Box Office Success and the New Normal: Looking Beyond the Numbers

By | August 30, 2020 4:45 am PDT

Last Wednesday I attended a 1:00 pm showing of “Tenet” on its opening day in one of London’s biggest multiplexes. I think it was a “sell out” – it certainly looked pretty full – but I genuinely have no idea. For those of us who have made decisions based on box office figures and analysis for over 15 years, this is unchartered territory and it is a little unsettling. Like its influence on many other established business practices, COVID has shone a light on how we interpret box office data, forcing us to look at things in a different way.

Before “Tenet” opened, Warner Bros. wisely announced that they would not be sharing any of the film’s figures until at least Monday. Lazy journalism would inevitably refer to the performance of the opening weekend (plus previews) to measure success and compare it to previous Nolan outings. And despite WB’s best intentions, in spite of a lack of data, 24-hours later it has already started.

“Everyone is looking at Tenet as the cornerstone title,” Gower Street Analytics’ Head of Theatrical Insights Rob Mitchell stated. “And there are so many complications in the market at the moment, it’s hard from the outside to understand what’s missing.” So how do we measure success in this “new normal”?

The complications to which Mitchell refers are the many factors that are heavily skewing the analysis of box office figures right now. Since the March, drive-in cinemas – until now at least – have often been responsible for the biggest box office grosses to date. Many cinemas are yet to open and the ones that have opened are subject to social distancing guidelines. And each territory has different rules regarding this: some are observing a cap of a maximum number of patrons, others are operating on a percentage capacity basis, others are dictated by the physical space requirements between seats. Each market has socio-economic factors driving their recoveries which are heavily skewing how box office is distributed. With so many variances by territory, the studios will surely look to rely on their local offices’ understanding of their markets to begin to interpret whether performance can be deemed successful or not.

It’s that local understanding that’s crucial to how we interpret success right now. For those of us living in the United Kingdom, we are well aware that the City of London – formally the epicentre of UK cinema – is empty, and virtually no one has taken public transport to the Capital since March. To look therefore to the flagship sites on Leicester Square, two cinemas which rely on commuters and tourists (and themselves in competition with one another and the BFI IMAX due to a lack of other content available) and draw conclusions based on first show attendance as reported by trade publications such as Variety is at best irrelevant, and at worst, damaging to a business we all have a vested interest in seeing succeed.

“The Eight Hundred” has helped China’s cinema fully recover. (Source: Huayi Bros)

Fortunately, Gower Street has provided tools and analysis to enable a more robust and comprehensive understanding of the data available. During the early part of the global cinema recovery journey, they focused on tracking the number of cinema openings which of course has a direct impact on the potential box office for any new release title. They also established a five-stage blueprint to (market) recovery, with Stage 1 being a cinemas’ re-opening date, and Stage 5 categorised as a “recovery week” – in which the play weeks’ performance would be equal to those in the top quartile of business in the past two years. The latter of course would depend on the entire market featuring a robust release calendar and not looking to an individual title’s success.

“There are a few markets in Stage 3: The Netherlands, Japan and Korea” Mitchell noted (with the latter never entirely closing). Korea came close to Stage 4 with “Deliver us from Evil,” a local thriller topping the box office and grossing USD $31 million. “We need to view success in the context of the market, not just individual titles” added Mitchell. “Titles give you indicators, but not the answers.”

It is only right to point out however that there have been some tremendous individual film performances. China today reached Stage 5, effectively signalling a return to business as usual propelled by “The Eight Hundred.” The films’ 463 day release date delay and cap on 30% occupancy doesn’t seem to have harmed it’s theatrical prospects, having taken USD $181 million and easily becoming their top title of the year. Shot exclusively with IMAX cameras, this was a big-screen experience audiences clearly couldn’t do without.

In Korea, “Peninsula” (the sequel to “Train to Busan”) has scored an impressive USD $27 million in addition to “Deliver us from Evil.” To put those numbers in context, they are currently the second and third biggest titles of this year, and the fifteenth and sixteenth biggest titles since the start of 2019 (in a list that also includes seven Hollywood titles, and “Parasite”).

“Peninsula”

Sony’s Spanish comedy “Father there is Only One 2” this week became their biggest title of the year in Spain amassing over USD $10 million and opened 60% stronger than its predecessor released in non-COVID times.

It seems that I have already fallen into some of my own traps by pointing out the success of individual titles in spite of social distancing caps and restrictions. For balance, it is therefore important to note that this cuts both ways – these titles have the monopolies on screens due to being the only films in the marketplace, giving them the opportunity to reach their potential.

Take “Unhinged” for example. In the UK, with not a single new release in the marketplace and mediocre footfall for repertory titles, distributor Altitude took the risk to release the Russell Crowe starrer with no expectations. It has, to date, taken over USD $1 million at the UK box office, a number which under “normal” circumstances, the mid-range title could have struggled to achieve in a crowded marketplace. But thanks to screen availability and an artificially long tail, it has delivered. And more importantly, in a much needed show of solidarity, it gave exhibitors hope (and ticket revenue).

Whilst undoubtedly shutting a cinema operation puts a sizable hole in a companies’ pocket, the good news is that with the right movies, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to get to a breakeven point with doors open, as they can play the same film in multiple screens. “The general break-even point in this cinema business is under 20%” Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger told Bloomberg. “But – and it’s a big but – that’s an average. On a Wednesday lunchtime there will be two or three people, and on a Saturday night the auditorium will be sold out. So, we don’t need full capacities in order to generate some money – probably a 50% cap – and indeed a picture will be showing longer. But we will only need that 50% capacity at the weekend.”

Fortunately for IMAX screens – which will of course be playing “Tenet” but on their one screen in each complex, their break-even point according to IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond, is surprisingly, 10%. “Last year IMAX had a record box office, and our capacity was just north of 10%,” he explained. Again, this performance has historically been weighted towards weekend performances.

“The question is, will people spread out to non-peak periods and our experience from other territories is yes. People are not at work and are going to times perceived to be less crowded. So the capacity [restrictions] in itself isn’t an issue,” Gelfond added.

“Tenet” was shot partially in IMAX.

All of these small success stories give confidence to both audiences and distributors alike, and with many of the 2020 blockbusters still scheduled for release this year (“Wonder Woman 1984,” “No Time To Die,” “Black Widow” and “Dune”) Gower Street’s Dimitiros Mitsinikos estimates that global box office will end up at around USD $15b billion (of which USD $4.5 billion will be from North America and USD $10-11 billion from international box office). This is a serious dent versus last year’s USD $32 billion international take, but these are far from normal times. And let’s remember that right now, only 65% of screens are open worldwide.

But in order to fulfil this potential, we need our markets to return to normal levels and that will take time. In the meantime, we can reassess how we analyse our numbers to point to overall market success, perhaps looking at per-theatre averages in context with capacity percentage for available shows. Put simply, if you cannot legally sell any more seats at this time, then I’d consider that a success and I am aware of at least one exhibitor who has added extra shows of “Tenet” in additional screens to accommodate demand. But this level of analysis can only be done at a local level. Despite the abundance of information available to Gower Street via Comscore, there are too many regional variances to draw conclusions on a worldwide basis, for now anyway.

What we must avoid at all costs is the narrative to become centred around lower opening weekends when (and it is when, not if) they happen and to allow this to fuel the fire of “streaming is taking over the world” – which anyone in an informed position knows is far from the truth.

A multi-million dollar blockbuster which was at huge risk of piracy (or at the very least, spoilers) has received a staggered theatrical release. Films are reaching their theatrical potential worldwide despite restricted seating capacities, as they have the space to run. 2020 is likely to be the year that Chinese box office surpasses that of North America. Doing things and looking at things differently is not only smart in this instance, but necessary.

2020 has been a year where we take each day as it comes, learn, and adapt. For now, despite the media telling me that no one is going to the cinema, I take comfort and confidence in the full screening I sat in last Wednesday, the large amount of people in the foyer for the next show, the fact that I cannot book a ticket for an evening show at the Electric Notting Hill until 6th September.

I think the UK might have just entered the next stage of the Gower Street recovery plan. Someone should tell the press.

Claire Beswick
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