Numlock Sunday: November 11, 2018

We talk about MoviePass in this one

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about the story they wrote.

This week, I spoke to CNN’s Frank Pallotta who makes regular appearances in Numlock whenever I write about the business and box office of movies.

We spoke about MoviePass, why box office receipts are on a tear, and what surprisingly isn’t working for movies these day.

Frank can be found at CNN and at @FrankPallotta.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Movies were supposed to be going down for years. What has made 2018 so exemplary at the box office? 

Well, in past years we've always had the big guns. You've always had the superhero movies, and this year we've had record breaking things like Black Panther, Infinity War, Deadpool, even, to a certain extent, Incredibles 2 as a hybrid of animation and superhero.

What has really stood out this year is the second-tier and third-tier type of films. Films that weren't expected to be blockbusters that have really come out of the woodwork. You have things like Mission Impossible: Fallout, which has always done well, but this was really a big movie for Tom Cruise.

You also have things like A Quiet Place and Halloween. The horror genre has really exceeded expectations. Those are made for such low money and people really go to the theater and get a different experience instead of watching Netflix. It's really brought people back.

But then on top of that, you've had even smaller films that have been really emotional. Things like Crazy Rich Asians, A Star Is Born, even a movie like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. These smaller movies are acting like events too. Think of something like A Star Is Born, which has a really good chance of winning Best Picture this year. It was an event. It was something that people wanted to see the first weekend and it did really well. It exceeded expectations. The thing that has been really interesting this year is it has not been about just the opening weekend. It's been about the second weekend, the third weekend. Studios kind of have their groove back. We are seeing that it's not just about making huge, huge piles of cash and then seeing the revenues plummet in the next week, but if anything they're holding pretty steady. Take something like Crazy Rich Asians, which had like a 10 percent drop off in its second week, which is unheard of for the industry. So it's great to see the Black Panthers of the world and the Infinity Wars of the world do what they're supposed to do. But the reason that we are 10 percent up is because the second-tier and even like smaller third-tier films really just held audiences' attention at a time when there's so much to distract them. 

Even movies that didn't get good reviews in the past, people used to be worried that would kill their second weekend. But now Venom is owning October!

Venom is a great example. It's one of the best bad superhero movies today. I literally think it's The Room of the superhero genre, to the point where you kind of go, "is this supposed to be this funny? Is this supposed to be this kind of bad?" And it kind of became this thing where you had people going to see it because they like the character Venom and they like comic books. Then you have this whole different group of people going because you had people saying "you have to see this movie, it is really kind of crazy and it's so bad, it's good." With bad review movies there hasn't been really any huge bombs this year. 

Mr. Solo would like a word with you, sir. 

But the thing with Solo is that it was a bomb by the "long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" standard. It's not a bomb by any other standards considering it made nearly $400 million dollars worldwide. Many studios would love to have a $400 million "bomb." Yes, by our standards it was a disappointment, and it's kind of disappeared since then and maybe even impacted Disney’s plans on moving forward with Star Wars. But I haven't seen anything this year where I was like "my lord, that was a crater." 

Have these subscription services changed a little bit of the calculus for people going to the cinema? Specifically the beautiful Icarus that is MoviePass. Do you think that that's made a dent on the box office? 

I think it has. My theory, and it's just my theory, is that MoviePass came around and while it's not looking like it's going to last, it has changed the movie industry. People are now creating their own subscription services. AMC just crossed 500,000 subscribers, a year before their goal of hitting that number. I ultimately really believe that if you don't go to the movies, you kind of forget how awesome going to the movies is. If you have the ability to go cheaply -- to go on a subscription model, which so many young people understand -- you remember it is a great way to spend two hours. It's a great way to get away from the news cycle, from your phone, to just get away. In the past few years, we saw movie ticket prices just exceedingly go up. We saw theater quality go the other way, while some theaters built to become really comfortable. Now, we're seeing a new evolution of the theater experience. People are able to use something like MoviePass to see again how much fun going to the movies is. And I think it's had an impact. Is it the whole impact? Of course not. But I do think that it's got the attention back on the cinematic experience. 

If anything it got more people to at least check out cinemas and they're in there for the previews.

What MoviePass really did was it didn't really necessarily help the Star Wars movies, but it helped those second and third-tier types of films. Especially around award season, that allows people to take a chance on smaller films that they didn't have to spend $15 or $10 on. And then they like it so much they would go tell people. You kind of saw this with Ladybird. People would go see a Ladybird using MoviePass or Phantom Thread and then tell their friends about it. And that led into this year. 

Is there anything that's not really working at the box office these days that previously did? 

I think comedies are having a really hard time. There hasn't been a really big blockbuster comedy in a long time. You haven't had any Hangovers. Things like Crazy Rich Asians, I don't think that it’s a pure comedy, it's more of a romantic comedy or drama. If you look at the comedies this year, you have Game Night, which a lot of people liked and it made only like $70 million, which let me say is not a failure. It's just not as big as say the $100 million or more movies. Tag, hasn't really been able to find an audience. Comedies haven't really been able to find themselves. That has a lot to do with Netflix. Netflix and television really stepped up their game in terms of producing quality comedic entertainment. Movies just have to find a new way. And I think they will. But right now comedy is kind of struggling. 

Is there anything that you're looking forward to trend-wise over the next year? 

I’m going to be really curious to see if movie theaters are going to make a huge comeback. I always say that the future of the business is not necessarily multiplexes. What I mean by that is your boilerplate movie theaters -- where every single theater looked the same and they're usually in malls and there's like 15 theaters -- aren't very comfortable. What I'm really curious to see is if we're going to see a return to the golden age of theatergoing that we saw in the 50s and 60s. Movie theaters were like palaces. Places that might not have 15 theaters, they might have five or six, but they're the nicest theaters you've ever seen. They look beautiful. The screen is great projection. The seats are incredibly comfortable. Look at things like an Alamo Drafthouse, which allows you to eat or drink. This is a much longer trend, but the theater experience has to become almost like going to a sporting event.

I can watch the Lakers game at home and get the same scores and find out what happened. But if I go to a Lakers game, it's going to cost me more, but it's going to be an epically different experience. And that's ultimately how I feel the theater and film industry can push back against the streamers and disruptors of the world. Because at the end of the day, you can stay home and watch Crazy Rich Asians, but it's completely different than going to a theater. And I think this is something that the horror genre has kind of figured out. If you watch Halloween at home, it's scary, but it's not as scary. And I'm curious to see where MoviePass is going to land. Will it survive? Will it die? Will it get bought up by another big company that might use it to promote itself and its films? I wouldn't be shocked if something like Netflix or Amazon really wanted something like MoviePass. 

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