Where Are All the Blockbusters? Movie Theaters Brace for Slowdown After Bustling Summer

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At Flix Brewhouse, a Texas-based luxury movie theater chain, chief revenue officer Chris Randleman is known as Mr. Sunshine.

The past two years and change for the movie theater business haven’t inspired a ton of room for optimism, but Randleman remained convinced that cinemas would rebound to their former glory.

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Sure, it took longer than he would have hoped, but cash registers are loudly ringing again at Flix Brewhouse’s nine locations across the south. In June, thanks to “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Lightyear,” “Elvis” and, of course, the enduring hit “Top Gun: Maverick,” the circuit banked its most successful month in company history.

“It’s been fantastic,” Randleman says. “We’ve seen not only younger and bigger audiences, but we’ve also seen the return of older crowds,” he adds, citing A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Downton Abbey: A New Era” as box office draws, in addition to “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis.”

For exhibitors across the country, the encouraging windfall has continued with Universal’s animated “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” and Jordan Peele’s UFO thriller “Nope.” Impressively, the all-important summer box office has generated $3.027 billion, according to Comscore, putting revenues just 17.5% behind 2019 (the last pre-pandemic popcorn season) and up 134.6% from the same period in 2021.

But his upbeat attitude about the theatrical business is about to be put to the test… again. The major concern for Randleman and fellow movie theater operators? A dearth of big releases to ride out the dog days of summer.

“As great as the summer has been, we’re about to hit a lull,” Randleman says. “The problem isn’t that people don’t want to go to theaters. We don’t have movies to show in August or September.”

Even in pre-pandemic times, the start of fall tends to signal a slowdown at the movies. There have been hit movies in August, like 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Meg” and 2021’s “Free Guy,” which broke out at the box office despite being released in late stages of summer. But movie theater operators are keenly aware that post-blockbuster season blues are looming.

Those fears are nothing new, according to Andrew Elgart, who works in management at Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill Cinema.

“August is always slow,” he says. “It’s not a Covid thing. It’s an up-and-down month.”

Still, there have been 36.5% fewer releases in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic years, per Comscore. And despite a smattering of studio releases on the calendar, there’s a noticeable – and potentially problematic — lack of sure-fire hits until Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opens in November. Most of the movies scheduled in-between could turn into breakout successes, but the mix of comedies and dramas – including the Viola Davis-led historical epic “The Woman King” (Sept. 16), Olivia Wilde’s mind-bender “Don’t Worry Darling” (Sept. 23) and Billy Eichner’s meet-cute “Bros” (Sept. 30) — will have to defy expectations to cement any new box office records. The next movie that could potentially open to $50 million is the Warner Bros. tentpole “Black Adam,” a superhero adaptation starring Dwayne Johnson, on Oct. 21.

Mark O’Meara, who owns University Mall and Cinema Arts in Fairfax, Va., is staying cautiously optimistic.

“I’m hoping there are some sleeper hits,” he says. He’s particularly high on Universal’s romantic comedy “Ticket to Paradise,” starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, which is also scheduled for Oct. 21. “Those two are money,” O’Meara says.

But, he admits, “I’m a little nervous about the next couple months. I don’t need to have gigantic blockbusters. It helps…but we need to have choices.”

At Cobble Hill Cinema, Elgart says he’s particularly disappointed with the lack of content catering to family crowds. After “DC League of Super-Pets” opened in late July, the next major movie geared at young kids and their parents — an important ticket buying demographic — is Sony’s “Lyle Lyle Crocodile” in early October. “Hopefully we’ll get a couple more weeks out of [playing] ‘Minions’ and ‘Super-Pets,’” he says.

To supplement the movies that may — or may not — entice ticket buyers in large numbers, theater owners stress there’s power in volume. Some exhibitors are hoping, even praying, that Netflix sees value in the big screen. The streamer occasionally releases its new films in select theaters, but the company’s most significant titles never play in cinemas nationwide. That’s because Netflix hasn’t wanted to adhere to the traditional theatrical window, which shrank dramatically during the pandemic.

“I’m looking forward to what Netflix does with ‘Glass Onion,” the new ‘Knives Out’ movie,” says Randleman, referring to the 2019 box office sleeper hit. “Their stock isn’t nearly as high as it was and they’re looking for ways to create additional revenue. We’re not looking for 90-day windows to start. It’s free money to them.”

In the meantime, exhibitors like O’Meara are staying busy by coming up with new ideas — such as promotions and fun food items — to generate foot traffic beyond the titles adorning marquees.

“We never had beer. Now we have beer and an oven, so we can do individual pizzas, chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks,” he says. “People demanded it.”

Elgart says Cobble Hill Cinema, which benefits as a local theater (“people like to get behind that,” he says), will maintain a reasonable cost of admission. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the venue keeps matinee prices all day.

“We keep our prices as low as we possibly can. Our ticket prices are a couple dollars lower than the theaters around us,” he says. “We’re trying to get [admissions] back to where we used to be.”

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