‘The Leisure Seeker.’

Distributors and exhibitors are grappling with the question of the optimum number of screens for mid-range movies – because getting it wrong can hurt both parties financially.

In the digital era, distributors can bump up the number of screens at minimal cost compared with 35mm prints. The downside is that films are yanked off screens prematurely when the per-screen average is low. That hurts exhibitors too because they end up paying more film hire for short seasons.

Distributors may well disagree but, arguably, Upgrade, Tea With the Dames, The Leisure Seeker, The Bookshop, Gringo, Tully and Goodbye Christopher Robin are among the titles that would have benefitted from a tighter release.

“Distributors increasingly face a conundrum when it comes to screen counts,” Cinema Nova general manager Kristian Connelly tells IF. “Digital cinema offers the chance to screen at as many or as few venues as can be booked. But high screen counts can equal low screen averages when a film fails to break-out.

“During a season when every weekend brings a big-ticket franchise picture, lower-ranked films can be prematurely forced out of the marketplace. Finding that precarious balance between screen counts and screen averages will be a key challenge for distribution as exhibitors hope to attract new audiences while still looking to offer the widest number of sessions for the latest four-quadrant blockbuster.”

Village Cinemas chief operating officer Gino Munari agrees, observing: “There is a definitely a balance between the pragmatic number of screens a premium/specialised film should be released on and the lure of going as wide as possible because it’s now cheaper to and the pressure distributors receive from independents that previously may have missed out.”

Munari advocates assessing each film’s potential based on the perceived playability, the target market and projected box office, compared with a handful of comparable titles.

If these titles were successful as limited or modest releases, he suggests following that strategy and going wider later if a film catches fire. The aim should be to carefully book each location to ensure the film ranks highly enough over any given 4-day weekend. The higher it ranks, the more sessions it will get, extending the run.

Palace Cinemas CEO Benjamin Zeccola says: “Even with the best of intentions, both exhibitors and distributors contribute to the problem of spreading the potential admissions for a film too thinly across too many locations. It’s tempting for exhibitors to fill a gap in the schedule with another film and as distributors naturally believe in the appeal of their films, and without the costs of 35mm prints, it’s very hard to say no to the extra screens.

“It may even seem both parties have nothing to lose by expanding the footprint. However often the result for the distributor is a shorter season and lower revenue. With the admissions being spread too thinly across the number of cinemas the programmers just can’t justify keeping it on with a low screen average.

“Whereas had it been concentrated into the best suited venues it would play on for a significantly extended period, allowing more and more people to discover it and maximising admissions. For the exhibitor the result is increased average film hire due to short seasons of films (that were never ideally suited to the venue) at the cost of older, yet probably better suited, product happily earning their keep in the lower film hire brackets.”

Distributors are often encouraged to go wide because regional exhibitors are clamouring for films which their patrons are demanding. “Customers increasingly want to see a film programmed at their local cinema in the opening week of release, and thus there is pressure to release on more and more screens to satisfy this audience demand,” says Wallis Cinemas programming manager Sasha Close.

“However the nature of our business is decided by opening week results and allows little room to nurture a film, generate word-of-mouth and yield box office. Films such as Tully, Upgrade and The Leisure Seeker that in the past would have benefitted from several weeks of play to generate WOM and thus produce solid box office are prematurely pulled off. Perhaps the criteria for how we measure results needs to adapt the new landscape.”

Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell, who operates cinemas in regional NSW and Queensland, says audiences in regional areas are more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago and are impatient to see new releases.

“This is one of the reasons there is a push on for more screens in existing sites, even if they are smaller, as there is a need in country towns in particular to cater for all demographics, not just the blockbuster audience,” he says.

“A lot of the films you quote are targeted at an older audience. Some like Tully just didn’t connect. With some like Tea With the Dames and The Leisure Seeker we probably do better with them in smaller regional centres where the population skews older. It would be (and in some cases is) a shame that they cannot get to see them on release as we are more frequently getting feedback from them asking why we don’t have a particular film.

“I wouldn’t like to see an over focus on averages compared to total box office, especially first week averages, and I myself give that number very little credence in my programming decisions. I agree that distributors need to be somewhat selective as to which sites are going to perform best with these smaller titles. But as the cost of distribution reduces and the ability to market becomes more cost effective with increasing online promotion, even to an older audience, I would like to see them expand their thinking to get out day-and-date as widely as they can to capture the increasingly savvy and connected older consumer as early as possible.”

Greg Denning, StudioCanal’s head of sales and acquisitions, argues exhibitors want to broaden their audiences and thus are running a lot of smaller titles or those that appeal to a large and under-served segment such as older audiences.

Denning says: “It’s harder to go out tighter these days as there are now over 700 films including alternative content being released each year, which is more than double the number that were releasing per year 10 years ago.

“Divide that by 52 and you start to get the picture. It’s a lot more difficult to cut through with consumers with so many more titles being presented each week, taking up screen space.

“Distributor’s costs to release films in this market haven’t really changed in the same period. Technical costs are a little lower but marketing costs have increased and the media space has fragmented significantly so it’s a lot harder to get eyeballs on your advertising these days. So if you’re going to release nationally on 80 screens your marketing costs are not much different than if you released on 200 screens, especially if you have a TV campaign, which you would in most cases at that level.”

Denning cites Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society as a recent example of a film which opened wide (225 screens, broadening to 248) and is having a long and successful season, now in week 10 and outperforming its UK result, grossing $6.8 million.

Also he notes that regional cinemas which used to screen 35mm films as sub-run are now getting titles day-and-date with metropolitan areas. The result is higher screen counts without cannibalising any of the screens in the city/metro areas.

Denning concludes: “I think distribution and exhibition can work together to find a middle ground and perhaps look at the volume of content being released as well as the number of screens some titles release on. But there does need to be mutual benefit for both distribution and exhibition.”

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