Beatlemania is alive and well on planet Earth. Director Ron Howard’s documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” has been filling theaters around the world despite Hulu releasing the film on its streaming platform the same weekend as the doc’s U.S. theatrical release.
What was initially planned as a one-week U.S. theatrical run in 85 theaters has expanded to 180 cinemas, with nearly every venue holding the movie over for a second week, according to Richard Abramowitz, president of specialty distributor Abramorama. Appetite for the film is so strong that some Beatles fans have even emailed producer Nigel Sinclair’s White Horse Pictures complaining that the movie wasn’t being shown in their town.
According to Sinclair, Abramowitz immediately booked the film in towns that reached out. Since hitting theaters on September 16, the movie has generated more than $1.5 million at the U.S. box office and an additional $5.8 million internationally, playing in countries like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. The film is expected to surpass IFC’s “Weiner,” which reached just over $1.7 million as the top day-and-date theatrical and home viewing film of the year.
“We are very happy with the results, as they were well above our expectations,” said Rodolphe Buet, President of International Distribution at StudioCanal.
Why are consumers so eager to pay a premium for a movie they could watch in the comfort of their own homes? While many viewers likely belong to the Baby Boomer generation that still favors a theatrical experience, other factors are luring audiences to see the Fab Four in theaters, including a 30-minute short film of the Beatles’ legendary 1966 Shea Stadium concert that is being shown immediately after all theatrical screenings, but not on Hulu. The movie has also been attracting overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, earning a Metascore of 72.
Still, the amount of enthusiasm for “Eight Days a Week” has been almost unprecedented, according to Sinclair. “I’ve worked on a lot of films in my life and I’ve never had this kind of experience,” he said. The producer of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” which won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Special, Sinclair also produced the Billy Joel concert doc “The Last Play at Shea,” which included a surprise guest performance by Paul McCartney.
While there has been no shortage of Beatles documentaries over the years, including Albert Maysles’ 1991 film “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit” and the 11-hour documentary series “The Beatles Anthology,” released in 1995, “Eight Days a Week” is the first project since “Anthology” to be authorized by the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps, and produced with the full cooperation of living band members McCartney and Ringo Starr as well as widows Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison.
One of the ways the film distinguishes itself from prior Beatles docs is by seeking to explain in depth why the band quit touring after the concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966. “What Ron was trying to do was to tell a story about what it was like to be them, what it was like to be in that situation, and how it affected the way they governed themselves as a group,” Sinclair said. The film also features nearly 20 pieces of rare and never-before-seen footage of the band between the years of 1963 and 1966, during which time the Beatles played more than 250 concerts.
How did Howard find never-before-seen footage of the Beatles 50 years after they quit touring? Roughly half of the footage in the film comes from the archives at the Beatles’ Apple Corps, while the other half came through a number of crowdsourcing efforts, including a request sent to the Beatles’ 40 million Facebook fans asking for amateur footage shot during the band’s touring years.
“We were looking for needles in the haystack,” said co-producer Matthew White, who first pitched former Apple Corps chief executive Neil Aspinall on gathering home video footage to tell the story of the Beatles’ live tours back in 2003. White had the idea for the film after coming across archival footage of the Beatles in National Geographic’s Film Library while working as Vice President of National Geographic Television’s film and video archives. “There was a sense that, wherever the Beatles went, the cameras would follow,” White said.
Apple Corps funded the crowdsourcing efforts in 2007 before agreeing to commit to a feature-length documentary. White and a team of researchers then gathered more than 100 hours of rare and unseen footage from fans, news organizations and national archives, and waited until after they’d seen the material to determine the exact focus of the film. “Instead of having a story and then going into the archives and trying to make the material fit that story, we put the research first,” White said.
In 2013, Apple Corps’ new chief executive Jeff Jones hired Sinclair, who had recently worked with Howard on the Formula One movie “Rush,” to produce the doc. Howard had never made a documentary before, but jumped at the opportunity to direct the film, bringing along producing partner Brian Grazer and Imagine Entertainment.
One of the most important voices in “Eight Days a Week” is longtime journalist and television news anchor Larry Kane, who as a 21-year-old reporter in Florida was invited to travel with the Beatles on their tours in 1964 and 1965 and had unprecedented access to the group. Kane told IndieWire that watching the documentary gave him chills for the way it brought him back to his time being embedded with the band, and that he had no idea home video footage of their performances could reproduce the experience of being at a Beatles concert so effectively.
“The film provides something that anybody under 50 has never seen before, and that’s the rush of the crowd and the extraordinary enthusiasm and fandom that surrounded the early part of their careers,” Kane said. “Yes, the music is on everybody’s sound system on iTunes and in offices and nightclubs and is a part of the culture, but not many people really understood what the Beatlemania part was all about in the beginning.”
One of the issues the documentary explores that isn’t widely known is how the Beatles decided as a group not to play in any venue with racially segregated audiences. The decision forced the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida to integrate its audience for the Beatles’ concert. For Kane, who wrote about the band’s refusal to play to segregated crowds in his first of three books on the Beatles, “Ticket to Ride,” the civil rights issues touched upon in the film are particularly timely today, given the civil unrest surrounding the recent killings of African-American men by police. “We’ve changed, but we really haven’t,” Kane said. “Physical barriers were broken, but emotional thought processes are really more severe in some cases.”
If the early theatrical success of “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” is any indication, the documentary is likely to continue attracting large crowds around the world, not unlike the Beatles did themselves during their world tours. Next month, the film is scheduled open in Finland, Greece, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and the Netherlands.
One possible explanation for the film’s theatrical success could be that audiences view the opportunity to watch the movie on the big screen as the closest thing to seeing the Beatles perform live, a logical assumption considering the doc includes 12 full and partial performances from Beatles concerts.
Thirteen years after pitching the idea of the documentary, White said that his vision for the movie as something audiences could immerse themselves in has been realized. “We wanted to do something that people would feel,” he said. “This was about a visceral experience, and that’s where I think the film really succeeds.”