump’s decision to end negotiations over another round of COVID-19 relief until after the election came as a surprise to many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and is only adding to the worries among theater owners hoping for a lifeline.

“This is not a matter that can get kicked down the road,” John Fithian, the president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told Deadline. “This can’t wait until after the election. We need help now.”

Trump announced on Twitter on Tuesday that he decided to stop negotiating until after the election, blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for demanding that another relief package include money for state and local governments.

Fithian said that their “thoughts remain with the president, his wife and their team as they recover from their COVID-19 infections, and we are happy to see him back at the White House.”

But he said that the announcement was “disappointing.” “We strongly urge the president, Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin and Speaker Pelosi and all those involved to stick at it.”

Movie theaters have seen revenue plunge with the mass closures and, even as a number reopened, studios pushed major releases well into next year. Cineworld and Regal Cinemas announced plans to close their UK and US venues, respectively.

Fithian said that as recently as this morning, it had seemed as if progress was being made in the relief talks. He said that their last conversation was with Mnuchin on Thursday morning, and they also have talked directly with Pelosi and many other members of Congress.

“We went from real optimism that we were making significant progress on our piece [of the relief bill] to this now,” Fithian said. “I am hoping this will jar the talks back soon.”

He identified four different types of relief that have been on the table: the RESTART Act, a forgivable loan program aimed at the hardest hit businesses; an expansion of the small business Paycheck Protection Program; industry specific relief for sectors like live stages, theaters and restaurants; and a plan to redirect unused money from previous relief bills to the most distressed industries.

Theater owners also have been advocating an expansion of enhanced unemployment benefits, which expired on July 31, given the number of workers who have been sidelined.

“Our industry is a microcosm of many, many industries in the country right now,” Fithian said.

NATO has joined with other groups, including the Motion Picture Association and the Directors Guild of America, to lobby lawmakers, with 92 directors signing a plea for help to Congress.

Fithian said that in a survey of their smaller-sized theater members showed that 26% said that they would go under by Oct. 31 if they did not get help. And 69% of smaller and medium sized members said that they would file for bankruptcy or go out of business by Dec. 31 if there wasn’t some kind of relief, including help from Congress, more releases in the pipeline, and the state of New York allowing cinemas to reopen.

NATO has been pressing Governor Andrew Cuomo to approve a reopening plan, as the industry argues that  a reason that studios have been pushing back their release dates is because of the lack of such an important market. New York represents not just a chunk of box office revenue, but a big part of pre-release publicity and opinion.

Fithian said that state officials have reviewed theaters’ safety protocols and toured venues, but Cuomo has not agreed to give his OK. Fithian argued that casinos and restaurants have been given the greenlight, yet they have not. He said that it would help even if theaters in some areas of the state were allowed to reopen and others did not because of ongoing concerns, a policy similar to that of California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“A month ago he said movie theaters are next [to reopen], and we are still waiting,” he said.

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