The already battered film industry received more bad news on the eve of the Toronto Film Festival as exhibition giant and Regal owner Cineworld Group filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.
The world’s second largest cinema chain, London-based Cineworld, operates in 10 countries, with 747 theaters and more than 9,000 screens worldwide. In addition to the Regal cinema chain, its subsidiaries include UK theaters Cineworld and Picturehouse. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Cineworld the hardest of any major theater chain. The group posted a loss of $3 billion in 2020, another pre-tax loss of $708 million last year and had net debt of more than $4.8 billion.
The news of a major cinema going bankrupt only adds to the growing narrative of the “death of cinema” that has become a dominant theme during the COVID-19 cinema shutdown, when many predicted the traditional film showing business was on the way out. Despite the return of major international film festivals – Cannes, Venice and now Toronto – the theater industry has yet to fully rebound.
“Unfortunately at the moment there is a narrative that there is not much to see and cinemas are dying,” noted a British cinema executive, who works for a small chain of cinemas unrelated to Cineworld. “I think even a really good movie is going to have a hard time breaking through that.”
Theatrical revenue for North America is $5.4 billion year-to-date through September 8 according to box office analysts Comscore, up an impressive 143% from last year. 2021, but still trails the same period in 2019 before the pandemic (when revenue hit $8 billion) by 32 percent. This summer’s box office, driven by the success of major studios, including Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick and Warner Bros.’ Elvisdid slightly better, down 21.6% to $3.4 billion, from $4.3 billion in 2019. But for independent films, the genre of cinema celebrated by TIFF et al, hits have been rare.
A24 Everything everywhere all at once, which has grossed $68 million theatrically in North America to date, is the only independently released film so far this year to crack the top 30 at the domestic box office. Even studio-owned indie divisions struggled to find the hits, though Sony-owned Crunchyroll had success with anime titles. Dragon Ball Super: Super heroes (35 million domestic dollars) and Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie ($34.5 million), as did Universal’s Focus Features with Downton Abbey: A New Era ($44 million) and The man from the north ($34 million).
But alongside the catastrophic stories, the production of feature films, especially of the arthouse type, is booming.
“We made seven films last year, and we’re making 36 this year,” says Andrea Scrosati, chief operating officer of independent production group Fremantle, which owns film companies such as Ireland’s Element Pictures (The favourite, Bedroom) and The Apartment based in Rome (God’s hand). “The reason is that there are now many other ways to finance and monetize these films.”
For bones and all, Luca Guadagnino’s “cannibalistic love story” with Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell, which premiered in competition at Venice, Fremantle’s The Apartment is producing alongside Guadagnino’s Frenesy Film Company, with European pay-TV Sky, owned by Comcast, which provided additional funding. After the film was shot, it was sold to MGM, which handles worldwide distribution. For The Eternal Daughterthe Venice competition title by Joanna Hogg, starring Tilda Swinton, Fremantle’s Element produced in conjunction with BBC Films and A24, with A24 handling both US distribution and worldwide sales.
The range of new funding and new distribution models for feature films, says Scrosati, “means we can take much bigger turns, with projects that previously might not have felt commercial enough.”
The main reason for this change, of course, is streaming. Netflix has invested heavily in arthouse content – see Noah Baumbach’s White noiseby Alejandro González Iñárritu bardo and Andrew Dominik Blond in Venice and TIFF titles swimmers by director Sally El Hosaini, by Tyler Perry The blues of a jazzman or German war drama In the west, nothing is new – and other platforms are following suit. The result is a new revenue stream and distribution route for movies that live or die by their theatrical box office.
“I’m just very happy to open the festival with a film by Sally El Hosaini, I think. swimmers is one of the best movies of the year,” said TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey. “The fact that it’s coming to us from Netflix just reflects where the film industry is at. [right now].”
Netflix isn’t alone in finding value in international arthouse. Amazon Prime backed Santiago Miter’s Venice competition title Argentina, 1985, and arthouse streamer MUBI has secured the North American rights to Park Chan-wook’s Decision to leave shortly before its Cannes debut, where the mystery thriller won Best Director. Many, if not most, of the films screened at TIFF this year won’t make it to a theater near you but, thanks to so-called ‘cinema killers’, they’re being shot and seen.
“There is a lot of [streamers] now making movies that are really high enough in quality to deserve a play at major film festivals, that’s the world we’re in,” says Bailey. “It is evolving and will continue to evolve, but the industry has never stopped evolving. They’ve always adapted to current conditions and found new ways to deliver great movies to audiences, and that’s what’s happening here.
Etan Vlessing of Toronto contributed to this report.