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Unless you spent the past week trudging your way out of a mud-soaked Nevada desert during this year’s rainy Burning Man, you undoubtedly have heard that musician Taylor Swift is bringing a film version of her latest concert tour to movie theatres in North America and Mexico on 13 October. (International release will probably occur after Swift plays each territory.) Swift spent the past five months playing sold out shows at massive football stadiums throughout the United States, breaking all sorts of attendance and performance records amid ubiquitous mainstream media coverage. This is the same tour that made headlines by crashing Ticketmaster when tickets went on sale last year. “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” is specifically crafted as a concert film that will allow those who couldn’t obtain or afford some of the high priced tickets to see the show in a communal setting. And just like the tour itself, ticket sales for the movie have already generated news coverage by crushing sales records.
Yet, how “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” wound up in cinemas, and that a major exhibitor played a crucial role in making that happen, is unique enough that I want to look at the manner in which the film is being distributed, the ensuing industry response, how it is being marketed and whether this all portends a new direct-distribution model. Though lengthy and detailed, hopefully by the end, this will be one of those newsletters you’ll find informative enough to forward to colleagues.
A Swiftly Completed Deal
When it came time to find a company to get “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” in movie theatres, it is somewhat telling that Swift didn’t turn to any of the streaming companies, having already worked with Netflix on the documentary “Miss Americana” and Disney+ on ” Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions,” both in 2020. This may have less to do with money and more to do with the audience experience Swift wants for her fans. Instead, Swift and her management team, parents Andrea and Scott Smith, met with traditional film distributors, including the major studios. Of course, these companies are mired in trade practices that involve researching release dates, planning for long lead press and countless other time consuming tasks.
From what I’ve been told by some privy to the discussions, none of the distributors thought they could get a film into theatres by the end of this year and at least one wanted to wait until The Eras Tour was completely wrapped in 2025. As talks progressed and with the current writers and actors strike lingering, there was some thinking that, since Swift is a member of SAG-AFTRA, it could be problematic for her to promote a studio film, even on social media.
But Swift & Co. (my own made up name), who paid to produce “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” outright, wanted to release the film in 2023 while the tour is still fresh in fans minds. Telling Swift, who is all about control, when and how to release her film is kind of a fools errand. This is the same artist who took on Apple in 2015 and actually won, benefitting not only herself, but other performers and even Apple, who gained a massive lift in awareness for the launch of their new music streaming service. Then, when Swift couldn’t buy the masters to her first six albums in 2019 because they were sold to someone she didn’t like, she began re-recording every single one of them from scratch.
I’ve now heard two different stories of how Swift’s parents wound up talking to Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Theatres, the world’s largest movie theatre chain. What is certain is that on 8 July Aron posted a picture of himself on Twitter attending Swift’s concert at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City with her parents. At some point before, during or after, Swift & Co. cut a deal with Aron to release the film directly at and through AMC Theatres.
The deal, which Aron apparently negotiated himself, gives Swift 57% of the box office, leaving 43% for exhibitors. Tickets for adults will sell for USD $19.89 which, yes, is both the year Swift was born and the title of her most popular album, (cute, right?). Children’s tickets are priced at USD $13.13, because 13 is her lucky number (aw, precious!). Those prices might seem like a lot in some markets, but in major cities, where tickets can regularly sell for USD $20, it feels like normal pricing levels. Some cinema chains are giving away a free mini-poster with tickets, while supplies last.
Theatre operators will keep 100% of concession revenue, which includes the sale of collectible beverage cups and popcorn buckets. The folks at Golden Link are probably working overtime right now to facilitate the latter. Exhibitors are required to play “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” for four weeks with the option to extend the run for as long as 26 weeks. Swift can bring the film to streaming platforms at 13-weeks. So Aron, who previously negotiated a 17-day theatrical release window with Universal Pictures, requested a longer exclusive run when acting as both exhibitor and distributor.
Speaking of which, AMC was supposedly going to be the only theatre chain showing “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” though Swift, or someone from her camp, balked at the the exclusivity. AMC is now working with Variance Films as a sub-distributor who will be handling all the logistics of getting the concert film to other exhibitors, likely on a service deal.
The film itself was produced in August during at least the first two nights of Swift’s six shows at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t be shocked if pickups and inserts were done on the show’s one dark day after the first three nights. Depending who you ask, it cost Swift as little as USD $10 million and as much as $20 million to produce. Add to that the worst-case cost of distributing 2000 DCPs (roughly USD $200,000) and 20,000 keys (roughly USD $600,000) through DCDC, Deluxe, etc. and at most Swift would need to cover under USD $25 million to break even.
I’ve heard arguments that Swift was “leaving money on the table” by not negotiating a higher percentage of the box office. Disney can get upwards of 65% – all weeks – for Marvel and Star Wars films that are sure hits, and there is no surer hit this fall than “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour.” As well, AMC will be keeping a portion of the 57% of box office as a distribution fee. Usually that would be between 10-15% of box office. I’ve been told Swift’s team got a better deal than that. Perhaps AMC’s fee is as low as 7% leaving Swift & Co. with 50% of the box office.
My gut however tells me the person who gave six-figure bonuses to those working on her tour, to the tune of USD $55 million, isn’t solely concerned with profit and loss when it came to “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour.” Thus the low ticket price-points. Swift’s parents even had to be convinced to charge more for premium large format screens.
Creating and Filling A Blank Space
News about “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” was made public the way Swift announces all such news; through her social media accounts on Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook. AMC followed with its own official press release, as did at least a half-dozen other exhibitors. Only four of the largest exhibitors, including AMC, knew about the announcement ahead of time. Remarkably the news never leaked.
In fact, AMC didn’t inform any of the studios ahead of time about the 13 October release which, depending if you believe certain news reports, made a few of them angry. Universal Pictures had a reason to be annoyed since their horror film “The Exorcist: Believer” was opening on that day. But how can you deny Swift, especially since 13 is her lucky number? Even “Exorcist” producer Jason Blum leaned in after Universal moved the release date of the film up a week. Referencing one of Swift’s songs, he tweeted, “Look what you made me do. ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ moves to 10/6/23 #TaylorWins.” This destroyed the burgeoning Exorswift social media meme, which I still think could have caught on and helped drive ticket sales for both movies.
Bleecker Street also got out of Swift’s way, moving their Meg Ryan romantic comedy “What Happens Later” back to 3 November. However, here’s the thing, studios don’t always check in with one another when they’re dating their films. I’m sure some legal minds would even argue that such activity might be construed as collusion. Any suggestion that AMC dropped “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” without warning to stick it to studios is questionable, at best.
As well, to all the wannabe industry pundits who erroneously informed their readers that the reason AMC can distribute a movie as a theatre chain is because the 1948 Paramount Consent Decrees were overturned in 2020, you really need to do a bit more research. Especially if you’re going to insist that this means studios such as Disney could now also become exhibitors like AMC. The Paramount Decrees were not overturned in 2020; as consent decrees without expiration dates they were terminated by a federal court. The Walt Disney Company was never a part of the Paramount Decrees and could have purchased a theatre chain or operated as an exhibitor at any time. Finally, this isn’t the first time AMC has dabbled in exhibition. You might recall Open Road Films which was founded in 2011 as a joint venture between AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group. Heck, Open Road’s “Spotlight” even won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015.
I will agree with those who believe AMC’s distribution of “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” is somewhat of a flex. Pre-pandemic an exhibitor reserving a huge percentage of their screens for their own blockbuster title would have been frowned upon by major studios. An event cinema title running for a day, like an opera during a Sunday matinee, sure, but most theatre operators would be reluctant to open their own major title widely for fear of retribution. However, after three years of COVID closures, with these same studios sending countless titles to their own streaming services and an inconsistent release schedule filled with titles on shortened 45-day theatrical windows, large exhibitors like AMC have far less to be afraid of. It’s not as if they’ll be taking screens away from “Dune 2.”
A Crash Course In Taylornomics
If there are cinema operators in North America and Mexico that are unfamiliar with the economic phenomenon that is Taylor Swift, they are about to have their mind blown. The concert industry trade publication Pollstar forecasts that Swift’s Era’s Tour will earn USD $1.4 billion when it is finally over in 2024 (if then), making it the biggest in history. But just as impressive is the economic activity the tour has generated in each city Swift has played.
Swift’s fans travel to see her shows, buying plane tickets and filling hotel rooms. Seattle saw 1.15 million tourists the weekend Swift played the city, a level not reached since 2018. Her fans invade craft stores to create friendship bracelets to trade during concerts. They arrive at stadiums early to “Taylorgate” in the parking lot. (It’s a thing, don’t ask.) They jump up and down during concerts causing earthquakes, but that’s another story. In short, they spend a ton of money. The Federal Reserve has estimated The Eras Tour has generated USD $5 billion in economic activity throughout the United States.
In Los Angeles alone, the six nights Swift played is estimated to have contributed USD $320 million to the Los Angeles County GDP, creating 3,300 jobs for local workers to the tune of USD $160 million in earnings. To put that in perspective, that is equivalent to 5% of the city’s annual USD $5 billion GDP. This is the juggernaut heading into cinemas on 13 October.
Swift is a master marketer (kind of like her mother, a marketing executive) who is able to get her fans to pay for her music multiple times. Remember those first six albums she re-recorded? They were massive hits with enough physical sales in July that she had four different albums in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart at the same time. The last and only other time a living artist achieved that was 2 April 1966 when Herb Alpert was burning up the charts.
It should come as no surprise then that when tickets for “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” went on sale last Thursday AMC alone sold USD $26 million in advance bookings. That’s the highest single-day advance ticket sales revenue in the company’s 103-year history, which granted, is a lot of qualifiers, but it’s not hard to see why opening weekend projections for the film are now topping USD $100 million.
If that prediction comes true “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” will become the highest grossing concert film of all time, domestically and internationally. That is a title currently held by “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” which made USD $72 in North America and USD $99 million globally in 2011. A case could be made that “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” from 2009 is a concert film, which would mean Swift’s movie would need to top $72 million domestically and USD $252 million worldwide to take the crown.
I personally think it has a shot. I mean, don’t be surprised when you see Swifties, as her fans are known, coming to see the “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” multiple times. There is one bit of bad news for exhibitors when it comes to the release of “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour.” Though there is no word on a final running time, did I mention Swift’s concerts are usually over three hours long?
This Will Never Ever Be Repeated
Because I’m riffing on a Swift song title (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) the heading here is a bit hyperbolic. For all of the reasons already mentioned, and because she produced the film herself, the direct distribution arrangement for “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” between Swift and AMC happens to work.
AMC has to do very little marketing beyond what it would normally do for a studio film. They don’t have to buy television commercials or billboards. Swift has over 270 million followers on Instagram and nearly 90 million on Facebook and Twitter. One social media post (which is all Swift has published) was enough to drum up hundreds of news stories about her film and for one exhibitor to sell tens of millions of dollars in tickets. There are very few artists that can achieve that. Beyonce is the only one that immediately comes to mind.
So, while AMC may say that “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” is an inaugural step in a new line of business (i.e. content distribution), and let’s hope it is, much like Swift’s Eras Tour, a release of this scale and box office potential is unlikely to come around anytime soon.
Beyonce… your move.
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