Can Art-House Cinemas Bring Back COVID-Wary Audiences This Oscar Season?

·6-min read

After a strong October, major theater chains like AMC Theatres and Regal are expressing optimism that blockbuster-loving audiences will continue to come back to theaters. But for specialty cinemas, a far more uncertain pandemic recovery process is only now getting started.

“Simply, we’re still not close to where we were before COVID. I’d estimate that we haven’t reached 50% of our pre-pandemic turnout at some of our venues,” Greg Laemmle, president of the Los Angeles indie chain Laemmle Theatres, told TheWrap. “It’s only just now that we are starting to get films that are really priming the pump.”

With a few exceptions, like the Anthony Bourdain documentary “Roadrunner” that grossed $5.2 million after a July opening, the major indie films that art-houses rely on to lure ticket buyers have been scarce this year. This left specialty chains like Laemmle and Landmark relying on the same blockbusters that the big chains were using to draw audiences still worried about COVID-19.

So while major chains have been able to use the summer months to put themselves in a position where Q4 2021 could bring their first burst of profit since the pandemic began, art-houses have been in a holding pattern waiting for the arrival of Oscar contenders that could entice older audiences that have long been their core clientele — and also far more COVID-wary.

“Blockbusters helped us get our ticket sales back up to a certain level, but they don’t have the same value to us or any art-house operator that they do to mainstream operators,” Paul Serwitz, president/COO of Landmark Theaters, told TheWrap. “There were plenty of indie titles in the summer, of course, but many of the top shelf titles are always reserved for the fall.”

In other words, indie cinemas are beginning a relaunch process that mainstream theaters began back in May, when Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II” kicked off the summer blockbuster season.

Two movies that were the equivalent of “Quiet Place II” for his art-house chain, Serwitz said. The first was actually a blockbuster: MGM’s “No Time to Die,” the latest installment of the James Bond series that historically has driven a larger share of older moviegoers to specialty theaters than superhero or “Fast & Furious” movies.

The other was a limited release from one of indie film’s greatest champions: Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” The Searchlight film opened in October to $1.3 million from 52 theaters — the highest average ($25,938 per theater) of any film until last weekend, when A24’s “C’mon C’mon” averaged $26,889 from six screens.

“We were very grateful to Searchlight for not only releasing it when they did, but did so with a platform release that favored us,” Serwitz said. “We had an excellent showing both on that initial 52-screen weekend and with the expansion on the following weekend. Landmark received a significant boost from that film and I believe it will help build a lot of momentum going forward.”

“The French Dispatch” (Searchlight Pictures)

But when you compare how “The French Dispatch” has done in limited release to Anderson’s last film “Isle of Dogs,” the current struggles of the indie box office are laid bare. In its third weekend in April 2018, “Isle of Dogs” grossed $4.5 million from 554 theaters. The highest weekend total for “French Dispatch” so far has been $2.6 million in its second weekend from 788 theaters. With a running total of $13.5 million domestic and $28.1 million worldwide, “French Dispatch” will fall short of what “Isle of Dogs” earned — $32 million domestic and $64.1 million global.

“The French Dispatch” has been a good start for art-houses to the winter awards season, but it’s just that: a start. And just as it has taken multiple blockbusters over several months to get mainstream theaters back on their feet, it will likely take an entire awards season with limited release films like Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” ($3.4 million running total) and Neon’s “Spencer” ($6.1 million running total) to get art-houses back on their feet, with help from wide releases that appeal to older audiences like Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of “West Side Story.”

But while AMC and Regal can find comfort in the certainty that people will show up for Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” this Christmas and Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible 7” next year, there are no sure things on the specialty side. Laemmle said that he expects the specter of COVID will hang over his theaters throughout the winter, decreasing turnout even though vaccines have decreased the chances of a major outbreak and safety measures have kept COVID cases in Los Angeles lower than other parts of the country. “We are doing everything to make sure our guests feel safe, but ultimately, what are people thinking about? They’re thinking about the holidays and family get-togethers and making sure they stay safe this Christmas without getting COVID, and moviegoing is at the bottom of their priorities,” Laemmle said.

And there’s an even bigger concern for the art-house scene: long-term changes in viewing habits. Whether in wide or limited release, adult dramas have been struggling to get a foothold in the box office this year, as seen this past weekend with the subdued $5.4 million opening of Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” — which, like all of the studio’s films this year, started streaming simultaneously on HBO Max.

Again, COVID is definitely a factor in this downturn, but with studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount putting even greater focus on franchises for their theatrical slates next year while pushing more mature fare to streaming platforms, Hollywood is preparing for the possibility that the pandemic has simply made older audiences more comfortable seeing films at home, and that the public as a whole is becoming more selective about which films they go to theaters to see.

It’s nearly impossible for exhibitors or studios to discern whether those potential changes in audience habits are actually happening. When the list of Oscar nominees is released on February 8, will COVID infection rates subside enough that audiences will be interested in seeing the contenders on the big screen, or will they simply opt to watch them at home where many, if not all, of those titles will be available on streaming or on-demand?

Like many theater operators, Serwitz is facing the challenges ahead with stubborn optimism, still believing that with enough time and movies, the specialty market will find life again. “My hope is that due to the compressed nature of the holiday season, the incremental curve of audience turnout will be a little quicker for specialty than it was for mainstream theaters,” he said. “I don’t know if that will happen but I certainly have my fingers crossed because there’s going to be a lot of new films coming out that appeals to art-house audiences throughout December.”

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