The new Jennifer Lopez movie Hustlers received a standing ovation at its glitzy Toronto premier last weekend, as fans yelled “Jenny from the block!” at the yellow-gowned star. Based on a true story of strippers swindling Wall Street bankers after the financial crisis, the film has also impressed critics and is now showing in cinemas.

But it is the type of independent release that is threatened with extinction as superheroes and sequels dominate the box office and streaming diminishes the big screen’s appeal. 

A string of flops has left the North American box office down 6 per cent in the year to date. That is despite the release of Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film in history that allowed Disney to claim record takings for a single studio in a calendar year as early as July. 

“This past year was a wake-up call to a lot of people who were still holding on,” said Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at entertainment research company Exhibitor Relations. “People still thought that if you make a really good film with the right actors, audiences will show up in theatres. That ship has sailed.” 

Streaming has made it harder than ever to make a profit at the cinema, with the exception of superhero and other big franchises whose hyped releases still lure people to theatres. Even Disney, which reaped billions from the traditional movie business this year, is betting its future on a shift to streaming.

That has made the companies that would normally buy independent movies — from industry titans such as Amazon and Comcast-owned Universal to relative minnows such as the distributor Neon — wary of taking chances on films, after seeing critically esteemed fare such as Booksmart bomb at the box office despite a promising reception at Sundance. 

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The kind of indie films that used to get picked up on the festival circuit, like 2006 breakout hit Little Miss Sunshine, once assured both prestige and profits for their buyers. The Toronto film festival has traditionally been a hotbed for dealmaking on the sidelines of the glamorous parties and celebrity hobnobbing that kicks off six months of Oscars posturing. 

Even deep-pocketed companies such as Amazon have been burnt recently as highly rated films bombed in the cinema. The ecommerce giant’s film studio stormed the Sundance film festival this year, spending more than $40m on a handful of well-received flicks. They included Late Night starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, but having paid a reported $13m for the film and another $30m to market it, it has only made $15m in cinemas.

The tone in Toronto this year is sombre and deals have been smaller and more sparse than in previous years. While last year LD Entertainment picked up Teen Spirit for $8m and Focus Features bought Greta for $4m, this year’s dealmaking has been characterised by cheaper purchases of films that seem set for more limited releases.

Disney box office percentage figures

“I would be surprised if even 20 films get picked up here,” said the chief executive of one large film financing company. “Out of 50,000 films made each year, 900 make it to theatres and maybe 200 or 300 actually make money. After Sundance, no one wants to take on the risk.”

With $43bn in global sales last year, the box office is still big business. However, ticket sales have slowly dwindled over the past decade as streaming has kept film fans at home.

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“The options are so plentiful for entertainment that movies in theatres are now held to an even higher standard to get people to get off the couch and go to the theatre,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. 

Filmmakers had hoped the streaming groups would open their wallets in Toronto, as they gobble up content to build their catalogues amid an industry-wide war for subscribers. But no spending spree has materialised.

Apple bought one film, a fatherhood documentary called Dads, for its upcoming streaming service. Amazon has toned down its efforts after its outlay at Sundance, buying two small films a few weeks before they screened at Toronto. 

“That’s what happens when you have a year like you did last year,” said Mr Bock, who expects an end to the “exorbitant prices” Netflix and Amazon have paid for films. “Amazon isn’t going to buy films for $13m again . . . a few million is more worth it”. 

The streaming companies’ strategies are still evolving. Netflix has sparred with the large cinema chains because it refuses to leave three months between theatrical and streaming releases. Even Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman will only show in theatres for 26 days before hitting Netflix. 

Meanwhile, increasingly cautious studios are doubling down on established franchises and sequels, which have dominated the box office. Disney has kept the box office afloat this year with hits such as Avengers, The Lion King and Toy Story 4. Taking more than $2.8bn at the box office, the company has captured 35 per cent of the market, dwarfing rivals. But a weaker film slate next year leaves uncertainty about the 2020 box office. 

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In the shorter term, the industry is looking to films such as Hustlers for guidance on the future. While it has generated buzz in Toronto, it also shares characteristics with many of the films that have recently faltered in cinemas: character-driven dramas with some star power but no superheroes.

“It’s very important that a movie like Hustlers does well,” said Mr Dergarabedian. “Because it isn’t branded to some big franchise or known commodity. It’s just a good story.”

Via Financial Times