Programming Note: Last week’s CJ Marquee is coming to you a little late as members of the Celluloid Junkie team make their way to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, starting 16 May. As well, don’t forget we’ll be talking to studios and distributors from around the world on this week’s CJ Cinema Summit at 5:00 pm (London) / 9:00 am (Los Angeles).
By now anyone following the worldwide motion picture exhibition and distribution business is well aware that the tenor of the conversation about the future of the industry shifted dramatically after CinemaCon in April. Sure the number of attendees at the conference was back to pre-pandemic levels, manufacturers were announcing big deals again and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was busy breaking box office records, but what really helped shift everyone’s thinking was the studio presentations of their upcoming releases.
Gone were the doom and gloom discussions about a lack of new releases causing attendance to suffer, throttling the industry’s recovery. Instead, cinema operators forgave studios for their recent streaming sins and returned home with something they haven’t felt for a long time; overwhelming optimism.
You could see this in the confident statements being made by the CEOs of publicly listed exhibition companies during their earnings announcements in the weeks that followed. Each catalogued a long list of big budget movies that would soon be in theatres as reason to be bullish about their near-term fortunes. What you didn’t hear on those earnings calls was the anxious murmuring among exhibitors of all sizes about the logjam of new releases in June and July.
To be sure, cinema owners in no way want to return to the dearth of fresh titles they suffered during the pandemic, however they are looking at the release schedule for June, July and even August wondering whether some of the highly anticipated movies headed their way will cannibalize each other.
Starting 19 May, every week has a glut of new releases, often featuring highly anticipated titles. “Fast X,” the latest entry in the “Fast and Furious” franchise hits theatres first followed by the live action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” on 26 May. At least those films are counter-programmed. But the following week the animated “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” arrives in cinemas on 2 June seven days ahead of “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” and two weeks before Pixar’s “Elemental” and DC’s “The Flash.” Exhibitors went from having one animated family title open in four months to having three open within four weeks of each other. This is all before 30 June when “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is certain to suck up most of the box office.
Less than two weeks later “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” comes along to shove Indy out of the way on 12 July and then nine days later “Barbie” squares off against Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” Again, counter-programming may work in the latter case. That might not be the case two weeks later when on 4 August, “The Meg 2: The Trench” tries to take a bite out of the opening weekend of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” Those are only the action and family films. R-rated comedies such as “No Hard Feelings,” starring Jennifer Lawrence, and “Joyride” open two weeks apart as well.
And these are just the big English-language studio movies. It leaves out two dozen specialty films and doesn’t even consider local titles in international territories. There is a name for this kind of film release pattern (at least in the northern hemisphere); summer, also commonly referred to as the summer blockbuster season. Exhibitors are familiar with having to program their multiplexes during the crowded summer months, when at times they are even forced to turn down new releases in certain theatres for lack of space. They are indeed happy to once again have the problems associated with such cinematic abundance.
Yet these days there is a tinge of concern in cinema owners’ voices when mentioning their conundrum; not only for themselves, but mostly for distributors. While exhibitors definitely need to recover, they also want distributors to prosper after COVID so they can continue to supply them with new movies. In speaking with a number of exhibitors the fear seems to be that someone is going to get hurt this summer. That a blockbuster, or more than one, will be released and not perform in a crowded marketplace. That no title will have a decent second weekend, and if it does, it won’t have a third. That the weekly drops will be bigger than they need to be.
Though exhibitors are always making a concerted effort to get patrons to show up as often as possible, can they coax them into cinemas more than once in a month when competing with streaming options, outdoor activities and family vacations? Surely there are comparisons that could be run from previous summers, and major studios have likely already done them, though will they be accurate in a post-pandemic world?
Not wanting to present a problem without a potential solution, I thought of two which might help keep titles in theatres longer so they can fully realize their true earnings potential. These suggestions actually come from operational norms in various international territories. For operators with fewer screens in smaller markets distributors could reduce the minimum number of weeks and allow them to holdover a release with split showtimes. Such operators could program more titles this way and stray moviegoers can catch up on films for which they missed the initial release. Maybe a four week old film only screens once a day or three times in a week at different hours. I know of some exhibitors still holding packed screenings of “Avatar: The Way of Water” once a week under this kind of arrangement.
Taking this idea one step further, for films that are in the latter stages of release and would otherwise not be held over by cinema operators, it would be ideal if distributors allowed them to be played on a rotating basis with other aging releases, rather than mandating they be played “clean” on their own screen. Three films could be played on a single screen extending the theatrical life of each title while making room for new releases, possibly from the very same distributors whose older movies are now playing in rotation.
I realize some of this “screen sharing” already happens naturally, but it is in a distributor’s nature to reflexively demand as many showtimes per day for each of their titles, no matter how long ago they may have been released, as much as it is for an exhibitor to program their screens with titles that will attract the highest attendance. Maybe in times when there are too many releases to program on standalone screens, the goals of both exhibitors and distributors can be met by increasing attendance on a single screen by showing three different movies on it, earning additional box office for films that may have previously been forfeited.
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