Given the amount of complaining I’ve done about Taylor Swift recently in this newsletter, many of you may wonder why I would focus my attention on the pop-star for yet another week. But bear with me and you’ll see that I’m using her, or more specifically her concert film, to highlight how she benefited from the technological advances the motion picture industry has adopted over the past twenty years.
And before anyone asks, (as some of you already have), while I may not be a Swiftie, I don’t have anything against the singer personally. I even enjoy her music. Sure, I’m annoyed at having spent countless hours cursing at Ticketmaster last year trying to secure tickets to her concerts for my teenage daughters, and even more time this year on secondary ticketing websites attempting to do the same. I may have ultimately emptied my retirement fund for two seats to one of Swift’s Los Angeles shows, but what father of teenage girls hasn’t done that in 2023? Besides, my daughters tell me the concert was so good they’ll be happy to take care of me in my old age, a promise I plan on holding them to.
I write this from the economy section of a plane on my way to ShowEast in Miami. It got me thinking about the countless flights I’d been on to ShowEast in the past and how, when I first started going to the conference, it was being held in Atlantic City at Trump Taj Mahal. Back then the conference was focused on all the titles making their way into theatres like “The Green Mile” starring Tom Hanks and Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules” from Miramax. Soon enough, ShowEast (and every other such trade show) would spend years consumed by an industry transition from analogue 35mm film to digital cinema.
Going through emails in my cramped seat, I came across one from Vista Group with data from the opening weekend of the “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” release. This made me realize just how far we’d come as an industry from those days when film bookings were still made by phones attached to land lines. The Monday after the film’s bow Movio was able to tell me that it attracted an impressive 40.13% of infrequent moviegoers against 20.06% frequent moviegoers, whereas that the benchmark for 2023 opening weekends for these metrics was 34.13% for infrequent attendees and 24.49% for frequent moviegoers. Just as impressive was how the film improved states for IMAX and premium large format screens from the usual 4.27% to 10.98% (IMAX) and 11.23% to 18.08% (PLF).
As if that weren’t enough information, they threw in audience demos relating to age and gender. Twenty years ago we were happy just knowing how much money a new release made, and had to wait until grosses were collected by phone. It took the efforts of countless technology companies to develop increasingly more sophisticated point-of-sale tools, then convince progressive exhibitors to adopt them over the last twenty years before we would, before cinemas closed on a Sunday night, be able to know that 35.89% of the “Eras Tour” audience was between the ages of 25-44.
That’s when it hit me, so much of Swift’s movie and the way it was released would have been impossible twenty years ago. It benefited from all of the digital technology that has been rolled out during that time period, not just by distributors and movie theatres, but by those making films as well.
For instance, when director Jonathan Demme made the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” in 1983 he relied on 35mm film. The longest single shot would have been 11 minutes long at most before he had to change magazines on the camera. Film was (and still is) expensive to shoot and process so he couldn’t just shoot endless footage from multiple cameras. Then, once in post-production, if Demme wanted to compare two different camera angles, it could take an hour or more for a team of editors to pull the shots from a trim bin and splice them together on a Moviola.
Swift’s film was shot over three nights during live concerts in Los Angeles this past August. Director Sam Wrench used dozens of digital cameras that shot crystal clear images from every angle in uninterrupted streams with no need to load more film or “check the gate.” In the editing room, shots from different concerts could be seamlessly cut together digitally in a matter of minutes and just as easily revised or abandoned. If even a small portion of a shot needed to be tweaked it could be lightened, darkened or altered without requiring the entire frame to be manipulated. If Swift hit a wrong note, or sound was jumbled, pitch-correction could be employed or audio could be “flown-in” from another night’s concert. The audience would be none the wiser since none of this digital trickery would be noticeable.
All of this post-work, including color correction, was completed in the ten weeks between the film being shot and its release in over 4,000 theatres around the world. In Demme’s day, just striking 35 mm prints for so many locations could have taken at least two weeks. Back then, prints would have been made for North America and only after the domestic run ended would they be sent off to international territories; scratches, rips and all. And those prints may have been limited to a certain screens within a complex, rather than allowing a theatre owner, with the press of a button, to expand the number of auditoriums showing a title based on customer demand.
Of course, a traditional film distributor would have been overseeing all these onerous logistics, whereas without having to worry about such obstacles, Swift went straight to cinemas by working directly with AMC Theatres, Variance Films and Trafalgar Releasing to distribute the movie.
To be sure, even in today’s day and age, a studio may have been able to help Swift better market her “Eras Tour” movie, especially internationally, which could have boosted its opening weekend gross. However, part of what made this particular release so unique is that all of this relatively new technology was used to send pristine DCPs to global movie theatres at a time when demand to see Swift in concert and the cultural phenomenon she has created was still peaking. She had just wrapped the U.S. leg of her concert tour before heading off to Latin America, Asia and eventually Europe next year.
All those fans who couldn’t afford to see Swift live, weren’t able to purchase tickets or simply wanted to know what all the fuss was about could see the “Eras Tour” film when the audience impulse to do so was at its strongest. If Swift had waited until 2024 or even 2025 to release the movie, as some of the studios she approached suggested, it would not have had the same impact.
Instead, my youngest daughter, a senior in high school who now works at a local movie theatre, spent the past week making friendship bracelets for all the little kids coming in to see the film during its second weekend in theatres. She had run out exchanging all the ones she had made for the opening weekend. She even helped a 77-year-old grandfather who self-identifies as “the world’s oldest Swiftie,” decide the best showing to attend for the chance to see the audience dancing and singing along. She was later relieved to enter an auditorium and find him dancing and singing in the back as most of the audience did the same up front near the screen.
In fact, you might be surprised to learn that I took this same daughter to see “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” on Friday night, two months after she had seen the same show in person less than 32 kilometers (20 miles) away. At least two of the trailers before the film began, including one for “Trolls Band Together” started out by addressing the audience with “Hey Swifties!” Before digital cinema that kind of trailer personalization would have been difficult to pull off.
We sat next to eight 10-year-old girls (who now all want to see “Trolls”) and one of their incredibly overwhelmed fathers. When they weren’t dancing and singing at the top of their lungs (even all the curse words), they were consuming more popcorn, candy and soda than I thought was humanly possible. My own daughter may have had more fun watching those girls than the actual film itself
It dawned on me half-way through the film that technology exists which would enable movie theatres to sell or hand out bracelets which light up timed to the music playing in the film, just as is done at the actual concerts. Though exhibitors like to keep their auditoriums as dark as possible during a film, Swift’s film is an event; the exception that proves the rule.
After the movie ended I ran into the father of those rambunctious girls as he waited for them outside the women’s bathroom. I asked him if he enjoyed the film and he explained he was glad his daughters got a chance to see Swift perform since tickets for her concerts were prohibitively expensive. Over the sound of Swift’s music emanating from auditoriums still in the middle of screening the film, I told the father I could relate, and then filled him in on my new retirement plan.
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