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Toronto couldn’t have wished for a better opening-day present. Last weekend’s $90 million four-day box office haul for Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings meant the 2021 Toronto Film Market kicked off on an optimistic note.
Long-suffering theatrical distributors, producers and sales agents could point to Destin Daniel Cretton’s blockbuster — which has grossed more than $200 million worldwide to date — as a win for the theatrical experience in an era of day-and-date releases. Unlike previous Marvel release Black Widow, which premiered day-and-date in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access, Shang-Chi will have an exclusive 45-day theatrical release. For those in the business who pine for a return to strict theatrical windows — with films released exclusively in cinemas before going online — the movie has been a godsend.
“We were very pleased with the performance of Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, especially since [the film’s star] Simu Liu is a homegrown Canadian talent and a rising star,” Ellis Jacob, president and CEO of Canadian cinema giant Cineplex, tells THR. “We have an exciting film slate ahead of us, and we look forward to releasing more great films with strong box office results and exclusive theatrical windows.”
Cineplex’s Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto is back this year as the headquarters for TIFF media and industry screenings after remaining shuttered for much of 2020 amid the pandemic. Cinema owners in the city will be carefully watching the response to audiences this weekend as TIFF kicks off in force, hoping that the festival buzz will help put bums in seats.
Shang-Chi’s performance is also good news for international buyers at the TIFF market, most of whom are betting that exclusive theatrical windows will push fans to return in force to cinemas.
“The distributors are all buying for theatrical release,” says Janina Vilsmaier, head of sales at Protagonist Pictures, which closed deals on most of the world for the Penelope Cruz-Antonio Banderas Spanish-language comedy Official Competition ahead of its North American premiere in Toronto on Sept. 14. “Everyone is looking for movies that will pull people off their sofas, get them away from Netflix and back into cinemas.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as cinemas were forced to shut down and distributors delayed releasing their top movies, the independent film industry continued to gamble on a theatrical bounce back. Business at the world’s virtual film markets, starting with one at Cannes last year and continuing this week with Toronto’s second hybrid market, has remained robust as buyers bet there is a pent-up demand from movie fans to return to stadium seating, surround sound and buttered popcorn.
It seems clear that, at least for big mainstream titles with star power, the theatrical window retains its appeal: See the multiple theatrical deals signed by HanWay for Doug Liman’s epic adventure thriller Everest, starring Ewan McGregor, Mark Strong and Juno Temple, on day one of the TIFF market. For smaller or more niche movies, however, few distributors are calling for a return to the rigidity of the fixed theatrical window.
Kent Sanderson, president of acquisitions and ancillary distribution at indie distributor Bleecker Street, said he’s released 10 movies during the pandemic, and eight of those had a dedicated theatrical window.
“I do think that exclusive theatrical window is important, certainly for our movies,” Sanderson tells THR, “but I do believe that the way in which you release [a film], price it downstream and the length of that exclusive window should remain somewhat elastic and tailored to what is best for each individual film.”
JJ Caruth of The Avenue, the domestic distribution arm of genre specialist Highland Film Group, which did a multi-platform bow in June for the Pierce Brosnan-Tim Roth actioner The Misfits, thinks there’s no going back to fixed theatrical windows and business models pre-pandemic.
“We have crossed the rubicon,” she says. “The industry now demands more flexibility, to have a traditional window for some movies but [also] to have the option to do a shortened window or online-only release if that’s best for the film.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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