Audiences have splintered into a million personalised subsets. Streaming services are sprouting like mushrooms. Attention spans are now measured in seconds.
For those reasons and others – a decade of stagnant attendance, studios that only seem to make sequels of sequels (of sequels) – movie theatres are seen as a dying business. Why trudge to a theatre when Netflix is available in your pocket any time you want?
Yet almost every multiplex on the planet was gridlocked over the weekend. Avengers: Endgame took in $1.7 billion worldwide (all figures are in Australian dollars), arriving as the No.1 movie in at least 54 countries.
The euphorically reviewed movie collected a record-breaking $496 million in the United States and Canada, zooming past Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), which had opening-weekend sales of $351 million, or about $382 million in today’s dollars.
“It shows the power of theatres – the ability, even in a hyperfragmented culture, to deliver that wildly big communal experience,” Megan Colligan, president of Imax Filmed Entertainment, said in an interview.
Demand for Avengers: Endgame was so astronomical over the weekend that AMC Theaters, the largest multiplex operator in North America, added 5000 last-minute showtimes in the United States, lifting its total number to more than 63,000.
Nineteen AMC locations played the film around the clock. On Saturday alone, 2.3 million people turned up at AMC cinemas.
“Young moviegoers will remember where they were when they saw Endgame, who they saw it with and what it felt like,” John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, wrote in an email.
“That will pay off for years to come in the same way that moviegoers who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s still talk about the impact that Star Wars had on them.”
And there could be more to come.
Disney’s The Lion King, a retelling of the animated musical using photo-realistic visual effects, arrives in July and is generating runaway advance interest.
In December, Disney will release Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final chapter in a nine-part saga. Also coming this year are giants like Toy Story 4 (Disney), The Secret Life of Pets 2 (Universal), Spider-Man: Far From Home (Sony) and It: Chapter 2 (Warner Bros).
Even so, concerns about the health of theatrical business are unlikely to abate, at least behind closed doors in Hollywood. In some ways, Avengers: Endgame could add to them.
People like Steven Spielberg worry that the film business is headed toward a bifurcated future where megamovies play in cinemas and everything else gets squeezed onto streaming-service screens.
Given the film industry’s current trajectory, there could soon come a day when you can see popcorn movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theatres but must watch more sober fare like Lincoln online — to take just two of Spielberg’s films as examples.
To that end, there is heated debate in Hollywood over what constitutes a movie. Should the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences try to protect the big-screen experience by blocking films – like Netflix’s award-winning Roma – that are primarily distributed on the internet from competing for Oscars?
Last week, members of the academy board debated what to do, ultimately deciding to keep weighing the options.
Media analysts have also sounded alarms. Doug Creutz, a managing director at Cowen and Co, wrote in a report last month that “the market is concentrating into fewer, but bigger, successful films.”
Mr Creutz noted that the top 10 grossing movies last year accounted for 35 per cent of total annual ticket sales. At the start of the decade, the contribution from the top 10 was about 27 per cent.
Avengers: Endgame, which cost roughly $496 million to make and $212 million to market worldwide, played in 4662 theatres in North America over the weekend.
In another show of Marvel’s dominance, the No.2 movie of the weekend was Captain Marvel, which took in $11.3 million at 2435 theatres in its eighth week, according to comScore Inc, which compiles box-office data.
The weekend’s third-best performer, the horror movie The Curse of La Llorona (Warner Bros), collected about $10.6 million from 3372 theatres.
Hollywood has long expected Avengers: Endgame to be a sensation. When tickets became available for pre-sale on April 2, the demand crashed AMC servers.
In addition to its ads, which began running late last year, Disney secured promotional partnerships worth an additional $283 million. Ziploc started selling Avengers-themed sandwich bags; McDonald’s, teaming with Marvel for the first time, introduced 24 Avengers toys.
“We wanted it to feel like an epic, important, seminal, can’t-miss event,” said Asad Ayaz, president of marketing at Walt Disney Studios.
Ayaz and his lieutenants devised a strategy in which Disney spent massively on television ads around a few important moments (the day tickets went on pre-sale, for instance) and then went completely dark for a week or more.
“The idea was to stun and surprise people with new creative messaging and then leave them wanting more,” Ayaz said.
The movie ended up defying all kinds of conventional wisdom – that sequels are not supposed to be critical darlings, that there is no centre of the culture any more, that marathon running times (three hours in this case) drive people away, that every studio has hits and misses.
Marvel is now 22-0 when it comes to the box office.
Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, called the results “monumental” and noted that Marvel had challenged “the notions of what is possible at the movie theatre”.
-The New York Times