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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 April 2024

Movie theaters look to Taylor Swift to shake off box office strike pain

When 'Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour' hits movie theaters on Oct. 13, it will serve as a high-profile test of whether such "alternative content" as a concert film can bring audiences to cinemas, creating more consistency for a business that ebbs and flows with the theatrical release calendar

Reuters Los Angeles Published 07.10.23, 12:19 PM
Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift File image

Cultural juggernaut Taylor Swift packed stadiums on her concert tour, made voting cool again by urging her fans to do their civic duty and had teenage girls tuning in to professional football games to see her cheer from the stands.

In her next act, Swift is poised to lift another corner of the economy: a movie box office still trying to recover from the pandemic and Hollywood strikes.

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When "Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour" hits movie theaters on Oct. 13, it will serve as a high-profile test of whether such "alternative content" as a concert film can bring audiences to cinemas, creating more consistency for a business that ebbs and flows with the theatrical release calendar.

Swift’s film could bring in $120 million in its opening weekend, according to box office analysts and studio executives, delivering a jolt to ticket sales for AMC Theatres, Cineworld and other chains.

But the vaunted Taylor Swift effect, together with a concert film from fellow pop superstar Beyonce, may not completely make up for holes created by Hollywood strikes.

The labor unrest has interrupted the movie industry’s comeback, stalling momentum from summer hits such as “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” ahead of the crucial holiday season, which accounts for roughly one-quarter of the industry’s annual box office revenue, according to research firm Comscore.

“Swift and Beyonce will certainly fill some of the gaps,” said Box Office Pro senior analyst Shawn Robbins. “Still, it's probably asking too much for those titles alone to completely make up for the revenue of 'Dune: Part 2,' 'Kraven the Hunter,' and the next 'Ghostbusters.'”

All three of those anticipated films were moved to 2024 because their stars cannot promote their movies while the SAG-AFTRA actors union remains on strike.

After studios postponed those releases, theater owners scrambled to fill their screens with what the industry calls “alternative content,” such as the concert films from Swift and Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour.

Blockbuster sales

Advance sales for "Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour" are on pace with a Star Wars or Marvel blockbuster. Box office analysts expect the documentary to take in between $150 million and $225 million over its theatrical run in the United States and Canada. "Renaissance: A Film by Beyonce," hitting theaters in December, is expected to bring in $75 million in ticket sales.

“We’ve been talking about alternative programming for a long time,” said Rolando Rodriguez, chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners, noting that exhibitors have shown other forms of entertainment, such as opera. “But there's no question that the Eras Tour with Taylor Swift has really launched that into a new atmosphere. Beyoncé will take it to the next level."

The announcement of Swift’s movie “was a huge unexpected surprise,” said Brock Bagby, executive vice president for Missouri-based B&B Theatres, the fifth-largest U.S. theater chain with 529 screens in 14 states.

Cinemas are aiming to turn the film, which will run Thursdays through Sundays, into an event. B&B Theatres will be rolling out pink carpets, setting up photo booths and encouraging fans to dance during the screening.

Still, there is only so much Swift and Queen Bey can do.

Despite a strong November line-up with "The Marvels," "Trolls Band Together" and a "Hunger Games" prequel, the Christmas slate looks thin compared to recent years. Two studio executives noted the lack of an obvious December blockbuster on the scale of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which was the highest-grossing film of 2022, or the 2021 hit “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

At the start of the year, box office tracker Bruce Nash had expected 2023 domestic ticket sales to reach $10 billion.

"The strike put an end to that," Nash said. He has slashed his 2023 forecast to roughly $9.6 billion, 32% higher than last year but 16% below the pre-pandemic proceeds of $11.4 billion in 2019.

A lingering concern among theater owners is that the SAG-AFTRA strike will disrupt next year's film slate. Even if major studios and actors reach an agreement by Thanksgiving, productions likely will not resume until January because of the holidays. That would crimp the flow of new movies into theaters next year.

"We just have a lot of uncertainty around the film slate," said B. Riley analyst Eric Wold, adding that detangling actors' packed schedules will pose a challenge. "There's going to be more risk that stuff that had not been completed, that was scheduled for release next year, will have to shift."

Negotiators for striking Hollywood actors resumed contract talks on Monday with representatives of major studios, television networks and streaming services, marking the first time the two sides returned to the bargaining table since mid-July.

The talks came eight days after the producers clinched a separate contract deal with Hollywood writers, who launched their own strike on May 2, about 10 weeks before the actors.

Wedbush Securities analysts said they believe near-term damage from the strikes will be limited if actors reach a deal this month, and the impact on the 2024 release slate in that case "will likely be mild."

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