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“Event movies will save cinema”, we’re constantly told by adults who should be too old to get excited by the sight of men in spandex.
This summer has been dominated by two event movies — Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s ode to single-use plastics and body conformity, and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a 3-hour precognition of civilization’s end — that have racked up box office receipts that seem, on the surface, to defy the recent trends of theatrical distribution. Because theatrical distribution is a war zone. Here in the UK, Cineworld, our biggest chain, is in administration, as is Empire, one of its biggest rivals. At 9,139 global screens — it also owns Regal in the US — Cineworld is the second biggest cinema chain in the world, behind only AMC. On the back of Barbenheimer, AMC’s own share price has risen this week, back to $4.97 — but go back to the immediate pre-pandemic era and shares were trading at about $10. Even that was a significant decline from a few years before (highs of around $27 in 2016).
And so, it’s hard to see theatrical distribution as being in anything other than big trouble.
In the post-Titanic (the first billion dollar film) period, it felt like box office hauls were on an exponential and irresistible rise. From 1998, when the film came out, to 2004, total domestic receipts grew each year. A small correction in 2005 was followed by another few years of growth, into the 2010s when 3D ticket prices and a mature multiplex system saw total US box office receipts comfortably over $10,000,000,000 each year. This continued like a steam train until — WHAM! — 2020, when covid-19 came along in the spring and total take fell to a pitiful $2,113,000,000. (This is US domestic box office figures, because that’s really what matters to the survival of the western theatrical complex).
At this point, as has been much remarked upon, the biggest media companies in the world, from Disney to NBC to Netflix, made a deal with the devil and over-invested in streaming and at-home consumption. They didn’t know when or if movie theatres would reopen, but they did know that there was a lucrative streaming opportunity. And they couldn’t sit on their slate forever, so the only way to release movies between early 2020 and mid 2021 was to have a meaningful streaming strategy. The world’s movie viewers became sofa-bound and the cinemas went quiet.
We are now in the post-covid world. Some retail and hospitality industries have bounced back — even seen a resurgence of demand following the psychological torture of lockdown — whilst cinema has run from a health crisis into a cost of living crisis. The rising costs of real estate, energy and, at least here in the UK, labour, have ensured that ticket prices have continued to rise into 2023. But inflation has been monstering discretionary spending in the UK, and gate receipts haven’t recovered. In 2022, the first year for cinemas to properly reopen, US box office total gross was $7.3bn, a drop of $4bn from 2019. The impact on share prices has been huge but there’s also been a commensurate hit to infrastructure.
The number of screens and locations is declining. The biggest chains in the world are shutting cinemas in order to offset this 36% reduction in ticket sales. AMC has closed almost 1,000 screens since 2017, which represents about 10% of their available broadcast real estate. Cineworld’s administrators have fought to protect its UK locations but have cut like hell from its American arm, Regal. In September 22 they shut 12 Regals, and in January 2023 another 39 — bringing the total Regal venues down to around 500. Last month they announced another 14 will close.
You don’t need to be a very competent economist to realise that the global reduction in screen numbers is going to have an impact on the box office receipts. If we lose 10–20% of cinema screens from the 2019 numbers, then there’s no way of getting back to $11bn total domestic gross, unless ticket prices go up (and people can, mysteriously, afford them). The “per screen” metric becomes more relevant, then, to those in the business of bricks and mortar movie theatres, but it doesn’t change the cost of making movies or the requirement for blockbusters to recoup $300m-odd through some sort of ticket sales.
All this brings me to my last, dying, diatribe against event movies. The sign of a mature and stable cinema industry is not a couple of summer smashes that make a billion dollars. I promise it’s not. The sign of a mature and stable industry is a culture where Americans (and Brits and Indians and Chinese etc) go to the movies every month. There doesn’t need to be a slam-dunk, word of mouth hit playing; the habit has been formed and the itch needs to be scratched.
A 2022 poll of adult Americans produced the following data: 8% said they went to the movies “often”, while 33% said “sometimes, 41% said “rarely”, and 18% said “never”. The same data said that moviegoing was heavily impacted by income: only one third of respondents with a household income under $50,000 answered “often” or “sometimes”. Men, whose tasted are better catered for by the current event movie complex, were significantly more likely to go to the cinema than women (in spite of young women having more disposable income than young men).
More alarmingly, the famous “grey pound” (or should that be “gray dollar”?) seems to have dried up. About half of millennial respondents said they went often/sometimes whereas just a quarter of boomers affirmed in the same way. Older people have long been the backbone of the cinema industry, keeping the lights on during sub-premium times (like, for example weekday daytimes or weekend matinees) when young people eschew the multiplex.
Event movies do not engender a habit. They do not open up new demographics. In fact, they turn cinema into something that you only do when there’s huge buzz around certain projects, or when they have a galaxy of stars, or a marketing campaign that bedecks every double-decker bus. It is a culture that might return US cinema to its goal of having two or three billion dollar movies a year, but there is little that suggests it will support movies that take, I don’t know, $30m, or $90m or even $150m.
In point of fact, it almost certainly hurts them. If I want to go to the pictures today at my local cinemas, let’s see what’s on. At my nearest: Barbie, four times, Oppenheimer, twice, and Joy Ride, once. At my second nearest: Barbie, thrice, Oppenheimer, twice, Mission: Impossible, twice, and Joy Ride, once. Third nearest? Barbie, five times, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, four times, Oppenheimer, twice, and Mission: Impossible, twice. And this is all a significant improvement on the past weekend, when I would’ve struggled to see anything that wasn’t about a bomb or a bombshell.
Fewer screens means fewer movies being programmed, which means fewer cinemas taking fewer risks on non-event movies. Fewer non-event movies getting programmed means fewer non-event movies getting made. Here in the UK, where the multiplex still rules, cinemas have, on average, about 5 screens. In order to meet the audience demands for Barbie availability, you’d be mad not to programme that on 3 screens. Similarly, if you want to give people flexible timings for a 3-hour film like Oppenheimer (and remember that Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, was 2 mins longer) you’ll need to put it on at least 2 screens. And so we’ve already maxed out. We’re at capacity.
If theatrical distribution can get back to 75%, in ticket sales, of what it took pre-pandemic, it will be heralded as a great victory. The question, I suppose, is whether there’s any space for art in this dramatically self-preserving world of commerce. It is an unequivocally good thing that movie theatres survive, but if the price is an industry that only relies more and more on “event movies” then that’s a tough compromise. The question, then, is what happens after the hot Barbenheimer summer is over. Will audiences, suckered in by Pinky and The Brain, fall for a slate of Oscar-bait autumn movies? Or will ticket sales run dry as pinched household budgets wait for the next water-cooler movie that every tabloid and talk show host is raving about?
Oh, and that’s before we even approach the fact that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes probably mean that no movies are getting promoted or scheduled between now and Christmas. Enjoy the bounty of this summer, then, because I am become dearth, destroyer of screens.