This year’s Cannes Film Festival marked the return of the theatrical blockbuster.
Following their Croisette premieres, Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis helped reignite the post-COVID box office. 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 $145 million domestic haul and a $270 million worldwide gross to date, it clearly shows the popcorn-munching crowd was hungry to return to cinemas, at least for big-budget studio releases with plenty of wiz-bang and razzle-dazzle.
Can Venice give the indie industry a similar push? The Venice Film Festival, which opens on Wednesday, Aug. 31 and runs through Sept. 10, kicks off the fall film season, traditionally the strongest quarter for “speciality” movies and art house fare. Venice’s 2022 lineup has plenty to appeal to indie audiences, from Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale with Brendan Fraser and Johanna Hogg’s Tilda Swinton-starrer The Eternal Daughter, both A24 releases, 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 featuring Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, which Quiver Distribution is releasing stateside.
The studios’ specialty labels are also well-represented, with Sony Pictures Classics using Venice to premiere both Florian Zeller’s The Father follow-up The Son and Oliver Hermanus’ 1950s period drama Living with Bill Nighy; Fox’s Searchlight presenting The Banshees of Inisherin from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri director Martin McDonagh; and Universal label Focus Features bringing Todd Field TÁR with Cate Blanchett and Mark Strong to the Lido red carpet.
“Venice will be the big test, Venice and then what comes after in September and October,” says Andrea Occhipinti, CEO of Lucky Red, one of Italy’s leading independent distributors. “It will be the big test to see if art house audiences are ready to come back to 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 skew older and, initially, there was speculation that the more vulnerable senior population would be less keen to rush back to cinemas with the COVID pandemic still raging. There has been some anecdotal evidence of this. Most of this year’s box office hits have targeted a younger demographic, whether it’s 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’s been a different story on the indie circuit, where specialty dramas, period rom-coms and high-concept, low-budget thrillers have mainly failed to pull in audiences in significant numbers. Diane Keaton body swap comedy Mack & Rita, released by Gravitas Ventures, earned just $2 million, while Bleecker Street’s period rom-com Mr Malcolm’s List $1.9 million. Alex Garland’s Men and David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, both Cannes titles, made $7.5 million and $2.4 million for A24 and Neon, respectively. Even The Northman, Robert Eggers’ hotly-anticipated Viking epic starring Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman, struggled, landing at $34 million domestic and $64 million worldwide, despite the backing of Universal’s specialty arm Focus Features and its juggernaut publicity department.
“The COVID risk is higher for old people, and they aren’t fully back at theaters yet, [so] art house/prestige films are still suffering and box office is down probably by 30 to 40 percent,” notes Meri Koyama, head of sales for Japanese studio Shochiku, which is screening 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 art house title in Japan to pull in older viewers so far was Plan 75. Chie Hayakawa’s dystopian drama, a Cannes title, imagines a fictional government program that encourages Japanese senior citizens to be voluntarily euthanized. Plan 75 has grossed just over $2 million in Japan to date.
Stateside, the only genuine indie hit since theaters reopened has been A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, which has grossed close to $70 million in North America and nearly $100 million worldwide. But much of its success could be traced to its playing to non-art house audiences, with A24 cleverly marketing the Michelle Yeoh-starrer as Marvel blockbuster-adjacent, filled with special effects and superpowers and with a multiverse-style plot that even Dr. Strange would feel at home in.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once did not play like an art house film at all,” notes one U.S. distribution exec familiar with the A24 release. “It was much broader, drawing in younger audiences and families.”
But, the exec notes, the success of Top Gun: Maverick shows that older audiences are coming back to theaters. “You don’t get to [$700 million domestic] without the older demographic,” she says. “It’s hard to tell how healthy the art house market is right now because, since theaters reopened, we haven’t had many of those real prestige, art house titles available.”
Which makes Venice all the more important as a bellwether for the indie business. Cannes proved that big festivals can still provide a launchpad for tentpole titles. In Venice (and at the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off Sept. 8), we will see if A-list fests can continue to do the same for art house movies.
“I think it is still important to launch art house films at prestigious festivals,” says Chizu Ogiya, general manager of acquisitions at Japanese distribution giant Gaga. “It sheds a light on small but great films that are not blockbusters, and [for the audience] works like a quality guarantee.”
Patrick Brzeski in Tokyo contributed to this report.