Let’s all give a big welcome to February and celebrate that theatrical’s January hibernation is over. After enduring a month with only three new movies, the nine wide releases scheduled to open in February feel like a wealth of riches. It all starts this weekend with JACKASS FOREVER and MOONFALL.
In some ways, the lack of activity last month created a moment to stop and reflect on what the theatrical business has become. Some truths have emerged.
As we’ve reported before, we know that audiences have become much more selective about the films they want to see on the big screen. We know that many people still don’t feel safe going to the theater; at the same time, some folks will set aside those fears for event films. And we know what kind of movies audiences feel are worthy of a trip to the theater. Recently the box office has been driven by superheroes, horror films, and family titles.
The February releases will go a long way towards helping us understand what theatrical will look like going forward. With that in mind, here are some of the things to watch for over the next few weeks.
1. Has the January shut-down hurt theatrical?
The movie business is driven by water-cooler moments. Think of how the end-of-year cultural conversation was driven by SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.
For a moment early last month when it debuted at #1, SCREAM became the hot topic, but with no other competition, SPIDER-MAN quickly returned to the top of the box office. However, by mid-January, SPIDER-MAN’s place in the zeitgeist had diminished, and there were no other movies to replace it.
If the February films underperform, it could signal two things. One is that the lack of new movies in January may have hurt the industry. Out-of-sight resulting in out-of-mind. Two, that theatrical is becoming the domain of only the massive titles like SPIDER-MAN and THE BATMAN.
On the other hand, if February films find an audience, it could suggest that absence makes the heart grow fonder – that the lack of new movies created pent-up demand for something new.
2. What kind of films do people want to see?
The February slate is like a breath of fresh air. There are no superhero movies. There are no family films. And the one horror film, STUDIO 666, looks more like a comedic rock romp.
Instead, we’re getting a nice cross-section of genres, including comedy (JACKASS, DOG), mystery (DEATH ON THE NILE), romcom (MARRY ME), and action (UNCHARTED). Of the nine films, only two have reported production budgets above $100M, meaning we’ll also learn if small and mid-budget films can find an audience.
3. How many movies should be released theatrically?
There is certainly a belief among some people that studios release too many films. The chart below shows the number of new movies for each week of 2019. Light blue bars represent weeks with three new films, white bars represent weeks with four new titles, and two weeks in August had five new releases (yellow).
While we can all agree that the three new movies we got in January are too few, it’s hard to imagine a future where four or five films are released in the same week.
Let’s take a closer look at the two weeks represented by the yellow bars above. These are the ten films released on August 9th and August 16th in 2019.
Of the ten, only three reached $50M in total and GOOD BOYS, with a haul of $83M, was the highest-grossing of the bunch. In other words, most of these films came and went with little in the way of tickets sold. Many were doomed to failure simply because the market was too saturated.
These titles got grouped in mid-August because they didn’t have the muscle to thrive in more competitive parts of the release schedule. To be clear, these aren’t bad movies. In fact, six of the ten were certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But they never stood a chance in such a fragmented market.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to course-correct and adjust our distribution strategies. The next few weeks will help us find the sweet spot. Is it one film a week? Maybe two? Are three too many?
What we do know is that now that studios can shift titles to streaming, these five-film weekends should be a thing of the past.
4. Has theatrical stabilized?
Studios and exhibition want nothing more than a stable and predictable box office. That’s hard to do with a pandemic that comes and goes in waves. But, with Omicron slowing down, many people think that Covid may be shifting to an endemic virus. If so, we could be moving into a phase where the box office becomes much more predictable. Hopefully, the February box office will provide signs of stability.
Perhaps we’re being over-dramatic by saying this is a make-or-break month for theatrical. But in some ways, it is. If these films struggle, it could reinforce the idea that theatrical is the domain of only event films. If these films succeed, studios will feel much more comfortable scheduling a wide variety of films for theatrical release. But, if that happens – if these movies do well – studios should learn from the past and not overload a weekend with too many titles.