Recovery was a struggle for movie theatres in 2022

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2022 was the year people started pretending the pandemic was over. Movie theatres went back to functioning without restrictions. Business as usual, right?

Wrong. Other than specific event films, audiences stayed clear. The economic impact of COVID and streamers hit home in Saskatchewan, as Regina’s Rainbow Theatre shut down last September. This loss stung. Through Studio 7, the Rainbow brought the Queen City specialty movies unlikely to arrive via Cineplex or Landmark. The options are now drive to Saskatoon, cross your fingers for the RPL Film Theatre or wait for the VOD release.

Is this the end? Maybe not. How critically wounded theatres are is a matter of debate. It depends where you look.

Doom & Gloom

Let’s take an inventory of what’s gone wrong.

THE 2022 BOX OFFICE REBOUND WAS SMALLER THAN EXPECTED: Between 2015 and 2019, North America’s total box office gross hovered over $11 billion. The first year of the pandemic it crashed down to $2 billion. 2022 was supposed to be the return to normalcy, but it came up $4 billion short.

BLOCKBUSTERS AND CHEAPOS ARE SQUEEZING-OUT MID-SIZE MOVIES: This isn’t a new phenomenon but recent events make it more acute. The highest-grossing mid-budget film last year, Where the Crawdads Sing, came in at 22, followed by the rare breakthrough hit Everything Everywhere All at Once at 27. The rest? Superhero films, horror movies, animation, action franchises and Elvis (a known IP).

NOBODY CARES ABOUT OLD MAN SPIELBERG: Whenever or not they were peddling pre-existing IPs, studios floundered. Sure, some mindless entertainment made its money back (The Lost City, Bullet Train), but more ambitious work by auteurs flopped: Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans ($13 million), Robert Eggers’ The Northman ($34M), George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing ($8M) and David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future ($2.4M). Heck, I still haven’t seen Babylon and I have all the time in the world for Damien Chazelle. Expect fewer prestige director-driven projects in theatres and more on streaming (see Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon… on Netflix).

UBER-FRAGMENTATION: You may have experienced this recently. You’ve found a movie you liked but nobody else has seen. With nearly every streamer generating their own content in addition to minor and major studios, it’s hard to keep up. This a problem because for a theatrical release to break through the noise, it must invest massively in marketing. Avatar: The Way of Water is believed to have spent $170M in advertising. Imagine an indie producer trying to get any traction with 0.01% of that budget.

SIMULTANEOUS RELEASE IS STILL A BRAIN-CRAVING ZOMBIE: The idea of premiering a movie in theatres and the corresponding streaming service the same day was never a great one (it killed box office earnings and angered the talent), but even backing away from that, the window between theatrical release and VOD continues to shrink. You could watch the recent release Violent Night (Santa Claus meets Die Hard) from the comfort of your own couch before Christmas. The trend indicates soon theatres will only have three to four weeks of exclusivity. In most cases, earnings past the fourth week are marginal compared to first week on VOD (income the production company don’t have to split with the venue). Also, the studios save considerable promotion money.

THE THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE IS NOT A ‘THING’ FOR GEN-Z: We have discussed in these pages the deteriorating theatrical experience ad nauseam. But the whole “bright screens in a dark room” issue is, at heart, an example of generational divide. We used to go to movie theatres to break with reality in an immersive environment. By bringing the phone in, you’re inviting the world. If immersion isn’t something the public values, decorum and common courtesy likely won’t stop them from pulling out their mobile device.

But Wait! There’s Hope!

The problem with declaring the theatrical experience dead, besides your editor thinking you’re kind of a wet blanket, is that there are enough signs of life to think it might adapt (as it has done it half dozen times before) rather than throw the towel. Here’s a few signs of life.

CRUISE CONTROL: Personal life aside (he could worship a koala for all I care), Tom Cruise understands the value of the theatrical experience like few others. This is why we regularly see him debasing himself for our entertainment and twisting Paramount’s arm into foregoing their plan to release Top Gun: Maverick in theatres and their streaming platform the same day. Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Denis Villeneuve share the same belief and continue making movies meant to be seen in the big screen. They’re talented, they’re vocal and they’re active.

THE STREAMERS ARE PITCHING IN: Increasingly more often, Netflix and Prime Video give their most notable titles a theatrical run (Glass Onion was particularly successful: $13M in two weeks). Granted, they do this to keep their talent happy and qualify for awards, but hey, whatever works.

HORROR IS IMPERVIOUS TO DRAMA: Horror was the silver lining to movie theatres in 2022. The success stories are everywhere: originals like Nope, Smile, The Black Phone and Barbarian, and existing IPs like Scream and Halloween Ends beat expectations. Not only were the numbers positive, the reviews were stellar (except for Halloween, there’s no excusing that). On a bittersweet note, two superb scary movies — Watcher, Resurrection — barely got a theatrical release. Worth seeking out.

2022 WAS A TERRIFIC YEAR FOR MOVIES: It was! Say, this seems like a job for a sidebar… ■

The Best Movies of 2022, Says Me

Normally it takes me a couple of minutes to put together a top 10 for the year. This time my shortlist had 20 films. Cutting 10 was agonizing. /Jorge Castillo

1. LIVING Granted, doesn’t open officially until later in January, but this remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru packs an emotional punch that can’t be denied. Abstract concepts like legacy become tangible and relatable. Bill Nighy’s restrained performance is masterful.

2. TÁR An intelligent, challenging take on cancel culture that tackles the separation of art and artist. Cate Blanchett’s performance is at another level.

3. AFTERSUN Just as a cinematic exploration of how the human mind processes memory and depression, it’s a humdinger. The devastating ending is a bonus.

4. THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN Martin McDonagh’s entertaining, provocative script is serviced superbly by Brendan Gleeson and a never-better Colin Farrell. This film is also a reminder that a good piece of dialogue is worth more than $100 millions in SFX.

5. HOLY SPIDER imagine your average episode of Law & Order: SVU with all the malaise surrounding the treatment of women in Iran. An impossibly more topical issue tackled head on.

6. ARMAGEDDON TIME I’ve a lot of time for James Gray. This tale of how our early shortcomings can shape us into better people deserves more attention.

7. EO A rather disheartening portrait of Polish society (and by extension, Western civilization), from the perspective of a donkey. It’s a high wire act that works thanks to sturdy direction.

8. VORTEX Gaspar Noé’s gentlest film, it’s only soft on the surface. It’s a merciless depiction of aging that’s as brutal as Irreversible, albeit less overtly.

9. NITRAM This story of Australia’s notorious mass shooter minus the bloody bits is particularly insightful. The ease with the killer acquires the weapons used in the massacre is an indictment of every society with inadequate gun control laws.

10. HAPPENING This grim cautionary tale is up there with Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days in its depiction of women trying to survive draconian anti-abortion laws. Patriarchal societies seldom look this hostile.