Will Oscar Contenders Break Through in a COVID-Battered Box Office?

·5-min read

In 2014, Fox Searchlight methodically rolled out “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a twee pastiche of old-world Europe, in movie theaters across North America. The quirky comedic drama, from director Wes Anderson, had an opening that would be familiar to most indie films: playing in only four theaters (two in New York and two in Los Angeles) before gradually checking into more venues.

The studio was rewarded for its efforts, averaging more than $200,000 per location in its initial run and establishing arthouse records that still hold. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which eventually made $59 million in North America and $179 million globally and won four of nine Oscar nominations, remains a gold standard for commercial success in the specialty space.

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Seven years and one world-changing pandemic later, Searchlight Pictures is back in the Wes Anderson business. After many delays, “The French Dispatch” debuts in select theaters on Oct. 22, though it’s facing a much rockier moviegoing landscape. The domestic box office has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, and the audience that has been most skittish to return is the kind that would typically be first in line for tickets to the latest feature from the beloved filmmaker of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom.”

“It’s not likely ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ numbers will come back anytime soon,” says Frank Rodriguez, who has led distribution at Searchlight since 2011. “The box office for films like these is probably at 30% of what it was.”

The predicament is not unique to “The French Dispatch.” It’s one that is being shared throughout the independent film community as specialty studios figure out the best way to get their movies to discerning audiences. As people remain wary of going to theaters — and some have grown more accustomed to streaming during lockdown — only a few pandemic-era releases have been able to match the box office business they would have in pre-COVID times.

For high-profile independent movies in particular, it’s unclear how they will perform theatrically while the delta variant continues to slow the return of cinemas. The next few weeks will be a critical test as a stream of Oscar hopefuls — such as Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical drama “Belfast,” “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age film “Licorice Pizza” — try to figure out how to build buzz at a time when release patterns are being upended. Yet studio executives are feeling considerably better about the current crop of art-house films than they were in 2020, a year in which Oscar contenders “Nomadland” and “Mank” barely surfaced on audiences’ radars.

“Any time you are mentioned for awards contention, it helps at the box office,” says Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features, which is releasing “Belfast” on Nov. 12. “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re in a better position than we were six months ago.”

Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana drama “Spencer” opens on Nov. 5. - Credit: Courtesy of Neon
Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana drama “Spencer” opens on Nov. 5. - Credit: Courtesy of Neon

Courtesy of Neon

Deflated ticket sales aren’t the only thing shaking up the specialty box office. The kind of deliberately planned platform release, in which a movie opens in a few theaters rather than launching nationwide, which drove “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and many other indies to box office success, has been rendered all but obsolete. The tried-and-true model — what Neon CEO Tom Quinn describes as “the quintessential launch to awards films” — was thrown for a loop because amid the pandemic, theaters in Los Angeles and New York City were among the last in the country to reopen.

“We’ve figured out a way to make it work, but the burst is much wider,” says Quinn. Adds Bunnell: “You have to try new things and see what works.”

Recent specialty releases, like Cannes prize winner “Titane” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” with Jessica Chastain, opened in hundreds of locations and expanded to hundreds more the following week, a strategy that would have been unthinkably quick prior to the pandemic. Such movies are broadening in two to three weeks to the number of theaters it normally would take 10 to 12 weeks to reach. In some cases, accelerating too big too soon can come with risk, especially in small towns where an under-the-radar movie could generate less than $50 in ticket sales for the entire weekend.

Another loss for the indie community is the Arclight Hollywood, which abruptly closed in April. Traditionally, the same four theaters – Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark in Los Angeles, and AMC’s Lincoln Square and either the IFC Center or the Angelika in New York – would kick off a non-commercial movie’s platform run. The idea is that by positioning an art-house film on the coasts, tastemakers in New York City and Los Angeles will drum up word of mouth and get people in other parts of the country interested in the movie — and Arclight routinely sold the most tickets. There’s a chance it might reopen, but its absence has loomed over the landscape.

“A big theater like the Arclight represents $90,000 to $100,000 of [opening weekend] business, and that’s gone,” Quinn says. “It’s really hard to do that kind of release without a big- gun theater [such as Arclight] in L.A. and a true return to the theater in NYC.”

For platform releases, the key metric is per-theater average rather than overall box office tally. That number isn’t only beneficial in terms of studio profits. Previously it was used as leverage in the fight for access to the limited number of screens in the country. A strong turnout on the art-house circuit was a compelling argument to a theater operator, who might only have six screens. Months ago, there wasn’t enough business to have to battle for placement. In the coming weeks, exhibitors must make room for Guillermo del Toro’s horror films “Antlers” and “Nightmare Alley” (both from Searchlight), Ridley Scott’s star-studded crime drama “House of Gucci” (MGM) and Edgar Wright’s twisted thriller“Last Night in Soho” (Focus Features). That’s not to mention the tentpoles from major studios, including Disney’s comic book adventure “Eternals,” Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Resurrections,” Sony’s superhero adaptation “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Universal’s spooky sequel “Halloween Kills.”

“It’s very competitive,” says Rodriguez. “Everyone is fighting for screens.”

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