The Coming Theatrical Crunch
Plus: 'The Shining,' assigned!
I try to be a relatively upbeat guy about the state of theatrical exhibition, in part because I believe in theaters as both a business model and as a consumer experience but also, in part, because we’re going through a weirdly unprecedented time in the movie industry. The combination of Covid lockdowns that (largely unnecessarily) shuttered theaters for an extended period of time in major coastal cities and a production shutdown that has slowed the flow of wide-release movies into theaters has created a perfect storm of financial calamity for movie theaters.
David Poland is also, generally, a pretty upbeat guy about movie theaters. But I worry he’s right to let a little despair creep into his writing about the state of exhibition and the ways in which distributors are effectively murdering a revenue stream worth tens of billions of dollars.
Because this is what you have to remember about movie theaters: the theaters themselves don’t really make anything other than popcorn. They generate revenue via ticket sales by showing movies studios make and by getting people to buy snacks when they come to see the movies studios make. If the studios decide to stop putting movies in theaters—if they were to all, say, simultaneously develop streaming services and use their movies to try to entice you to subscribe to those streaming services—there’s not really a whole lot the theaters can do. AMC doesn’t own a backlot. Regal isn’t buying up IP to create franchises.
You should really read both of Poland’s essays; part one is here, part two is here. (Part three is coming and there are some sidebar notes for parts one and two here.) As he sees it, everyone loses when the studios decide to end the system of “windowing” that has made everyone in the industry unimaginably rich since the rise of cable and home video created multiple wealthy revenue streams. The math is simply brutal when the number of releases gets slashed:
$11 billion was the pre-COVID domestic norm.
45% is roughly the average exhibition cut.
44,000 screens at 5,798 cinema sites
On a very broad basis, that means that every screen in America used to average $250,000 in box office revenue to the exhibitor each year.
And now, that stat is $147,727. A 41% haircut.
How many businesses could afford a 41% haircut?
A big part of the problem is a reduction in the total number of blockbusters and the increasingly untenable top-heaviness of those that still hit theaters. Yes, your MCU pictures and your Fast and Furiouses and your Jurassic Worlds are going to make their nut; but the rest of the market is falling away.
There are bright spots here and there. Smile is a surprise hit, likely to hit $200 million worldwide on a $17 million budget. And that’s a movie that was actually made for streaming that someone at Paramount realized had theatrical potential; you don’t see too many moves from streaming to theaters anymore. Indeed, as I’ve noted elsewhere, horror continues to do about as well as it always did theatrically, and that’s nice.
But for theaters to sustain the current number of screens in operation, they need a steady stream of blockbusters AND horror movies AND family/animated movies to bring kids and their parents to theaters AND romcoms to get couples and girls-night-out audiences AND awards-season fare bringing adults out AND comedies that become cultural phenomena. And what we’ve been seeing for a few years, sped up by Covid, is these pillars falling away one by one. Romcoms have migrated almost completely to Netflix and Hallmark and Hulu. Family fare is the domain of Disney Plus. Awards season entries get token theatrical releases but most people see them on Netflix or Apple TV+.
A contraction in the number of screens nationwide is likely coming, which in turn will reduce theatrical revenue, which in turn will increase studio reliance on streaming to make up the difference. It’s hard not to envision a vicious cycle spinning up.
If we aren’t already in the middle of one.
For more on the state of the romantic comedy and why they’ve found a home on streaming services, make sure to listen to this week’s Bulwark Goes to Hollywood with Scott Meslow. He’s the author of From Hollywood with Love, and we had a great chat about the past, present, and future of the genre.
Speaking of romcoms, this week I reviewed two new-ish ones: Bros and Ticket to Paradise.
On Tuesday’s Across the Movie Aisle, we reviewed Black Adam and Star Wars stagnation. On today’s bonus episode, we looked at the first season of House of the Dragon. If you would like to access that episode (or leave a comment here or listen to Sarah’s fantastic podcast, The Focus Group), sign up for a month free here. That’ll get you through the election.
Make sure to read Bill Ryan’s essay on novelist Peter Straub, who died earlier this year.
Terrifier 2 continues to exceed expectations, which in turn has led to it getting more screens. Hard to think of a better Halloween-weekend movie.
A thing I don’t quite understand: why Disney hasn’t made any effort whatsoever to integrate Disney+ into Disney-owned hotels on their properties.
Another thing I don’t quite understand: whether or not people are idiots or simply constructing bad-faith arguments to tear down artists in the pursuit of clout. One last thing I don’t understand: why artists keep giving into these dolts.
Assigned Viewing: The Shining (HBO Max)
I try to watch The Shining every year around this time because I’m a simple man who likes simple pleasures, and one such pleasure is watching all the faces in this movie. Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall are wonderful, obviously, as is Scatman Crothers and Danny Lloyd. But my favorite face, maybe the most underrated in the picture, is the one Anne Jackson makes when Wendy is trying to explain away Jack’s abuse of Danny. Just an A-plus reaction shot. No one will ever convince me that Kubrick wasn’t going for dark comedy with that series of cuts, from nervous Wendy to the stone-faced doctor and back to Wendy.