This year’s Cannes Film Festival marked the return of the theatrical blockbuster.
After their Croisette premieres, Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis helped get the post-COVID cash register going again. The former has earned $1.4 billion worldwide, including more than $700 million domestically. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is nowhere near that level, but with a domestic pull of $145 million and a worldwide gross of $270 million to date, it clearly shows that the popcorn-munching crowd was hungry to return to the cinemas, at least for big budget studio releases with lots of wiz bang and dazzle.
Can Venice give the indie industry a similar boost? The Venice Film Festival, which opens Wednesday, August 31 and runs through September 10, kicks off the fall film season, traditionally the strongest quarter for “special” films and arthouse fare. Venice’s 2022 lineup has plenty to appeal to the indie crowd, from Darren Aronofsky’s The whale with Brendan Fraser and Johanna Hogg’s Tilda Swinton starrer The Eternal Daughterboth A24 releases, up to Neon’s Sackler family documentary The beauty and the bloodshed from Oscar winner Laura Poitras and Walter Hill’s Western Dead for a dollar with Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, who releases Quiver Distribution in the United States.
The studios’ specialty labels are also well represented, with Sony Pictures Classics Venice using both Florian Zeller’s The father follow up The son and Oliver Hermanus’ 1950s period drama to live with Bill Nighy; Fox’s Searchlight Presentation The Banshees of Inisherin from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri director Martin McDonagh; and Universal label Focus Features bringing Todd Field TAR with Cate Blanchett and Mark Strong on the Lido red carpet.
“Venice will be the big test, Venice and what comes next in September and October,” said Andrea Occhipinti, CEO of Lucky Red, one of Italy’s leading independent distributors. “It will be the big test to see if the arthouse audience is ready to return to the theaters or if they are still scared, or have just gotten lazy and prefer to stay home on the couch.”
Art house fans tend to age and there was initial speculation that the more frail seniors would be less likely to rush back to movie theaters while the COVID pandemic is still raging. There is some anecdotal evidence for this. Most of this year’s box office hits were aimed at a younger audience, be it Universal’s Minions: The Rise of Gru ($350 million domestic, $830 million worldwide), Paramount’s Sonic the hedgehog 2 ($191 million/$402 million) or the Disney and Marvel titles Thor: Love and Thunder ($740 million worldwide to date) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($955 million).
It was a different story on the indie circuit, where special dramas, historical rom-coms, and high-concept, low-budget thrillers mainly failed to draw in large numbers of viewers. Diane Keaton body swap comedy Mack & Ritareleased by Gravitas Ventures, made only $2 million, while Bleecker Street’s period-rom-com Mr Malcolm’s list $1.9 million. Alex Garland’s Men and that of David Cronenberg Crimes of the future, both Cannes titles, earned $7.5 million and $2.4 million respectively for A24 and Neon. Even the NormanRobert Eggers’ highly anticipated Viking epic, starring Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman, struggled to reach $34 million domestically and $64 million worldwide, despite the support of Universal’s specialist branch Focus Features and its juggernaut publicity division.
“The COVID risk is higher for old people, and they’re not quite back in theaters yet, [so] arthouse/prestige movies are still suffering and the box office is likely down 30-40 percent,” noted Meri Koyama, head of sales for Japanese studio Shochiku, which screens the Kei Ishikawa-directed thriller A man in Venice’s Horizons sidebar, as well as a restored version of Yasujirô Ozu’s 1948 masterpiece A Hen in the Wind in Venice Classics.
Koyama says the only arthouse title in Japan that has attracted older viewers so far has been Subscription 75. Chie Hayakawa’s dystopian drama, a Cannes title, depicts a fictional government program encouraging Japanese seniors to be voluntarily euthanized. Subscription 75 has raised just over $2 million in Japan to date.
Stateside, the only real indie hit since the theaters reopened is that of A24 Everything Everywhere All at once, which has raised nearly $70 million in North America and nearly $100 million worldwide. But much of its success came from playing to non-arthouse audiences, with A24 cleverly marketing the Michelle Yeoh starrer as Marvel blockbuster-adjacent, filled with special effects and superpowers and featuring a multiverse-style plot that even dr. Strange would feel at home in.
“Everything Everywhere All at once didn’t play like an arthouse movie at all,” notes an American distribution manager familiar with the A24 release. “It was much broader and attracted a younger crowd and families.”
But, the director notes, the success of Top Gun: Maverick shows an older audience coming back to the theaters. “You’re Not Touching It” [$700 million domestic] without the older demographics,” she says. “It’s hard to say how healthy the arthouse market is right now, because since the theaters reopened, we haven’t had many of those really prestigious arthouse titles available.”
That makes Venice all the more important as a whistleblower for the indie business. Cannes proved that big festivals can still be a launching pad for tentpole titles. In Venice (and at the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off September 8), we’ll see if A-list parties can continue to do the same for arthouse films.
“I think it’s still important to launch arthouse films at prestigious festivals,” said Chizu Ogiya, general manager of acquisitions at Japanese distribution giant Gaga. “It sheds light on small but great movies that aren’t blockbusters, and [for the audience] acts as a quality guarantee.”
Patrick Brzeski in Tokyo contributed to this report.