AMC Shouldn’t Care What Hollywood Thinks of Its Taylor Swift Deal | Analysis

“Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” is already on track to be among the biggest theatrical titles for the rest of 2023 — and that’s already ruffling some Hollywood feathers.

With box office analysts already projecting a possible $100 million-plus opening, the filmed concert documentary is exactly what theaters ordered to maintain momentum following a “Barbenheimer”-fueled summer movie season. The big surprise is that the film, produced with a SAG-AFTRA interim agreement, will be released directly via AMC and participating theaters, with no studio involvement.

“It’s scary that Taylor Swift can come in and become a hit without using conventional marketing routes,” Bruce Nash, founder and publisher of box-office data site The Numbers, told TheWrap.

Adding to the unsettling feeling is the fact that legacy studios made a play for the concert film, only to get rebuffed, which might explain the sour grapes.

But with the studios having proven themselves to be less than reliable partners in providing a steady flow of multiplex-friendly releases, theaters are finding themselves looking for options beyond conventional films. After years of shrinking theatrical windows, day-and-date releases and now strike-delayed slates, AMC’s move may be just a matter of turnabout being fair play.

Bad blood

Conventional wisdom suggested that a major studio would end up distributing the film. Contenders included the Walt Disney Company (as Disney+ released Swift’s 2020 “Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions”) and Netflix (which released Swift’s “Miss Americana” and her 2018 “Reputation” concert film). However, in the end, Swift opted for a theatrical release — and to work directly with theater chains.

One high-level studio executive said there are no issues with AMC nabbing the rights to the concert flick. However, that’s not a universal sentiment.

“We thought a deal was imminent,” a high-ranking executive from a major studio told TheWrap. “Nothing happened for three weeks. Then we saw a photo on social media of [AMC CEO] Adam Aron sitting at a Taylor Swift concert.”

AMC is acting as a distributor in North America for the doc, while Cinemark is taking point overseas. Variance, the distributor that handled the domestic release of “RRR,” is booking the film in smaller or non-chain theaters.

“I don’t think anyone loses here,” said Nash, arguing that “studios don’t have great cause to complain” because they “weren’t going to add much value beyond the existing fanbase.” Swift is so well-known and her fans are so active on social media that studio marketing wouldn’t have added much.

Blank space

Still, AMC appeared to give no warning to its theater chain rivals or the major studios, judging by the scramble to make way for the concert film’s Oct. 13 release date. Less than 24 hours after the announcement, Universal’s “Exorcist: Believer,” Lionsgate’s “Ordinary Heroes” and Bleecker Street’s Meg Ryan-starring “What Happens Later” fled that Friday the 13th weekend.

A high-level executive from a competing major studio noted that some of the industrywide frustration was due to the Swift flick opening a few weeks short of the just-vacated Nov. 3 slot originally occupied by “Dune Part II.” If Swift had gone for that date instead, it would have left the current release slate mostly untouched, swapping one tentpole for another.

On the other hand, opening the concert flick a month prior to Walt Disney’s “The Marvels” could prevent demographic cannibalization. The female-targeted concert flick and the female-centric ensemble superhero flick will both have room to breathe. Moreover, few carped last year when Netflix released “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” amid an already crowded Thanksgiving weekend. That didn’t help adult-skewing releases like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and J.D. Dillard’s “Devotion.” And “Barbenheimer” suggests that there can be room for more than one big movie on a given weekend.

Ready for it?

Beyond the potentially unprecedented ticket sales that “Eras Tour” could ring up in October, there may be other opportunities for new revenue streams and customer relationships out of it. Bob Mitchell, a marketing consultant and former exec at Sony, Paramount and Disney, said that AMC and other theaters need to look at Swift’s film as “more than a butts-in-seats proposition.”

“There needs to be an unconventional approach to [the Taylor Swift film],” said Mitchell. “Think about how there were huge tailgates to all of Taylor Swift’s shows during this tour. Is there a way to replicate that in theaters? What about merch deals?”

If fans would spend $75 for a hoodie at the concert venue, might they be willing to spend $30 for the same at a movie theater — especially considering that they spent far less on the ticket than they would have for a live concert?

As theaters struggle with a shift in casual moviegoing, with audiences watching more of their non-event filmed content at home, we can expect an upswing in less-conventional cinematic fare: A Fathom reissue of “Coraline” can earn $7 million in four days 14 years after its original debut.

“More and more, the exhibition industry is recognizing that specialty distribution is big business,” Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt told TheWrap. He noted that the “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD” series has earned $210 million for theaters nationwide. Likewise, anime fans who flock to the latest Crunchyroll release view theaters as a place to collectively watch the latest epic in their favored genre.

Look what you made me do

Not everyone’s going to be a winner from the Swift-AMC deal. Universal or Paramount might very well be annoyed about the potential damage this all-quadrant event film might cause to Blumhouse’s “The Exorcist: Believer” the week prior and the Apple TV+ co-production “Killers of the Flower Moon” the week after. Neither responded to TheWrap’s request for comment.

But the legacy studios have only so much room to kvetch. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Universal sent “Trolls: World Tour” to PVOD and eventually shrunk its theatrical window to as little as 17 days. Warner Bros. tossed the 2021 release slate, including “Matrix Resurrections” and “Dune,” onto HBO Max concurrently with domestic theatrical release. Disney began offering titles like “Black Widow” and “Cruella” concurrently with theaters on Disney+ for $30.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. However, theaters ended up taking the hit. They weathered the complicated COVID-era release strategies and saw theatrical releases like “Coming 2 America,” “Luca” and “The Man From Toronto” end up on streaming.

“The studios did what they needed to do during COVID,” said Nash. “Maybe there are some bruised egos, but it’s business.”

Shake it off

All involved felt that Swift is such a one-of-a-kind celebrity (a “unicorn,” to quote multiple insiders) that this sort of situation is unlikely to repeat itself.

“You have to be an enormous star to put out a single tweet and disrupt the entire industry,” Nash stated. Save for maybe Beyoncé, there are few modern celebrities who could pull this kind of free publicity and advance ticket sales for a concert film or live sporting event.

The dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes have left theaters in a pickle just as they were recovering from the COVID pandemic. If this is what exhibitors must do to survive (or thrive), then so be it, the theater chains seem to be saying.

“The industry understands it’s a win-win,” Nutt said. “We’ve spent many years proving the point that when theaters thrive, the industry thrives.”  

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