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We Need to Stop Saying Movie Theaters Are Dead

Similarly, Taylor Swift’s concert film was the undisputed cinematic event of October, with the film’s surprise announcement earlier this year causing Universal and Blumhouse to move their Exorcist reboot off a Friday the 13th release date. However, it wasn’t the only major box office win for exhibitors last month. In fact, while The Exorcist: Believer still performed solidly for Universal and Blumhouse (at least if you ignore how much the studio paid to buy the rights to the franchise), the far bigger Halloween genre picture was Five Nights at Freddy’s, which opened last weekend at numbers bigger than the same studio and production house’s Halloween reboot in the pre-pandemic “good old days.” While based on a video game property, Freddy’s is also the first movie in a franchise instead of the fifth or sixth like The Exorcist, which has two alternative versions of the same prequel film.

Meanwhile it should also be noted that Martin Scorsese’s epic and brooding Killers of the Flower Moon also performed well in the shadow of Swift and Freddy. While nowhere near the blockbuster status of Oppenheimer, Flower Moon still crossed $100 million after its first two weeks, which is remarkable for a movie that is an immense three and a half hours in length and which features a somber, novelistic pacing. It can also ironically work as something of a loss leader for Apple TV+, which produced the picture (Paramount distributed it) ahead of its streaming release.

This is similar to Amazon’s release of Ben Affleck’s more conventional two-hour dramedy about the creation of Air Jordans, Air, which targeted an adult audience in April when it grossed $90 million at the global box office. Notably that film was released by Amazon after the tech giant paid a reported $70 to $90 million to produce it. However, that included a sunken cost so Amazon would not have to give the talent any backend deals (which likely multiplied the budget by two or three times), and still acted as a splashy marketing tool for Air’s eventual streaming release on Amazon while also making movie exhibitors money.

Perhaps that’s why Cinemark CEO Sean Gamble told investors today that both Apple and Amazon “are very pleased” with their big forays into theatrical distribution in 2023.

The point to all of these numbers is that movie theaters aren’t dying. It’s just the movies that are really working for the distributors, not to mention audiences, appear to be changing. A week out from what might be the second Marvel Studios superhero movie in 2023 to underperform, there is a growing anxiety within the industry that the superhero formula which underwrote the 2010s, including Disney’s banner year in 2019, is losing its appeal. That seems to be a primary reason Variety ran a damning report Wednesday with a sensational title: “Crisis at Marvel.”

However, just because Marvel’s 33rd film is tracking poorly, or the fifth Indiana Jones movie with an 80-year-old Harrison Ford couldn’t justify its nearly $300 million budget, doesn’t mean moviegoing is dead. Audiences, in fact, returned in droves during these past three months, just not for the type of movies the industry has been betting on for a long time: Original concepts, new IP, and films aimed at adults. In fact, one wonders if 2023 might look even better if studios hadn’t moved so many films out of the third and fourth fiscal quarters because they spent months away from the negotiating table with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. Keep in mind Dune: Part Two was supposed to open today until Warners moved it in August—a month when the studios’ AMPTP wasn’t even talking to SAG-AFTRA.

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