Theaters Turn to Foreign Films, Stunts to Increase Specialty Box Office in the U.S.

Many are wondering about the state of the specialty film theatrical marketplace and how to save it. Talk to people in the industry and you’ll hear the same issues: too few new films, little market research data and theatrical windows so short that, by the time indies get to many art houses, they’re out on PVOD, cutting into box office. Longtime indie film chain Landmark Theatres has a novel idea for how to improve things: half-naked male dancers!

“We want to celebrate new films when we see an opportunity to give guests something more than just the movie,” says Landmark president Kevin Holloway. And boy, did they ever. On Feb. 9 and 10, Landmark’s Scottsdale Quarter Theatre in Arizona presented the “’Magic Mike’s Last Dance’ Immersive Experience.” For $65 a head, moviegoers got a 75-minute “pre-screening party” at the theater’s bar, a DJ, two alcoholic “Mike-tails,” guns that made it rain “Landmark Bucks” for patrons to “spread appreciation” to the dancers and, oh yes, a movie ticket, popcorn and soda. All nine screenings sold well, says Holloway, who has added more studio films like “Mike” to his indie slate. “To be clear, [they were] live dancers,” he says. “I would not categorize them as strippers.”

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How could Landmark top this? A cocaine bear at “Cocaine Bear?” Why, yes — on Feb. 18, 24 and 25 in Westwood and Pasadena, patrons took selfies with the titular bear and ate the “powdered” donuts he goes crazy for. Whether or not exhibitors will resort to actual strippers and cocaine in the future, it’s clear that there are signs of life, good ideas and ways to improve things that can be implemented right now.

Two of the biggest areas showing promise are event presentations and international cinema. “The pandemic hit a hard reset of sorts on the industry,” says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Disruption to the release calendar and production delays created a unique opportunity for international and event cinema to land higher up on the box-office chart. Ironically, streaming may have had a hand in this. Small-screen viewership increased during the pandemic, exposing viewers to a broader range of movies, such as faith-based and international films.”

In the first few weeks of 2023, a larger-than-usual number of foreign-language films and event releases took over the specialty box office. The top five as of Feb. 27 are Yash Raj Films USA’s Indian spy thriller “Pathaan” ($16.9 million), Trafalgar’s K-pop concert doc “BTS: Yet to Come to Cinemas” ($8 million), Fathom Events’ biblical drama “The Chosen Season 3 Finale” ($5.5 million, 26% of viewers ages 18-34, 74% ages 35+ based on Fathom website ticket sales), Neon’s thriller “Infinity Pool” ($5 million, 71% 18-34, 26% 35+ based on Comscore data) and Well Go USA Entertainment’s Chinese sci-fi actioner “The Wandering Earth II” ($4.9 million).

In the five years since “Parasite” won the best picture Oscar, the specialty cinema sector has been bolstered by foreign-language films, some of which have done better than many recent English-language specialty film releases. The two biggest surprise hits were from India, both of them fueled by anticipation for big stars that built up after several pandemic delays, with fans who traditionally make opening weekend viewing a priority. S.S. Rajamouli’s action extravaganza “RRR” ($14.9 million) from Sarigama Cinemas, starring N. T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, was the sixth biggest indie hit released last year.

The studio’s CEO, Chandra Narisetty, researched the top markets for past Telugu-language hits in Texas, New York, Virginia, California and the Atlanta and Seattle area, staged LED truck campaigns and held out for Dolby Vision screens, charging as much as $40 a seat. According to EntTelligence chief strategy officer Steve Buck, “RRR”’s average general admission price was $24.76, more than double the 2022 national average of $11.75.

“As we watched shows getting filled [to] 70% [capacity], we alerted circuits to add more” before it opened in 1,200 theaters, Narisetty says. He enlisted Dylan Marchetti’s Variance Films and Potentate for a summer “encoRRRe” presentation, adding $300,000 in box office and setting it up as an awards favorite. While the film was not India’s entry in the international film race, it racked up a song nom for “Naatu Naatu.” And its run is far from over. On Mar. 1, Ram Charan and the filmmakers will appear at the world’s largest “RRR” screening, the RRR Fan CelebRRRation Live, at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in L.A., followed by a March 3 “re-re-release” in more than 200 theaters nationwide.

Hindi film fans were awaiting the long-delayed fourth installment of the YRF (Yash Raj Films) Spy Universe franchise, “Pathaan.” Nelson D’Souza, YRF’s VP of international distribution, says, “the strategy was simple: hold back as much as possible so that there [was] a frenzy to watch the biggest superstar in the overseas market, Shah Rukh Khan, in — and as — Pathaan, in theaters. We steered away from interviews, tours and fan-engagement activity so that if people wanted to get a piece of Shah Rukh Khan, it had to be in theaters.”

The strategy worked: topping out at 695 screens with an average $13.82 ticket price, the film has grossed $16.9 million and counting since Jan. 25.

Another foreign language film that is drawing interestthanks in part to its nine Oscar nominations, is the German “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The Netflix film has been playing in limited release in theaters and on the streamer since October, but because it’s a “four-walled” release, no official box office figures are available.

But even without international superstars or award recognition, there’s more that can be done to help specialty film box office.

Where filmmakers and stars aren’t available for promotional appearances, for example, Film at Lincoln Center operations & production VP Matt Bolish says his org makes New York Film Festival talent Q&As available to theaters across the country. Mark Fishkin, who runs the Smith Rafael Film Center owned by the California Film Institute in San Rafael, Calif., thinks his educational programs will help cultivate younger viewers, and may encourage them to bring their parents to screenings as paying customers. And as 35MM projectors break down, Art House Convergence board member Deirdre Haj says studios should work harder to digitize catalog titles that help keep theaters like hers afloat.

“One of the biggest problems is [the lack of] a system to tell audiences what’s playing in their town on a timely basis,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “Theaters need to reach out to their customers in a way that they’ve never done, and that’s by upgrading their marketing machine, data and customer profiles. So if theaters say to any studio, ‘We have information on the type of film you have for Minneapolis, or our chain, we’ll charge you X dollars to send out a specific email to customers we know are gonna connect to your film.’ Theaters haven’t realized what data they own, and they haven’t monetized their data in the way that Live Nation or Ticketmaster do.” He points to a few who are doing this, like Angelika Film Centers in New York and other cities, Manhattan’s Film Forum and Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre, which offer memberships or newsletters.

His concerns are echoed by Haj, who runs the Ruth Sokolof and Dundee theaters in Omaha, Neb. through her nonprofit org Film Streams. While Haj doesn’t speak for Art House Convergence, she points to studios as the issue. “A distributor may call the booker and say, ‘We’re going to give you this film,’ and we have five days before we know we’re getting it. So advertising it is impossible,” she says.

SPC’s Bernard has a potential solution. “We’re now meeting with marketing departments of small theaters about how we can work with them to create assets, maybe upgrade their marketing and put a joint plan together, so we can work three or four weeks in advance.”

Another issue is studios that favor multiplexes, sending films to art houses late with a reduced cut of the box office, or not at all. “One distributor that had a real art house title made the decision not to give the film to art houses,” Haj and another exhibitor say. “They told our booker: ‘I’m not interested in cashing all those little checks from all over the country.’” She adds that it’s usually more profitable to run revival series.

“The major exhibitors don’t have as much product as they normally have had, so they may be more aggressive for specialty product,” says Smith Rafael Film Center’s Fishkin. “That’s added to art houses not having films which may resonate with an audience that hasn’t been in theaters for two or
three years.”

Demographic info that might help art houses target audiences for the films they get is often unavailable for limited releases. Comscore/Screen Engine ASI’s PostTrak audience survey, for one, only studies films that have played in 800-plus theaters for two weeks in a row. Numerous industry members, from Variance Films’ Marchetti to FLC’s Bolish to producer and marketing consultant Ira Deutchman, all say that younger audiences are going to art house films, something vital for indie cinema’s future, yet there’s little data to back this up. But PostTrak surveys of the biggest specialty hits released in 2022 indicates that it’s likely true. At press time, they are: A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” ($73 million, 69% ages 18-34, 27% ages 35+), Focus’ “Downton Abbey: A New Era” ($44.1 million, 22% 18-34, 76% 35+), Searchlight’s “The Menu” ($38.5 million, 63% 18-34, 33% 35+), Focus’ “The Northman” ($34.2 million, 64% 18-34, 33% 35+) and A24’s “The Whale” ($16.7million, 60% 18-34, 40% 35+).

And just as international films are helping to boost the specialty film market, so will knowing more about the audiences who enjoy them. “I’m looking a little deeper into who my members are, where they are coming from and who I am missing,” Haj says. “We have to think like the museum down the road and curate for our communities, because all art is local.”

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