Opinion | Can the Summer Box Office Save Movie Theaters?


It makes sense that Pete Docter’s Oscar-winning “Soul” went direct to streaming on Dec. 25 during the pandemic. But the next Pixar release, “Luca,” is going straight to more than 100 million Disney+ subscribers on June 18 — with no surcharge. Losing a Pixar movie at the theater isn’t about just the loss in grosses but also the family audience that buys overpriced popcorn and soda.

Sure, Marvel’s long-delayed “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson, will drive a huge weekend at the box office on July 9, but as with “Cruella,” theaters are sharing audiences with Disney+. Now all the major studios except Sony have launched streaming sites to compete with Netflix, and Amazon has bought the MGM studio. The streamers are fiercely competing with one another for content. They have huge maws to feed.

3. Older moviegoers are missing in action.

The pandemic scared seniors out of enclosed interior spaces. So far, younger audiences are driving the return to movies, but independent cinemas, especially, need older customers to come back if they are to thrive. Art films play in theaters over weeks and months to build awareness and value. That doesn’t happen without theaters. “Trying to get back your audience is a marketing challenge,” said Mabel Tam, head film buyer for the independent Landmark Theaters chain. “Every week gets a little better.”

Still, the fall lineup should pull grown-ups back, with films like Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” (Nov. 24) and “Downton Abbey 2” (Dec. 22). “The content through 2022 is a stocked cupboard,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic theatrical distribution at Paramount. “No one is running out of food.”

4. The theater business is not growing.

We will never see another $11 billion year at the domestic box office — five in a row passed that benchmark, ending with 2019’s $11.3 billion. Over the next three years, fallout from consolidation, debt and leases will continue to shutter many cinemas. The strong will survive. The Alamo Drafthouse chain, for one, has emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and plans to open new theaters.

But now more than ever, studios and theaters need synergy. Distributors can now create custom release patterns for their films. They’re learning what works, like getting the most bang from their marketing buck and reaching home customers with the right price points. And theaters are looking for alternate content, such as opera and sports events. “We’re all on a learning curve right now,” said Lisa Bunnell, the president of domestic distribution at Focus Features.

If they know what’s good for them, studios and streamers alike should look past Wall Street smoke and mirrors. “Audiences brand a title,” Mr. Corcoran said. “Look at the Oscars and Golden Globes. They didn’t tune in because the movies were out of the conversation.”

Nothing builds value for a title like three weeks in a movie theater with strong word of mouth.

Anne Thompson is an editor at large at IndieWire and the author of “The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System.”

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