Cinemas were struggling even before the pandemic. Scott Simon speaks to reporter Matt Belloni about whether a blockbuster like the Top Gun sequel means theaters are back.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Had quite a summer at the movies – “Minions”, “Thor”, Dinosaurs and Cruise Control.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOVIE “TOP GUN: MAVERICK”)
TOM CRUISE: (as Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell) Good morning aviators. This is your captain speaking. Today’s exercise is air combat.
SIMON: Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick has already surpassed $1.2 billion at the global box office, leading us to wonder if this success is a sign that theaters are back in business? Matt Belloni covers the film business and is a founding partner of Puck. Thank you for staying with us.
MATT BELLONI: Thanks for inviting me.
SIMON: So what does the success of Top Gun: Maverick mean? Is this an outlier or a sign of things to come?
BELLONI: People say oh the movies are back. And for a certain type of film, yes, the films are back. We have the big hits – Marvel movies are still doing well. Children’s films have shown with “Minions” and earlier, before summer, “Sonic The Hedgehog” that family audiences can be brought back. Although the Disney film “Lightyear” was not in the cinemas. But the dramas, the mediocre action films that aren’t the tent poles of the A-list franchise — these really struggled. And the studios are still terrified to some extent. They just don’t put many of these movies in theaters. This is in part due to the pandemic and some of the delays that have come with it. But partly it’s because it’s a chicken and egg problem. They don’t see evidence that there’s an audience for mid- and lower-budget drama films in theaters, so they just don’t hire them. But there can be no surprise success if they are not in the theatre.
Simon: Yes. Are movie theaters trying to come up with some sort of new formula – I don’t know – bigger and better snacks, drinks?
BELLONI: They are. I mean, most theater chains now offer alcohol. And they didn’t do that before. They will offer renovated seating. And you can buy premium format screen tickets. This enhances the theatrical experience. They could also do things to appeal to younger audiences, maybe a text-only performance. And I know certain theaters have experimented with it. They laugh. But if there was an anything goes text-and-post screening of a film and you knew there would be an audience for it.
SIMON: How do all these questions about where the industry is now and who is making the money affect the type of films that end up being made?
BELLONI: It’s absolutely having an impact on the movies that are being made, because if you can’t see a path to $100 million for a prestige drama, you probably won’t take any chances with this movie. And there are other options. You know, you could sell a movie to Netflix. We saw that last year, where Sundance’s biggest hit was a movie called CODA, which was bought by Apple for $25 million – it didn’t get a theatrical release, but Apple successfully got that movie, vied for Oscars and it done Best picture won. But this is the rare example. These films are mostly bought up by the streaming services. You will be placed on the platform. People can see them there. But they don’t have these huge, big $100 million, $200 million bursts — the “La La Lands” of the world.
SIMON: Is there a movie or two that you watch in particular that would give us a tip about the movie business?
BELLONI: I think in the fall they’re really counting on two things. The first is the sequel to Black Panther, which we haven’t seen any footage of. The sequel will be without Chadwick Boseman, you know, who obviously passed away tragically. We don’t know how it’s even received. But there might be a bottom wave of emotion to take this film into the thin air of 1.5 billion, possibly even higher. Aside from Black Panther, Avatar 2 is the other movie that theater owners are really watching closely. I mean, this is the sequel to the highest grossing movie of all time. James Cameron has been working on it for a decade. And even if Avatar 2 does half the sales of the first, that’s still a billion and a half in sales, which would be amazing for these theater owners.
The problem is that most forecasts I’ve seen for 2022 put theatrical sales at around 70% of normal. Normal are the 2019 numbers. That’s not great when you’re in the theater business. So while the studios can have hits, for the movie business it means we’re not back. And the projections for next year are better, but not 100% where we were.
SIMON: Matt Belloni is a founding partner of Puck. He reports on Hollywood. Thank you for staying with us.
BELLONI: Thank you.
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