theatrical distribution revived for third time this year
For the last few weeks there’s been a consistent narrative throughout much of the Hollywood trade press: Finally, the box office has returned to normal!
We’ve seen that in the wake of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was the first movie of the Pandemic Era to pass $200m domestically.
We’ve seen that in the wake of Venom: Let There Be Carnage scoring, with $90m, the biggest opening weekend of the Pandemic Era.
We’ve now seen that in the wake of No Time To Die opening to a completely respectable (especially in the Pandemic Era) $65m weekend, which is almost exactly what tracking had projected.
While I certainly understand that a return to the horse-race nature of box-office reporting is good for the trade press, and that the exhibition industry is happy that the numbers on these high-profile releases are up, I can’t shake the notion that we’re yearning for a “normal” that may no longer be attainable.
This isn’t unique to the movie industry. Between Covid variants, unvaccinated holdouts and the behaviors that have become entrenched during closures and shutdowns, we never get back to pre-pandemic normal on a number of fronts.
If that includes the movie industry (and it does), then everyone involved will need to redefine what “normal” stands for and looks like.
We already see that in how, over the last year or so, 45-day theatrical windows are now standard and agreed to by most major exhibition chains where not that long ago they were so short as to be unthinkable.
counting on things going well has never been a great strategy…
Now studios will be threading the needle between continuing to support the theater industry and meeting audience expectations for very quick home release. There may indeed be more demand for moviegoing than there has been, but the positive forecast of that analyst makes two big presumptions:
- That the “studios continue to play ball”, and
- “…a film slate that is more likely to hold…”
Not to sound like a broken record, but if there’s anything that should be assumed, it’s that things are going to be more uncertain and unreliable. If it’s not major weather events that are more severe because of climate change, it’s supply chain problems that could impact the all-important concessions portion of the business.
More than that, the continued health of the exhibition business depends on selling more expensive tickets for variations on the same three dozen franchises to a smaller number of people. 2019 ticket sales were near their 25 year low even as prices were over twice what they were in 1995. So this isn’t a growing market, just one that is hoping it doesn’t lose any more ground.
And, despite the assertion that there is massive pent-up audience demand to actually go to the theater, it’s hard to imagine more ground won’t be lost overtime.
Warner Bros. may not stick with their 2021 strategy of releasing all movies day-and-date to theaters and HBO Max. And other studios may make alterations to their streaming release strategies. But given Universal’s decision to bring Halloween Kills to Peacock at the same time it’s in theaters and other moves by other companies, it’s clear something fundamental has shifted and we now live in a world where decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.
As such, we’re all going to have to come to terms with the reality that reality, as it used to be understood, needs to be put out to pasture.