Cinemas Are Still Suffering As Streaming Drives New Arthouse Movie Boom

In spite of the fact that it is more difficult than ever for independent films to find success in theatres, online distribution has increased the number of arthouse movies produced. There are simply so many more methods to finance and make money off of these films now.

Cinemas Are Still Suffering As Streaming Drives New Arthouse Movie Boom
Courtesy of Netflix

On the day of the Toronto Film Festival, the already-struggling film industry received further bad news when Regal owner and exhibition giant Cineworld Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

With 747 locations and more than 9,000 screens worldwide, Cineworld, a chain of movie theatres established in London, is the second-largest in the world. Its subsidiaries include the Cineworld and Picturehouse theatres in the United Kingdom in addition to the Regal movie theatre chain. Out of all the major cinema chains, Cineworld was severely damaged by the COVID-19 outbreak. The company lost $3 billion in 2020, another $708 million pre-tax the previous year, and had a net debt of more than $4.8 billion.

The developing “death of cinema” narrative that emerged during the COVID-19 theatre closure, when many thought the industry of traditional film showing was doomed, is only fueled by the news of a major movie house going bankrupt. The theatre sector hasn’t entirely recovered despite Cannes, Venice, and now Toronto returning as major international film festivals.

One British cinema executive who works for a tiny chain of theatres unrelated to Cineworld said, “Unfortunately, there is a narrative that there isn’t anything worth watching right now and cinemas are dying.” I believe it will be difficult for even a really good movie to overcome that.

According to box office analysts Comscore, theatrical revenue for North America is $5.32 billion so far this year. This is an impressive increase from 2021, but it is still 30 percent behind the same period in pre-pandemic 2019 (when revenue was $7.25 billion). The performance of major studio tentpoles like Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick and Warner Bros.’ Elvis helped the summer box office perform slightly better, down 21.6 percent to $3.4 billion from $4.3 billion in 2019. However, box office successes for independent films, the genre of filmmaking praised by TIFF and others, have been scarce.

The only independently released movie to date this year to place in the top 30 domestic box office earners is A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, which has generated $68 million in North American box office receipts to date. Even the studio-owned indie divisions have struggled to find the blockbusters, though the anime films Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero ($35 million domestic) and Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie ($34.5 million) as well as Downton Abbey: A New Era ($44 million) and The Northman ($34 million) by Universal’s Focus Features both found success.

However, production of feature films, particularly of the arthouse sort, is rising alongside the stories of doom and gloom.

According to group COO Andrea Scrosati of independent production behemoth Fremantle, which owns boutique studios including Ireland’s Element Pictures (The Favourite, Room) and Rome’s The Apartment, “We made seven pictures last year, and we’re making 36 this year” (The Hand of God). “There are just so many more options to finance and monetize these movies now,” the author explains.

Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell starred in Luca Guadagnino’s “cannibal love story,” Bones and All, which had its world premiere in competition at Venice. Fremantle’s The Apartment co-produced the film with Guadagnino’s Frenesy Film Company, and Comcast-owned European pay TV outlet Sky provided additional funding. The movie was bought by MGM after it was shot, and MGM is in charge of handling international distribution. Together with BBC Films and A24, Fremantle’s Element produced The Eternal Daughter, Joanna Hogg’s Venice competition film starring Tilda Swinton, with A24 handling both global distribution and sales in the United States.

Scrosati claims that the variety of new financing and distribution options for feature films “means we can take much greater swings, with concepts that might not have appeared commercial enough before.”

The main reason for this shift, of course, is streaming. Netflix has invested heavily in arthouse content —see Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo and Andrew Dominik’s Blonde in Venice and TIFF titles The Swimmers from director Sally El Hosaini, Tyler Perry’s A Jazzman’s Blues or German war drama All Quiet on the Western Front — and other platforms are following suit. The result is a new source of revenue and a new avenue of distribution for movies that used to live or die based on their theatrical box office.

Netflix is hardly the only company that appreciates foreign arthouse. Argentina, 1985, by Santiago Mitre was supported by Amazon Prime, while Decision to Leave by Park Chan-wook was acquired by arthouse streamer MUBI just before its premiere at Cannes, where film received the best director prize. The majority of the films playing at TIFF this year won’t be viewed in your neighbourhood theatre, yet they are still being made and are still being seen owing to alleged “cinema killers.”

The society we live in, according to Bailey, is one where “many [streamers] are now producing pictures that are genuinely of high enough quality to warrant a play at big film festivals.” It is and will be evolving, but the industry as a whole has never stopped.

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