Can Movie Theaters Move Past the Blockbuster-or-Bust Era?

·8-min read

Amid the defiant optimism for the future of movie theaters that defines the annual CinemaCon convention, there’s always talk about a big challenge facing the industry in the year ahead. Before the pandemic, it was streaming. Last year, it was COVID-19. This year, it’s about selling tickets for films that aren’t franchise blockbusters.

The $6.3 billion grossed in North America since the start of 2021 — well short of the $11 billion-plus earned annually prior to the pandemic — has largely been driven by Marvel films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” along with other franchise films like “No Time to Die,” “F9,” and “The Batman.”

But it has only been in the past month or so that any traction has been found on films that cater to moviegoers who aren’t young men. A24/AGBO’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has become the first post-shutdown indie film to gain the long-lasting buzz that art-house theaters and distributors crave, becoming A24’s highest grossing film in three years and its first to gross over $30 million domestically. The Channing Tatum films “Dog” and “The Lost City” also found solid box office results from a predominantly female audience.

Family films, after being absent for all of Q1, came back in a big way with Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” earning $145 million so far and DreamWorks Animation’s “The Bad Guys” opening to a respectable $24 million. Though studios have scaled back on family and animated films this year, the numbers for these films have created confidence that parents and kids are on their way back to theaters despite the convenience of streaming.

And this past weekend also saw not one but two original wide releases try their luck in theaters, though the results were rather tepid. Focus’ “The Northman,” with a $70 million budget and a hard R rating, opened to just $12 million while Lionsgate’s $30 million Nicolas Cage comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” took in $7.1 million.

The theatrical revenue for both films will be minimal, but rival distributors and theater owners at CinemaCon told TheWrap that they were grateful that Lionsgate and Focus put “Northman” and “Massive Talent” in cinemas ag all as the struggle to diversify theatrical offerings continues. Both exhibitors and studios agree that blockbusters can only go so far to boosting the box office to pre-pandemic levels.

“Films like ‘The Northman’ aren’t going to be big hits, but we have to give art-houses something,” one distributor told TheWrap on condition on of anonymity. “How are we going to know whether people are interested in buying a ticket for a certain kind of non-tentpole film if we don’t try to reach out to every kind of moviegoer, not just the superhero lovers? The post-COVID experimentation is far from over and we have to accept that some experiments won’t work out.”

For her part, Focus Features’ domestic distribution chief Lisa Bunnell told TheWrap she was pleased with the “The Northman” so far and felt confident that her studio’s next film, “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” would also be a part of this next phase of box office rebuilding with films that reach out to a wider range of moviegoers.

“This past weekend with three original films in the top five at the box office is a good sign that we are starting to see normal filmgoing patterns coming back to theaters,” she said. “The only way to bring patrons back to the box office is to continue to release original films like ‘The Northman’ from visionary directors like Robert Eggers with a strong theatrical campaign.”

Some theater owners at CinemaCon said they’re already seeing that upward trend at their cinemas, even if the box office charts are still lagging behind the pre-pandemic pace. Christian Meoli, CEO of Cinelounge in Los Angeles, said his cinema has had multiple weeks of sellout screenings of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Tim Handren, CEO of Texas theater chain Santikos, said that ticket sales at their locations on the opening weekend of “Bad Guys,” “Northman” and “Massive Talent” were 33% above what they had projected at the start of the year. “With our data from pre-pandemic films, we set a benchmark for each weekend based on what’s coming out and then handicapped it based on pandemic data from the past year,” Handren explained. “We’ve seen great family turnout, including from grandparents who were bringing their grandkids, and the original films that came out this weekend did a bit better than we expected too.”

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“The Woman King” TriStar Pictures

Meoli’s optimism wasn’t based on data, but from what he’s seen at Cinelounge with his own eyes, watching the buzz from “Everything Everywhere” play out firsthand in screening after screening this month. “Word of mouth is back, and that’s so core to our success,” he said. ”’Everything Everywhere’ is an indie film that markets itself as a studio film and that people want to talk about and to share with others, and unlike a lot of the Academy films I screened this winter is only in theaters.”

Though the likes of Disney’s “Avatar 2” and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” got a lot of buzz at CinemaCon, each studio took time during its presentation to highlight multiple non-franchise films with their filmmakers and stars. Viola Davis showed up during Sony’s presentation to introduce “The Woman King,” while Baz Luhrmann charmed the theater execs while promoting “Elvis” for Warner Bros., pledging to do “everything in his power” to help promote the film because “man does not live on Batman alone!”

National Association of Theater Owners President/CEO John Fithian said that he’s bullish on content diversity returning to theaters in the coming months, though he acknowledged that it will take time for those films to come as the pandemic has still had ongoing effects on the production process for upcoming films.

“Consumer confidence across demographics is as strong now as it has ever been since the start of the pandemic,” Fithian said. “There were two factors in very different demographic turnouts last year. One was the effects and risks of COVID. The other was, where are the movies that audiences of all kinds want to see? There weren’t many of them, but more will be on the way once we can get pass this current COVID backlog.”

Because of that backlog, as well as the natural ebb and flow of the film calendar, theaters won’t know if their efforts to boost non-blockbuster turnout have been truly successful for many months. And in some cases, the factors behind prestige film success are out of their hands.

This past year, the traditional box office boost for Oscar contenders was virtually nonexistent, shot down by a mix of factors: The Omicron variant surge diminished older moviegoer turnout, most contenders came from streaming-first studios like Netflix and Apple, others like Warner’s ”Dune” had long since finished their theatrical runs, and public interest in the Oscars and other awards shows continued to slide.

It’s possible that interest in seeing top awards contenders may never come back, which will force both studios and exhibitors to reinvent how they market upcoming prestige titles like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmanns” and Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” to audiences in 2023 and beyond.

But for now, Boxoffice editor Daniel Loria said the industry has to move forward with the hope that the awards cycle will be closer to normal this fall, and that the films with the biggest festival buzz from Toronto and Venice are accessible enough for studios to commit to a theatrical window.

Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS | Official Trailer
Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” (Warner Bros.)

“Look, I hated ‘Green Book,’ but we need more films like ‘Green Book,'” Loria said, referring to the popular but critically divisive 2018 Best Picture winner. “That film did spectacular with older audiences and a film with that kind of broad appeal is really needed to get older audiences back in the habit of moviegoing after nearly two years just streaming everything.”

Loria believes that this year’s Best Picture winner “CODA” could have been the sort of crowd-pleaser that helps get older and female moviegoers back into cinemas, but theaters were unable to take advantage because Apple only gave the film a limited theatrical release last summer to make the film eligible for awards.

“When ‘CODA’ was at its peak in terms of buzz, Apple wasn’t trying to sell movie tickets. It was trying to sell streaming subscriptions,” he said. “Whatever film emerges as the ‘CODA’ of this coming year’s awards race, it needs to be in the hands of a studio that is going to give it a proper theatrical window.”

Annelise Holyoak, senior director of loyalty and marketing for Cinepolis, felt that despite the box office struggles of awards contenders this past winter, studios “understand the value of theatrical exclusivity” more than ever, especially when it comes to prestige titles.

“The senior audience is definitely the hardest audience we’ve had to get back, but I think that with COVID subsiding, it’s becoming more of a content problem than a pandemic problem,” she said. “The films coming this fall will certainly help bring them back, but I think the studios now know how important windowing is both because it protects against piracy and that it can help those films rise above everything that’s on offer in entertainment, especially as we move farther out of the pandemic.”

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