How much money do movies make from aeroplane in-flight entertainment?

Ben Falk
No prizes for naming these aviation-themed movies.

One of the great things about flying is the chance to catch up on movies you might have missed at the cinema. But can in-flight entertainment save a theatrical flop?

For while Hollywood studios might not be specifically making films that play well in economy from London to Kuala Lumpur, producers are increasingly realising how easy money from an airline deal can be.

“The numbers are not very high,” admits Stephen Follows, a movie data expert who has studied the figures. “But $2million to sign a deal [putting your film onto an airline’s in-flight entertainment] which doesn’t give you any problems, is as close to free money as you’re going to get.”

None of the costs or risks associated with a normal release apply – no marketing, no schmoozing cinema owners. You just sign a licensing deal and cash the cheque.

“The cost of doing an airline deal is negligible,” adds Follows. “The sales agent will take a percentage and you may need a legal department run through it.”

Neal Rothman is the president of Entertainment in Motion, an independent distributor to the worldwide airline market, who work with companies like Lionsgate (who produced La La Land) and STX Entertainment (known for movies like Bad Moms and Their Finest).

All the entertainment you can choose from as you head to your next destination.

“There’s very little standardisation in terms of how you sell films to airlines,” he says. “It’s a function of negotiation. One of the benchmarks one would use to licence content to airlines would be how many flights they actually have. You use the flight count as a yardstick, or barometer of how you could approach pricing.”

While everyone knows that Hollywood accounting can be opaque, Follows studied dozens of film revenue stream reports to arrive at some conclusions. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that airline revenues are often lumped in with soundtrack sales in a category the studios call Airline & Music. According to his data, a film costing $100m and above, on average, earns $2.7m from its airline deal.

The numbers become potentially higher for films below that budget. With movies costing between $30 and $100m, he found that adventure films earned back 5% of their budget from airline deals, while another genre such as animation, earned back 2.5%. It doesn’t sound big, but if you’re a thirty million dollar picture which has had a small theatrical release, that’s almost a million bucks – nothing to be sniffed at. What’s more, if you have something high quality, it can bring added benefits.

“You could argue that if you’ve got a great film, you want as many people as possible to see it to improve worth-of mouth,” says Follows. “Because if you really enjoyed it, you might go out and buy it on-demand or on DVD.”

But while Ryan Gosling will likely be getting a cheque when La La Land sells to British Airways, it’s not like a Spotify-esque pay-per-view deal.

In-flight entertainment just got so much more entertaining.

“Most airlines will provide content for free to passengers, so there’s no money to share,” says Neal Rothman. “They’ll pay a licence fee for the rights to have the film on board their planes. Most airlines don’t pay based on consumption. It’s not necessarily a blanket deal, many times it’s based on number of flights, but not on viewership.”

“[The airlines] don’t care how many people watch it,” adds Follows.

Nevertheless, airlines continue to spend big on their in-flight entertainment. While it may constitute one of the smaller ancillary markets for the overall box office, in 2012, they spent almost $3billion (the global box office is worth around $30-40bn a year). By 2030, that’s expected to reach $10billion.

This is potentially good news for producers. “There are certain movies that might not work theatrically, but might work very well on airlines,” admits Rothman.

As Rouzie Hassanova, an airline deal specialist at sales agent Mister Smith Entertainment told Screen International, “If you have a good relationship with the airline-rights company, you can see very good returns if they have good relationships with the airlines.”

Still, Follows adds a caveat.

“Take Justice League for an example,” he says. “It’s a brand-new movie and the reviews are not good. But it’s still going to have an airline deal without a problem. But to have an airline deal when you’ve got a small film without many famous people in it that’s not particularly good, why would they go for that? There’s a big drop-off. When you go down the blockbuster scale to medium [budget] films, you start seeing fewer and fewer of them getting to airlines and paying less money.”

“Because no-one flies for the movies,” he continues, “[the airlines] don’t care whether [a film] is good or not. They care whether it’s new and fresh and big.”

So what does work on a tiny screen embedded in the back of someone else’s chair 35,000 feet over the Atlantic?

“Good airline films tend to be fairly safe, not incredibly violent,” says Rothman. “Family-friendly, but airlines tend to think of animated films as films for kids. Films that involve elements of terrorism can be very challenging, because some airlines in some parts of the world want to avoid controversy. Nudity is something that some airlines don’t mind, but the bulk of the airline market does not want to show films with nudity. If you’re designing a film to work for the airline market, it would be something that’s relatively non-controversial.”

All of us though, have sat through any old rubbish in order to make the hours go faster. It’s just unlikely to have been Passenger 57 or Sully. Even airplane peanuts are better than watching them at altitude.