People left their homes and went to the movies this summer, shelling out what is expected to be $4.868 billion by Monday, +1% from the same period last year, which started at the end of April and lasted through Labor Day, and a few dollars shy of 2013’s $4.872B all-time record, per Comscore.
True, close to 50% of this summer’s ticket sales came from Disney branded IP ($2.2B), and 18% from their Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (which opened on April 26), leaving a slew of lower-to-mid-sized budgeted films gasping.
As Netflix gets ready to launch a premium awards season lineup that includes Martin Scorsese’s near-$200M The Irishman, Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, studios executives left for Labor Day weekend wondering: Just what is theatrical nowadays?
Yes, of course, big branded IP, superhero projects, Disney characters work, duh. And older IP that hasn’t really been reinvigorated properly doesn’t either: Compare the success of Warner Bros./Legendary’s Detective Pikachu, reawakened by Ryan Reynold’s weisenheimer voice at $431.6M WW, to that of the studios’ tired Godzilla: King of the Monsters at $386M WW.
However prior to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the end of July, there was a countless amount of counter-programming that either didn’t cross over to bigger numbers (i.e. Rocketman, Crawl) or were flat out casualties (Long Shot, Brightburn, Late Night, Shaft the list goes on…).
And there are myriad reasons why these films didn’t work, from tactical (bad release dates, marketing) to simply the built-in ailments of these movies, and the fact that they were never expected to be bigger then they were. If you were an unbranded film playing in the five weekend hurricane wake of Avengers: Endgame, you were as good as dead.
“You can counter-program another film that’s opening to a $60M-$70M opening. You can’t counter-program a movie that opens to north of $200M,” observes one studio distribution sage.
If you’re a rival studio and you want your counter-programming to survive in Disney’s monsoon of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, then a film has to possess a razor-sharp high concept with the right elements that can fuel a passionate zeitgeist, who ultimately believes the experience is truly worth their time away from home.
Now more than ever, studio development executives are grappling with the extra stress to raise the bar on unique product. “Everyone is stepping up their game,” says one financier about how rival development departments are taking their time to nurture product.
“It must be a story that captures the imagination, ideally something the audience has not seen before, or is so large in spectacle it requires theatrical viewing. Studios must also be able to communicate that effectively through the crowded marketing landscape. Here, we think whether it’s original titles like Us and Yesterday, or the further exploitation of our phenomenal franchises Hobbs & Shaw, our diverse slate, and our aggressive marketing keep folks embracing the theatrical experience,” says Universal Domestic Distribution Chief Jim Orr in response to what is considered theatrical nowadays.
So in regards to precise counter-programming this summer, huge praise goes to Sony Pictures Motion Group chairman Tom Rothman and the Culver City, CA lot team for landing Quentin Tarantino’s Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood package. At a price pre-P&A that’s close to $100M, some will say that Hollywood was bred to be a tentpole. But technically, its not branded IP, which made the film counter-programming, sandwiched between The Lion King and Hobbs & Shaw‘s release dates.
Audience and critic-pleasing auteur + big stars + very original concept + event-like blast-off at the Cannes Film Festival = one the summer’s top grossing pics stateside ($130.9M) off a very good $41M opening. When it comes to competing against Disney, that’s one formula. There is a demand for non-superhero fare and diverse range of product at the multiplex. Sony is fully aware of this, and typically makes such fare at a cost (it was called Baby Driver two summers ago, which grossed $39M 7-day opening, $106M domestic). Many will debate that Sony minus Disney/Marvel on future Spider-Mans makes all the difference. But the studio is smart enough not to give up its golden goose, and to protect its portion of the extended Marvel universe in a long B.O. era where crime fighters in tights have reigned. Led by Spider-Man: Far From Home, Sony saw a 76% surge summer over summer with $705.4M, in a summer where Uni, Warner Bros, Paramount and Fox posted double digit declines. Sony is the No. 2 studio of the summer behind Disney.
“When looking at the theatricality potential for a non-branded/non-tentpole film, we consider the following qualities: is it original, is it a fresh concept, what is the cultural significance, does it have recognizable talent or filmmakers (although it doesn’t always necessarily have to), do the visuals and aesthetics lend themselves to the big screen? At the end of the day, the result can be magical when you marry a visionary filmmaker with a talented cast with an entertaining story that resonates with a broad audience,” says Sony’s domestic distribution boss Adrian Smith.
Paramount’s Fellini-esque Elton John biopic Rocketman received a similar type of Hollywood tee-off at Cannes, with a world premiere after-party that rang out around the world. In fact, it was better than the Tarantino film: Rocketman producer and subject Elton John performed his hit single “I’m Still Standing” on the Carlton Beach, the same place where he shot the music video 36 years prior, and even performed a duet of the pic’s title song with star Taron Egerton. Before its opening, there was no question that Rocketman was going to leg out: It’s a musical about a pop icon. The most recent pic in the subgenre, Bohemian Rhapsody, which Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher literally saved, yielded a mind-boggling $904M at the global B.O. Critics were on board at 89% certified fresh. Paramount did everything right to love and launch this pic, showing footage off to the press in advance at John’s old L.A. haunt The Troubadour. The pic had a solid $25.7M, but then stalled short of $100M at $96.3M with a $190.3M global take, 21% of Bohemian‘s entire global gross. While being the second-best piece of counter-programming of the summer, one which finance sources say given the pic’s $45M production cost, will ultimately break even, Rocketman wasn’t as dazzling as some of the other musical pics we’ve seen in the marketplace of late. And it’s an example of the strains that counter-programming faces. Some will argue the pic should have had a different release date, while others says the pic was never ever going to be Bohemian due to its pronounced homosexual themes, which prevented the pic from playing in the flyover states and certain offshore territories. Plus the fact that John’s story still isn’t over. The hope is that Paramount can resuscitate Rocketman for awards season voters. Without a Mission: Impossible on the summer schedule, and just Rocketman and the under-performing Crawl, Paramount was down 43% summer-to-summer. Business looks better next year, with the long-awaited Tom Cruise sequel Top Gun: Maverick, The SpongeBob Movie, and the Mark Wahlberg-Antoine Fuqua-directed action pic Infinite.
Too often we think that you have to be universally loved at the box office, when, in fact, you can make a movie at the right price and make money off a passionate fan base. Distribution marketing departments have to make sure the right audience comes first, and when that happens, that crowd will serve the movie through the life of the film, rallying around it. This brings to mind A24’s Ari Aster film Midsommar as an interesting study of summer counter-programming. With a domestic B.O. of $26M, the film was less successful then the director’s horror pic Hereditary ($44M) last summer, didn’t play to a wide audience, yet was cheap enough at a net $10M (mostly covered by foreign sales) that it could ultimately break even. Talk about unique, here’s a piercing tale about a young college girl who, after weathering a family tragedy, heads to a Swedish solstice celebration that turns sinister. Midsommar is psychedelic, visually jaw-dropping, absurdly funny, and flat-out gonzo in its execution. It brings to mind Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and even Nic Winding Refn’s fare. Asters straps in the audience for a 2 hour and 27 minutes journey (he has a director’s cut of the film out this weekend at 2 hours and 50 minutes!).
The film divides audiences in such a way (C+ CinemaScore) that only further underscores the reason why the pic deserves to be seen on the big screen, and not on a mobile: Midsommar is so fun to debate about, it deserves to be seen in a shared environment. Clearly, Aster got to make the movie he wanted to make, but in a cinematic marketplace that’s evolving, one where the most lucrative type of counter-programming is auteur-driven, the director has the potential to be another Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, or Edgar Wright, one whose work crosses over to a wider audience. That ultimately becomes a compromise between art and commerce for Aster, for somewhere in Midsommar, at a shorter length and possibly less severe tone, is a really hip mass-appealing horror film.
Perhaps, the answer to what is theatrical or not, isn’t an aesthetic one. Rather, maybe the question is: Who’s going to make my movie? And for those making it, at what cost does this film turn a profit?
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma was certainly cinematic. No doubt, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will be. It just so happens that a streamer, Netflix, financially got behind both pics and has a different philosophy when it comes to the global distribution of those pics (largely digital). From a theatrical standpoint, yes, money is being left on the table. Earlier this summer, Universal didn’t give the greenlight to the Dwayne Johnson-Gal Gadot-Ryan Reynold $130M action heist thriller Red Notice. God knows, at that cost, it’s very theatrical. It’s just that Netflix ponied up the cash to make it under their subscription revenue, largely non-ancillary model. I’m often told that it’s the agents and the players behind movies nowadays that make them theatrical or not; it has nothing to do with quality. Word was that the producers of I, Tonya, when they sold it out of TIFF two years ago, wanted a big-screen buyer, not a streamer, with NEON buying the pic for $5M (the movie went on to win an Oscar off three noms and gross $30M stateside).
The trick for studios remains making product that you can’t watch at home off a streaming menu.
“The very notion of theatrical is more a state-of-mind or a vibe that exudes from certain movies that have that intangible ‘it’ factor. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a movie with a capital M. Obviously, the Marvel movies are inherently cinematic and theatrical. When you look at something like The Mandalorian or Game of Thrones, they’re cinematic, but not theatrical, due to their long-form, and thus are not tailored nor practical for a theatrical release. Some of it is context, some of it boils down to content and scope,” says Comscore Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
The numbers speak for themselves: non-tentpole adult movies aren’t dead, evident in the last few weekends at the B.O., with such pics as Good Boys, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Angel Has Fallen posting $20M-plus debuts, with more to come in September with anticipated openings like STX’s Jennifer Lopez-Constance Wu stripper crime pic Hustlers, a pic which is exciting female audiences as it shows a group of women pinning it to ‘The Man.’
But there’s even more good news for rival studios next summer: Disney’s slate isn’t expected to be chock full of steroids like this past season, which many say was a big advertisement for its upcoming Disney+ streaming service. Just take a look at Disney’s summer 2020 slate below: There’s less franchise and more original fare on the calendar, which is always a trick. Even Marvel’s Scarlett Johansson movie Black Widow doesn’t look threatening: We’ve seen this movie before — it was called Lucy.
Says Dergarabedian, “We don’t always know how to properly define what a theatrical film is, but we know it when we see it.”