20 January 2023
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.
Patrick von Sychowski
, Editor, Celluloid Junkie
Marvel Studios announced they have been granted approval by the Chinese government to release “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” on 7 February and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” on 17 February. This marks the first Marvel release in China since “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in July of 2019.
In 2021 all four Marvel titles were blocked from being released in China for reasons the government never officially explained. Last year proved no better for the studio with neither “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” getting passed over by censorship authorities.
The February dates come after China’s Lunar New Year, a big moviegoing holiday in which the government traditionally enforces a blackout window for imported titles. The “Black Panther” sequel comes three months after its initial worldwide release while the third installment of “Ant-Man” will open the same week as the rest of the world. The advance notice gives Marvel and Disney time to market the films, though it remains to be seen whether having two superhero films playing in cinemas at the same time will lead to cannibalization of either title.
In a filing earlier this week relating to their ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, Cineworld asked the United States Bankruptcy Court for permission to abandon 39 of its leases for Regal theatre locations in the United States. This is the fifth time Cineworld has gone to the court to seek relief from theatre leases in which the company was unable to negotiate various lease restructuring, modifications and even the deferral of rent.
To date Cineworld has received permission to walk away from 28 of its leases, essentially shuttering those theatres. They are now waiting for the court’s ruling on an additional 62 leases. If granted it would bring the total number of Regal cinema locations closed due to Cineworld’s bankruptcy to at least 90. When the world’s second largest exhibitor filed for bankruptcy on 7 September 2022, it operated 505 Regal locations.
Among the list of potential Regal closures is the Union Square Stadium 14 in New York City, the Sherman Oaks Galleria 16 in Los Angeles and the South Beach Stadium 18 and Imax in Miami, where ShowEast has traditionally held screenings and events each autumn.
Youth eco activists have been protesting outside cinemas in Korea against the plastic waste of disposable 3D eyewear. An unintended side-effect of the popularity of “Avatar: the Way of Water” has been that a large number of polarised glasses for 3D shows that have been discarded, according to the protestors. This sits badly with a film that has a pro-conservation and environmental message at its heart.
According to KOBIS ticketing statistics, a total of 3.11 million spectators in Korea have watched the Avatar sequel as of 17 January. The film has topped the box office chart in the country for its first four weeks of release and 51% of admissions are estimated to have been for premium formats. According to Insight Korea, “most of the disposable 3D glasses they used were discarded as garbage.” This has led to a mobilisation of protests, particularly by Korean youth:
Lee Hae-wan (25), CEO of YYET, a youth council for responding to the climate crisis of Ecomom Korea, said, “I wanted to let many people know that as much as we enjoy watching movies, 3D glasses turn into a huge amount of plastic waste and are thrown away.” He emphasized that being interested in and continuously giving voice to cinemas is the greatest force that can lead to change.”
One 15-year old protester was quoted as saying, “I was watching ‘Avatar 2’ with my friends, but when I saw the notice saying to throw away the 3D glasses in a container, I thought it was too much of a waste.” Ha Ji-won, CEO of Ecomom Korea has written to all three of Korea’s big cinema chains: CGV, Lotte and Megabox, demanding that they address the issue of disposable 3D eyewear. “Since cinemas are an important cultural space for the lives of the entire nation, especially future generations, I hope that they devise sincere and responsible alternatives,” he is quoted as saying.
Though the third largest movie market in the world was able to keep cinemas mostly open during the Covid pandemic, by 2021 a combination of health concerns and lack of content caused the country’s box office to fall off as much as 34% from 2019 levels. Last year however, Japan’s box office showed significant progress in recovering from the pandemic, bringing in JPY ¥205 billion (USD $1.6 billion) from 146 million admissions.
As a comparison, Japan earned JPY ¥243 billion (USD $1.9 billion) in 2019 on 182 million admissions. Meaning the country’s box office is still off 15.6% from pre-pandemic levels.
The biggest title in Japan during 2022 was the 15th animated feature in the One Piece franchise from Studio Toei. “One Piece Film: Red” sold 13.75 million tickets and brought in JPY ¥19 billion (USD $149 million). “Top Gun Maverick” soared to the number two spot in Japan with receipts totaling JPY ¥13.5 billion (USD $106 million).
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