Los Angeles Times
With the box office success of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” movie theater owners are riding high in the culture again — a rare feeling since the COVID-19 pandemic walloped multiplexes and turned the film business upside down.
“Barbie,” from Warner Bros., has collected an astounding $351 million in ticket sales from the U.S. and Canada, while “Oppenheimer,” a Universal Pictures release, has amassed $174 million. Both have exceeded the industry’s wildest expectations, with extraordinary second weekend staying power, and given theater operators a much-needed shot of adrenaline.
Meanwhile, the indie child trafficking drama “Sound of Freedom” has continued to put up staggering numbers, reaching $149 million so far.
The bad news: uncertainty is back.
Sony Pictures on Friday delayed the release of multiple high-profile films, pushing its “Ghostbusters” sequel and “Kraven the Hunter” into next year and removing the highly anticipated “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” from the calendar. The shuffle comes as studios contend with the consequences of the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes, which have hobbled production and marketing efforts. Luca Guadagnino’s Zendaya-fronted “Challengers” had already been moved into 2024.
Other studios may soon follow suit. That would be a serious blow to theatrical circuits that are still in recovery mode and enjoying the celebratory atmosphere of “Barbenheimer.”
I spoke last week with Brock Bagby, a top executive at Liberty, Mo.-based B&B Theatres, which operates 57 locations comprising 529 screens serving the American heartland. The family-owned exhibitor, which has a nearly 100-year history, runs the fifth largest theater circuit in the U.S. I asked Bagby for his take on the state of the business and how the labor strife brings concerns at a time when things are finally looking up.
Q. What have the last couple of weeks been like for you with the success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer?”
A. Yeah, it’s been extremely exciting. We have broken every record we’ve ever had as a company. Biggest single day ever. Biggest weekend ever. Biggest week ever. Now, some of that is because we’ve grown. We’ve added a lot of theaters since 2020, so that helped with our overall sales. But there’s just tremendous box office excitement unlike anything I’ve seen since “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019.
Q. What does the full box office recovery eventually look like? Does revenue get to 90% of what it was in 2019? Does it get to 100%?
A. We certainly have a lot of hope that we’ll get back to 2019 box office levels. We really thought next year would be the year, because 2024 has an incredible lineup. Of course, there were a lot of people who hadn’t been back since before COVID. A lot of them came back for the first time to see “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer.”
What’s so exciting is that people are coming back and experiencing something different and better. We’ve remodeled a lot of theaters. Most of our circuit now has recliner seating.
Q. Having people come back to a positive experience is key. I saw reports, and witnessed some of this firsthand, that some theaters were understaffed and overwhelmed.
We felt the momentum coming weeks in advance, but it just kept getting bigger and bigger for “Barbenheimer.” We gave all of our theaters the highest staffing levels. We went to the managers individually and said, “You know, we think you’re gonna need even more than this.” We had extra cleaners just dedicated to keeping the popcorn butter areas clean. We tried to be prepared, and I think we did a pretty darn good job.
Q. Does a rising tide lift all boats? Are people coming back specifically for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” again, or are people coming back to see the new A24 horror movie, for example?
A. We’re creatures of habit. Getting back in the habit of moviegoing is a process. What’s so great is that all of those customers that came this past weekend sat through 15 or 20 minutes of trailers — in some theaters in L.A., it’s 30 minutes — and they got to see all these titles with complete focus. I do think there’s a positive trend of getting people to have that complete attention on the screen. I think you’re gonna really see it pay off.
(Editor’s note: A24’s low-budget horror flick “Talk to Me” opened with a strong $10 million domestically this past weekend. Disney’s $150 million live action family film “Haunted Mansion” debuted with a weak $24 million.)
Q. How many people came for the “Barbenheimer” double feature?
A. We just ran the numbers. We had about 21,000 of our guests who did both on the same day in (the) past seven days, which we’re pretty happy with.
Q. And the midweek sales were impressive.
A. Every day felt like a Saturday for us.
Typically, August and September are a little thin in terms of the film release schedule. Does the movie slate have enough volume for the next few months to keep the momentum going?
We’re a cyclical business and September and October are never as big as June and July. But we have way more product than we had last year.
A. Will they be blockbuster months? Probably not. Coming up, we have “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” “Blue Beetle,” “Expendables 4,” a new “Equalizer.” These are some brands that people trust. Are they going to do “Barbie” business? No, but it’s going to be a much stronger fall than last fall.
Q. The writers’ and actors’ strikes are pushing some of the more star-driven movies into 2024. Is that a concern for you right now?
A. Certainly, we’re paying attention to it and we hope that it gets resolved quickly and that both parties are happy, because it can affect next year or later in the year if it continues. We have very little to do with it. We can’t control it. For now, most things are holding. Everyone was preparing. We just have no idea how long it will last.
(I followed up with Bagby for additional comment after Sony announced the release of “Ghostbusters” would be delayed. “Movies move often throughout the year,” he said. “We believe ‘Ghostbusters’ makes sense so they can tie it with the 40th anniversary.”)
Q. The most fascinating box office story of the summer is the “Sound of Freedom” phenomenon. There were questions about whether group sales were inflating the numbers. Are people actually showing up?
A. They actually are. I’ve had several questions about this. We’ve had managers go in and count the attendees versus what the box office reports say. They’re showing up in our theaters. We’ve overperformed on this movie.
I don’t know where this rumor started. Maybe it’s happening on the coasts. But for us, we’ve actually done spot checks. It’s been a great July surprise. We saw great pre-sales and we knew it was going to be strong. We had no idea it was going to be a $150 million-plus movie.
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