With awards season upon us and prestige releases filling up January, it seems to have become fashionable for some directors to blame audiences and streaming for the failure of their films. Passion projects like “Empire of Light,” “The Fabelmans,” “Bardo,” “Armageddon Time” and “Babylon” may have won awards and praise from critics (though not all universally), but didn’t connect with cinema audiences. So who or what is to blame?
Sam Mendes has been vocal about the box office failure of “Empire of Light” and similar films. “In a world where Spielberg’s movie, and Damien Chazelle’s movie, and Alejandro González Inárritu’s movie, James Gray’s movie, this movie… no one has gone to see them… all I can say is: it’s clearly in trouble!” he is quoted as saying in the Daily Mail, sighing “What hope is there for anyone?”
It is hard not to be reminded of Berthold Brecht’s satirical poem “The Solution” about people having lost confidence in the government (or in this case, prestige cinema), “If that is the case, would it not be be simpler / If the government simply dissolved the people / And elected another?” It seems some directors would elect to have a different type of cinema audience, one that appreciates their films, rather than the current one that votes with their feet and wallet by staying away.
Mendes blames the fact that people have to pay the same to see a Bond or “Avatar “film as they do for a prestige art film like his, implying that there should be a price differential (i.e. a subsidy) by cinemas so more people go and see his ponderous take on race, mental illness and loneliness. Perhaps the budget is not the only thing that sets apart his two films “Spectre” (screenplay by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jezz Butterworth) and “Empire of Light” (screenplay by Sam Mendes). But, no, clearly penny-pinching audiences are to blame.
Except that same audience did not seem to get the memo that it is not worth paying good money to go to the cinema to see a film like “A Man Called Otto”, which took over USD $15 million in its first week of wide domestic release. Similarly last year, audiences also flocked to smaller films such as “Ticket to Paradise” (USD $167 million worldwide), “Where the Crawdads Sing” (USD $140 million worldwide) and the true winner of the recent Golden Globes, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (USD $103 million globally). So the death of small and medium budget films seems to have been exaggerated.
When Baz Luhrmann’s series “The Get Down” became one of the most expensive flops Netflix ever released, he did not opinionate in interviews that “streaming is clearly in trouble.” He dusted himself off, went to Warner Bros. and directed “Elvis,” a biopic drama aimed at an older audience that collected both USD $287 million worldwide and a Golden Globe for its lead actor. With streamers cutting back on spending and more talent gravitating back to the cinema, expect more and better cinema releases. Particularly as audiences start to cut back on monthly payments for several streaming services, rather than the occasional cinema visit when there is a film releasing that they definitely want to see.
What Mendes also forgets is that there is already a price differential between “his” type of films and special effects-driven blockbusters, because the latter are primarily shown in premium screens such as IMAX and Dolby Cinema (if you like this newsletter, do please have a look at our sponsor Dolby’s video below). “Avatar: the Way of Water” has seen 51% of admissions come from premium formats in Korea and 61% of revenue. This means that prestige films are free to be shown in medium and smaller screens where tickets cost less – unless Mendes thinks that exhibitor’s are up-charging for “Empire of Light” in 4DX.
This week I went to my first non-industry screening and the cinema was packed with teenagers for “M3gan.” The friendly Vue staffer who sold me my popcorn told me the horror thriller was doing incredibly well, but so was “Tar,” the film that supposedly restored Martin Scorses’s faith in cinema. I didn’t get a chance to ask how “A Man Called Otto” was doing, but I am sure that it is pulling in more punters than “Empire of Light.” The most remarkable thing about the teenagers in the line in front of me wasn’t that they had chosen to come to the cinema, but that they paid with pound notes and coins for their tickets and nachos with extra cheese. I for one would not vote for a different audience.
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