In Hollywood, they’re starting to refer to a large slice of their cinematic product as “IP” — movies that are often as dynamic as those initials make them sound.
IP stands for intellectual property, and it refers mostly to the branded, licensed, legacy, franchise-y stuff, like remakes or superhero movies, although applying the word “intellectual” to, say, the X-Men installment Dark Phoenix seems a stretch.
Anyway, with all that intellectual property around, from the Lion King reboot to the Fast and Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, it’s hard to squeeze original content in edgewise. That happened last week, though, with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood.
The movie opened at a robust $40 million — the biggest opening of Tarantino’s career — and the industry regarded this as a surprise, which tells you how much the business has changed. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that a $40 million opening for a movie featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is considered a surprise.
But it’s a sign that the star-driven business model has given way to the packaging and repackaging of IP. And while you can hardly blame Hollywood for engaging in reliable money-printing exercises — like Disney’s iron-willed determination to remake everything in the animated warehouse — you can feel a restlessness among filmgoers.
Audiences have a growing appetite for something different, and you can see this reflected in the returns for Once, and in other areas of the box office. Last year, for example, documentaries had one of their best years at the box office ever, with four films — Free Solo, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Three Identical Strangers — a trend that continues this year with the success of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a World War I documentary that opened in December for a limited run, and had to be brought back to theaters in January due to audience demand that eventually pushed the movie to $17 million at the box office.
Jackson’s film was distributed by Fathom Events, a company co-owned by exhibitors AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, which has also recently found a profitable niche re-releasing classic films.
This year, Fathom set new marks for itself for repertory releases, making more than $5 million in January with re-releases of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. That’s just a tiny drop in the bucket compared to first-run releases, obviously, but those are good numbers for movies playing just a few times on a few screens. It’s also a strong and growing business for Fathom, which has continued with releases of repertory movies — lots of classic animation though its anime program, and re-releases like Glory, Forrest Gump, and Easy Rider. Next week, My Fair Lady, and by year’s end, The Shawshank Redemption, Lawrence of Arabia, Alien, The Godfather Part II, Meet Me In St. Louis and … When Harry Met Sally.
The Fathom program is complemented by what’s going on locally. The Philadelphia Film Center has given Philadelphia moviegoers with an appetite for something different a steady diet of classics, and has done well with Citizen Kane, City Lights, Rashomon, and most recently, Jaws.
The Film Center, said executive director/CEO J. Andrew Greenblatt, is proud of the fact that it exhibits these classics in their original form — usually 35mm. That’s a treat not just for fans but for filmmakers — Greenblatt noted that M. Night Shyamalan was pleasantly surprised to experience last week’s 20th anniversary screening of The Sixth Sense in 35mm.
In many cases, there is an element of generation nostalgia driving this interest. It’s evident even in the subject matter of Once, which plops audiences in the TV/movie business as it existed in 1969, revisiting the world of Italian Westerns and Matt Helm movies and obscure programs shows like Lancer. That’s catnip to a boomer demo already targeted — via their record collections — by original-ish content like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Yesterday, and (coming soon to a theater near you) the Bruce Springsteen-flavored Blinded By The Light.
But there’s more to it than nostalgia, says Ray Nutt, Fathom Events CEO. The company is seeing a broad demographic cross-section at its classic screenings.
“It’s not just the audience you think. People are starting to bring their children and their grandchildren,” Nutt said.
The Film Center, Greenblatt said, gets a healthy millennial audience for its Throwback Thursday series, which has included Hocus Pocus; Love, Actually; Clueless; Edward Scissorhands; The Princess Bride; and Mean Girls — usually paired with trivia contests.
“They skew a little younger, both in terms of attendance and what it selected," he said.
This curated business will always be a strong component, he said, of what the Film Center plans to do — the Chestnut Street facility will eventually comprise four or five screens, and offer content that includes first-run movies, classics, repertory, experimental movies, and the work of local artists.
What you see in the programming efforts of Fathom and the Film Center is an effort to cater to the wide-ranging tastes of a loyal core of filmgoers who still love the ritual and the atmosphere of the movie theaters, and whose needs are not always met by Hollywood’s IP fixation.
It’s what will keep exhibitors viable down the road, said Greenblatt, who said the option to see movies on streaming services — often viewed as a threat to exhibitors — is really a complement to what theaters are doing. He noted the Film Center did very well with a screening of the Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary Rolling Thunder Revue, which screened just a day before it debuted on Netflix. Subscribers knew they could see it for free the next day, he said, but they wanted the “communal setting where everyone could have a blast.”
The Film Center is currently raising funds for its planned multiscreen expansion, and may be lucky enough to find a deep-pocketed donor, like the individual who recently renovated the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. The Beverly shows a lot of rare 16mm and 35mm prints, but right now is showing a first-run feature, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.