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Films Flex Their Muscles, Buoying Movie Theater Chains

In Response, Move Theater Chains Make Major Strategic Moves

Film releases that slowed to a trickle during the pandemic are eliciting studio gold on the silver screen, and it was a booming June for Hollywood’s biggest studios. Elvis just nudged out Top Gun: Maverick for the top-grossing film over the last weekend in June, with each film raking over and near $30 million, respectively. With three high-flying weeks, Tom Cruise’s aviator-glassed sequel also broke the billion-dollar mark in international revenue. It’s the first movie of the year and only the second COVID-era occurrence to surmount that ceiling (following Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home earning $1.9 billion).

Speaking of the webbed one, there’s not a single caped crusader in the bunch of blockbusters (though there are still dinosaurs and wizards). Movie theater industry analysts credit the attendance surge to a combination of two factors: comfort with returning to the movies and excellent big-screen releases.

While the industry celebrates crowds surging back to theaters by swimming like Scrooge in piles of money, things might not be looking up for the major movie theater companies until 2024. During that time, chains are making major strategic moves to return to a pre-pandemic movie-going reality.

A screen of Austin Butler as the King in the preview for the 'Elvis' movieFor Paramount, Top Gun: Maverick is a $525 million exclamation mark extending an explosive 2022 at the box office. Box Office Mojo reports North American revenues for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 at $190 million, The Lost City at $105 million, Scream at $81 million, and Jackass Forever at $57 million.

Warner Bros Discovery made $3.159 billion in revenue for the quarter ending March 31, a 13.14% increase from the same 2021 filing. In North American markets, The Batman pulled in almost $370 million and Fantastic Beasts is approaching $100 million.

While studios are blowing up, movie theaters are reaping a lot of that injection in cash… and still bleeding money. Cinemark’s revenue quadrupled from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, but the chain still lost $74 million. AMC Entertainment’s revenue soared by five times in the first quarter… and the chain still lost $337 million. Box office levels are still down 33% compared to the same weekend in 2019.

Indie Wire reports that media analysts at MoffettNathanson expect 2022 to end slightly down and 2023 theater revenues to show no growth at all. Movie theater chains like Cinemark are hopeful that tides will rise in the next couple of years.

A crowded movie theater auditorium
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Cinemark CEO Sean Gamble said he expects Cinemark to reach a “normalized level” of box office revenue by 2024, during the company’s first-quarter earnings call. By that point, he asserted, pandemic complications will have ebbed, and “streaming platforms will be in a much more mature place… That’s when the pendulum shifts.”

Going to the theaters is an experience in itself, but there’s a ceiling to that market because digital platforms now own a massive share of viewer time, distribution money, and studio productions. This is why chains have done a 180, stopping on their heels to turn and embrace once shunned streaming studios. In 2021, a Cinemark statement says that more than 10 Netflix films were test-screened in its immersive environment. This includes Red Notice, an action comedy starring Dwayne Johnson opposite Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, which showed in 750 theaters nationwide a week before its launch on the streamer.

Cinemark also plans to enable emerging tech to generate more organic revenue, aiding theaters and theatergoers alike. During the call, CFO Melissa Thomas said Cinemark intends to “evolve to more of a dynamic pricing model.” This would allow individual theaters to be more nimble and the overall firm to collect data that reacts to price pressures like inflation. It also encourages hard-core film fans to get more involved in exchange for perks.

One place Cinemark can gather user info is its Movie Club, which grants members benefits like discounts on concessions and movie tickets. Despite theaters essentially disappearing for two years during COVID-19 restrictions, Movie Club membership levels are closing in on the one million mark, ahead of 2019 levels. In the first quarter of 2022, 20% of the company’s box office revenue came from club members, Gamble said.

Gamble also added that Cinemark’s once untouchable theatrical window is shifting, as evidenced by the several Netflix films that only showed for a week. This is a marked change from the traditional 72-to-90-day opening. Gamble said that today, “films have a better financial model. There’s a better economic equation on these titles for the studios by being able to get into homes earlier… having less risk and a better financial model could lead to more of those movies being released theatrically.”

This injects a healthy revenue stream into Netflix’s pockets as well. Red Notice banked three weeks at the top of the Netflix Top 10 with over 354 million hours streamed on the service, becoming one of the most-watched Netflix original movies of all time, according to the company’s numbers.

Those benefiting the most from the industry’s bounce back are viewers, with summer popcorn flicks like Minions: The Rise of Gru, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Nope releasing this month. Like a dam releasing, there’s a backed cascade of films due for a steady flow in the next two years.

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