Emma Watson’s films have made over $8.4bn at the worldwide box office. She boasts more than 22 million followers on Twitter and more than 33 million likes on Facebook. Yet earlier this month, her new thriller The Colony made just £47 in its opening weekend. That means fewer than 10 people in the UK came out to see it.
At first sight, it’s a disaster, a sign that Watson’s post-Hermione appeal is on the wane, and it’s led to some incredulous headlines worldwide, eager to report the fall of such a bright star. But here’s where some small print is required.
The film, which premiered to tepid reviews at last year’s Toronto film festival, is the latest in an increasingly long line that don’t rely on box office. In fact, the poor showing is of little consequence.
The Colony, previously titled Colonia, was only launched on three screens for one matinee showing a day and these cinemas were in Hull, Widnes and Burnley, meaning that anyone in the nation’s capital would have to drive for around four hours to see it. But, most importantly, The Colony was also released simultaneously on digital services, meaning that anyone with a smart TV or a laptop could watch the film at home instead.
Watson isn’t the only big star to have seen their work pushed down this route. Last November, Morgan Freeman thriller Momentum made just £4.60 per screen after a 10-site release, while last month, legal thriller Misconduct, starring Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, made less than £100 in its first weekend.
“Day-and-date releases minimise costs for a distributor,” says Andreas Wiseman, Screen International’s head of news. “They only need to pay for a campaign once rather than at different stages throughout the windowing process. The growth in these kind of releases coincides with the proliferation of digital platforms. Distributor deals with platforms such as Netflix, LoveFilm, iTunes etc often require that a film is shown in a certain number of cinemas, so distributors will sometimes see the theatrical release as a box-ticking exercise.”
The “day-and-date” release is not an entirely new concept. Smaller films have been launched on both theatrical and digital platforms simultaneously for a few years now, with some notable success stories. Last year, the Oscar-nominated drama 45 Years became the highest-grossing and widest-playing film to have utilised this strategy, making around £2m despite being available at home at the same time.
But the key difference is scale. At its highest screen count, the film was at 89 cinemas, many of them in key cities, a strategy in direct opposition to The Colony.
“What do you do with a small mainstream film?” asks box-office analyst Charles Gant. “In general, independent cinemas don’t want them, since these venues have limited screen space, and usually a wealth of arthouse titles to choose from. And multiplex bookers will want to know what kind of marketing support there is going to be.”
Both The Colony and Momentum were released by Signature Entertainment, a UK distribution company started in 2011. Jon Bourdillon, the company’s chief operating officer, says the strategy exists to “give the film the widest possible level of distribution and exposure”.
The Colony, thanks to its small theatrical bow, received the same level of attention as any other film released in cinemas that week, meaning it had reviews in print, an almost impossible result for a DVD release. It’s also advertised on digital platforms as being “in cinemas now”, giving it a certain gloss in comparison to other direct-to-video options, and bears a slightly pricier rental tag.
“The main objective of a Premium VOD (video on demand) release is to try to get more income from VOD than you might expect from just a standard VOD release,” says a source at Bulldog Film Distribution. “Misconduct definitely wasn’t a flop for us as a distributor, despite only making a few thousand pounds at the box office. Theatrical is just one area of the whole release and other areas, including PVOD, are much more positive.”
It’s likely that the model will continue to shift, even for bigger movies. Napster founder Sean Parker has been developing a new format called The Screening Room, allowing people to watch blockbusters such as Captain America: Civil War or The Secret Life of Pets at home on the same day they’re released in cinemas.
“Consumption of film entertainment has become that much more immediate, fans simply can’t and won’t wait like they used to,” says Bourdillon.
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