The Quorum

The Coming Screen Squeeze

For months we’ve been keeping close tabs on the July 21st showdown between BARBIE and OPPENHEIMER. At one time, it was unclear which film would have the bigger opening. Today, it seems clear that BARBIE has the advantage, but there is still some intrigue as we approach the big weekend. And that is how theater owners will divvy up their screens. 

On July 21st, theater owners, especially those with multi-screen megaplexes, will have to decide how to allocate their screens among BARBIE, OPPENHEIMER and week two of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE. Given the tight competition, holdovers including INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR and JOY RIDE better get what they can in their first two weeks because in week three, screens may be hard to get.  

So, imagine your job is to select the movies for your 16-screen theater. How would you do it? Maybe half go to BARBIE and a quarter to OPPENHEIMER? That would only leave four for MISSION and all the holdovers. That won’t work. So maybe BARBIE gets less than half, but given the juggernaut that it is, how much less? 

It’s not an easy spot to be in. For someone in that position, here are some of the variables at play. 

RUNTIME – BARBIE checks in at a relatively economical 1 hour and 54 minutes. OPPENHEIMER, however, has a run time of three hours. That means you can get roughly three BARBIE screenings for every two of OPPENHEIMER.

LARGE-FORMAT – OPPENHEIMER has exclusivity in IMAX screens for three weeks. That means MISSION will have to surrender those screens in its second week.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND – BARBIE has momentum in the cultural zeitgeist. We can see that by looking at The Quorum’s Unaided Awareness metric, where 14% of respondents say they know the film without any prompting. That’s an enormous number. THE LITTLE MERMAID was also at 14%, but that was the week of release. BARBIE has two more weeks for that number to go higher. OPPENHEIMER is at 3%. 

On top of that, a theater owner is likely getting pressure from the studios. For BARBIE, Warner Bros. will argue that theaters don’t want to leave money on the table with sell-outs. The best way to avoid that is to assign as many screens as possible so that supply matches demand. That’s a disadvantage for OPPENHEIMER.

Universal will counter, saying that BARBIE has a shorter running time, so you can get more showings per screen. Therefore, all those screens are overkill. Plus, don’t forget that the tracking for BARBIE is entirely unreliable. It is a comp-less film, meaning we have no way of interpreting that numbers. And, lest anyone need reminding, Christopher Nolan has a large, dedicated audience. 

Paramount, losing its IMAX screens in week two, is interested in maintaining other premium large format (PLF) screens and holding onto or increasing its traditional screens to compensate for the lost IMAX. The problem is that two big releases that are entering the marketplace and threatening to suck all the oxygen out of the room. But this is Tom Cruise, and Paramount will do all it can to hang onto or add screens. 

These three massive forces will likely eat up 60% to 70 % of all screens. That means INSIDIOUS and JOY RIDE, the strongest non-MISSION holdovers, will be left holding onto the significantly depleted remaining inventory.

Exhibitors will have a tough decision to make. Distribution and exhibition genuinely are the final gatekeepers between a film and the audience. Let’s hope they find the right balance so that everyone wins.

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