LOS ANGELES – Taylor Swift changed the music industry. Now she’s coming for the movies.
The cinema industry is in a state of flux. Audience tastes have shifted and dual Hollywood strikes have only acerbated pandemic-related production delays that left the movie calendar sparse.
With would-be blockbusters fleeing the fall and winter slate, a direct result of strike rules that prevent top talent from promoting upcoming films, movie theater chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark are desperately seeking unique offerings. Even IMAX, which started as place to screen documentaries and educational programming, stands to benefit from alternative theatrical content.
“The need has been there for many years, becoming more apparent during the early pandemic recovery era when audiences began coming back but there wasn’t enough big screen content ready for release on a weekly basis,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
Despite placing her previous documentaries and concert films on streaming services in the past, the iconic pop star opted to deliver her Eras Tour film directly to cinemagoers this October. The filmed concert is already breaking records for movie theaters and is expected to top $100 million during its opening weekend.
Swift is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, but she was granted a waiver by the unions because the Eras Tour filmed concert is unscripted and does has no actors or writers associated with it.
The Taylor Swift effect
The theater industry is no stranger to alternative content. Cinemas often show taped concerts, plays and musicals, as well as live sports from organizations like the National Football League and Ultimate Fighting Championship. Then there are showings of classic films, anime screenings and live-broadcast Dungeons and Dragons games.
But none of these have ever come close to generating the fervor circling Swift’s upcoming release.
The excitement, which has led movie theaters to design specialty popcorn buckets, create boutique cocktails and even set up friendship bracelet-making tables, illustrates there’s a hunger for making something bigger and more memorable out of a trip to the movies.
Just recently, audiences were drawn en masse to see big-budgeted superhero flicks on opening weekend. The urgency was driven by a need to see what happens next in the giant tapestry of storytelling and a worry that not seeing it as soon as possible would risk spoiler reveals.
Sony and Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” released in late 2021, is one such film. However, few superhero movies that followed drummed up that same enthusiasm, likely because there was a glut of content, much of which was considered lackluster. Disney and Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” and DC’s “The Flash” and “Blue Beetle” all underwhelmed at the box office this year.
Then came Barbenheimer.
Warner Bros.’ “Barbie” and Universal’s “Oppenheimer,” two films on the opposite spectrum of cinematic experiences, opened on the same weekend in July. The combination of the releases thrilled audiences, bringing millions out to cinemas to see double features. Clad in pink or donning fedoras, audiences drove the two films to set attendance records. They’re still making big money, too. “Barbie” has cleared $600 million at the domestic box office, while historical drama “Oppenheimer” has garnered more than $300 million.
Following the early days of the pandemic, consumers have gravitated more toward experiences out of the house. With so many streaming options, audiences need a reason to leave their couches beyond just content. Because of this, communal experiences that can only be experienced outside the home are more important than ever to the theatrical industry.
It’s why when Swift first unveiled that her concert film was coming to the three major theaters — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — on Oct. 13, dozens of smaller theater chains sought to also showcase the film. It’s also why Universal opted to remove “Exorcist: Believer” from the same release date and move it to Oct. 6, killing the short-lived hope for a Barbenheimer-type Exorswift double feature event.
“True nationwide releases can have a meaningful impact,” Robbins said. “Even if Taylor Swift may prove to set a very high bar, it’s not hard to imagine the potential success of more concert events with superstars like Beyonce or Adele, major sporting events screened in premium formats, synergistic promotional campaigns, and numerous other specialty release ideas.”
In a rare move, Swift opted to distribute the film through AMC, not a traditional studio partner. It is expected that the 43% of ticket proceeds will remain with theaters and 57% will be split between Swift and AMC. Swift will likely keep a large chunk of that share, according to industry insiders.
Of course, the theater company will generate significantly more than that in concession sales, perhaps the real upside to Swift’s film release. The theater chair is already promoting collectible popcorn tubs for $14.99 and cups for $11.99.
AMC, in particular, needs this kind of revenue, as the company continues to spend more on film licensing costs and theater rentals than it makes in ticket and concession sales. In fact, the company only recently posted a profit during its second quarter this year, having generated net income of just $8.6 million.
Ultimately, box office analysts foresee the film snatching around $400 million during its run. Only “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” have grossed more than that domestically this year.
A new era for concert films?
The theater industry hopes Swift reinvigorates the concert genre, which blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s with films like “Monterey Pop,” “Woodstock” and “The Last Waltz.” And while movies can’t fully replicate the experience of attending a concert, cinema tickets are a lot cheaper.
Tickets for Swift’s Eras Tour were priced at $49 to $450, with VIP packages starting at $199 and reaching $899. However, at the secondary market many tickets sold for thousands of dollars each. Tickets for her filmed concert start at $19.89 for adults and $13.13 for kids. Tickets for premium format screens like IMAX and Dolby come at a higher cost.
For comparison, average adult ticket prices for regular film releases in 2023 have ranged from $11 to $14 a piece for standard formats.
“Concert films have seen outstanding results over the years, and now based on massive pre-sales across the country, it’s clear that The Eras Tour will break new ground for the genre,” said Michael O’Leary, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “We hope this will lead to even more concert films in theaters in the years to come.”
For the most part, filmed concerts have had extremely limited runs in theater — typically, one night or just one weekend. And most appeared in less than 1,000 locations, according to Comscore data. For comparison, a wide release is considered more than 2,000 locations during opening weekend. Most blockbuster features are released in more than 4,000.
“In the modern era, the traditionally released concert film that plays for up to a few weeks in theaters has taken a back seat to the very popular event cinema model of a very limited availability of just a few days or even a single night on the big screen,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Taylor Swift, being a cultural powerhouse and shaper of new business models, may have a hand in bringing back the old-school style concert film.”
Swift’s concert film seems destined to overtake the current record holder for a theatrical concert film. Miley Cyrus’ “Best of Both Worlds” concert film tallied $31.1 million during its opening weekend back in 2008, appearing in around 680 locations. It ultimately snared $70 million globally during a 15 week run, according to Comscore data.
The total number of theaters offering Swift’s Eras Tour will not be available until about a week before the film is set for release. However, box office analysts expect it will be considered a wide release and could have as many locations as a blockbuster feature.
And there’s precedent for such a large number of theaters and the eight-week long run. Notably, Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never” tour film launched in 3,000 cinemas in early 2011 and ran for 13 weeks. It tallied $99 million globally. Similarly, the Michael Jackson documentary and concert film “This Is It” was released in 3,400 theaters in 2009 and generated $263.5 million globally during its five week run.
“We’ve screened Metallica and it sold out super quick,” said Michael Kustermann, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse. “We’ve obviously done a ton of K-Pop things in the past and they’ve sold out super quick. I think what Taylor Swift is going to do is kind of open up the question of, well, should these be more than one night one weekend?”
Of course, most concede that Swift is an outlier in the industry and her success at the box office may not be easily replicated.
“Lest anyone think this is an easily replicable feat, you must first understand that Swift is operating a unique universe of her own and that this makes future successes for other artists in this realm a more elusive goal than one may think,” Dergarabedian said.
Still, interest in unique cinematic experiences and communal events is growing and Swift’s concert film could be just the beginning.
“I’ve always said, and I’ve been in this business for over 40 years, that Hollywood is a copycat industry,” said Ray Nutt, CEO of Fathom Events.
Fathom has long brought entertainment events like shows from the Metropolitan Opera, comedy shows and sports to cinemas. It also schedules screenings of films around release anniversaries as well as genre-based showings for faith-based audiences, anime fans and horror junkies.
The company is set to bring a filmed version of Sara Bareilles’ Broadway hit “Waitress” to cinemas in December.
“People are looking for different things to go to theaters for,” Nutt said.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed “Oppenheimer.”