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For the independent film industry, the re-opening of theaters worldwide has been your classic good news/bad news type situation.
The good news, according to the latest figures from box office analyst Comscore, is that movies are back. Comscore reported that the domestic ticket revenue for October hit $638 million, making it the best month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s not back to the record levels seen pre-pandemic. Comscore figures show domestic box office in October 2019 hitting $789.5 million, compared with $832 million in October 2018. But it’s 12 percent up from the October 2017 figure of $569.8 million. Cinemas elsewhere, from China to the U.K. and France to Mexico, are also filling up again as coronavirus restrictions fall away and distributors start rolling out titles held back during COVID lockdowns.
The bad news: it’s blockbusters all the way down. Four studio tentpoles dominated the October figures: Warner Bros./Legendary’s Dune, Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage, MGM/United Artists’ James Bond movie No Time to Die and Universal/Blumhouse/Miramax’s Halloween Kills. It comes as no surprise that event films pack them in, judging from the response to Universal’s F9, which took in $721 million in theaters worldwide this year, as well as Warner/Legendary’s Godzilla vs. Kong ($468 million) and Disney/Marvel title Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($423 million).
Independent films have had far less success in bringing their audience back to cinemas though. A few mainstream action titles with indie backing and studio distribution have done modest business. For example, Lionsgate’s release of Millennium Media’s The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard drew $38 million domestically, while Guy Ritchie’s Jason Statham actioner Wrath of Man from MGM, Miramax and CAA Media Finance took in $27.5 million at theaters in North America. A24 has a sleeper hit with Icelandic horror title Lamb ($2.7 million and counting), Neon did decently with Nicolas Cage-starrer Pig ($3.2 million), and Cannes winner Titane ($1.44 million) but overall the story of cinemas reopening, in the U.S. and worldwide, has been one of near-total studio domination.
“The specialty market has not come back for theatrical, nowhere close,” Kent Sanderson, president of acquisitions and ancillary at U.S. indie Bleecker Street told an AFM panel on Tuesday, noting that what makes a film “travel well on VOD” has become increasingly important in deciding what movies to finance. Fellow panelist Brian Beckmann, the CFO of Arclight Films, agreed that a North American theatrical release was “not a reality” for most independent films at the moment.
Not that theaters are complaining. Few independent films have cracked the U.K. charts since cinemas reopened in May, but revenues are now besting pre-pandemic levels: the U.K. box office just hit £15 million ($20.2 million) for five consecutive weeks, the first time it has managed that since late 2018.
“For us, the big films really are the tentpoles that hold the whole thing up,” admits one exec working at a mid-sized exhibition chain in Britain. “We need the Bonds and the Dunes to cut through the apathy of the non-regulars and get them thinking about cinema again.”
Just how long it will take to break through that apathy is a question on the minds of sales agents and international buyers gathering around their Zoom calls at this week’s all-virtual American Film Market. Business at previous online-only markets, starting in Cannes last year, has been robust, with distributors betting on a quick post-COVID bounce-back for the independent theatrical market.
So far, that hasn’t happened.
One reason could be demographics. Art house and specialty titles skew older, and there are some indications that older audiences have been more hesitant to return to theaters, preferring to sit out the next COVID wave from the safety of their sofas at home. Two recent specialty titles, Edgar Wright’s psychological horror film Last Night in Soho and Wes Anderson’s star-packed The French Dispatch, both failed to hit their box office targets (Soho has earned just $4.2 million domestically, Dispatch $4.6 million) despite the marketing might of studio-backed distributors Focus Features and Searchlight, respectively.
Then there’s the impact of multi-platform releases — when a film goes out simultaneously in theaters and online — and different platform bows in different territories. Wrath of Man was a theatrical release, via MGM, stateside, but went out online-only via Amazon in the U.K. AppleTV+ picked up Sundance favorite, and awards-contender, Coda for release on its platform in North America and most international territories, but the Sian Heder-directed drama also hit theaters in select territories, including Mexico, where it grossed $1 million-plus.
“Every country has a different approach or reaction [to multi-platform releases]” says Kirsten Figeroid, managing director and executive vp at Sierra/Affinity. “It is not anymore ‘if it is going to a streamer, I don’t want it for my territory,’ but more ‘I want it but I need a theatrical window in my territory before the online release.’ We are negotiating those things on a case-by-case basis now.”
The battle over windows, however, is far from over.
“The theatrical business in Europe [has] really tried to prevent any kind of shortening of these [theatrical] windows, and I think we have to try to keep them as long as possible in a way to give the theaters a chance,” said Julia Weber of Global Screen at an online AFM session earlier this week. “People who would like to go to the movies are desperate to go to the movies – and they do not only go for the tentpoles [but] they also love the big-scale pictures that you can only enjoy in the theater. People want to make sure that the time and money that they spend for this evening needs to have a certain value to it.”
For independent producers and distributors, the main challenge appears to be competing with the marketing might of the studios and streamers to get audiences to pay attention to new releases and come out to theaters to support them.
Despite the slow start, theater owners are optimistic that art house fans, eventually, will come back.
“I think the art house type audience is used to having to work a bit harder to find their films,” said one U.K. exhibitor. “Our hope is that we can tempt them back with the sound and screen above all else. We know that for real film fans it’s all about Netflix-and-cinema, it isn’t about Netflix-or-cinema.”
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