Every industry has a set of metrics to benchmark its success or failure. And while I haven’t been in the film industry long enough to know exactly when the “opening weekend per screen average” became one of the de facto metrics for success or failure for independent films, what I do know is that our obsession with “per screen average” is slowly killing independent cinema.
Before you stop reading, I’m aware that’s this is a very strong statement that not everyone will agree with.
But let me explain:
Everyone wants their film to be judged a success (even when they know it may not be deserved). And the quickest way for a specialty film to be perceived as an instant success, is to achieve the highest per screen average for an independent film on your opening weekend. When you accomplish this, two things happen. First, you’re awarded with a wonderful attention grabbing headline in Indiewire and Deadline on Sunday afternoon (which then leads to a steady flow of congratulatory emails from colleagues and peers) and second, the phone starts to ring from exhibitors across the country who now want to book your film even though they may have previously turned it down.
Before you say it, I do know that it would be stupid for me to completely trash the value of both of these outcomes. Nobody can argue that its great to have those headlines, or that you’ll likely increase your gross earnings when you’re wanted by more theaters across the country.
But the question we should all be asking as an industry is – What price are we willing to pay to achieve these results?
Today, the “price” for a specially film to get an attention grabbing opening weekend per screen average is often outweighing the returns. In fact, the tactics that are now needed to obtain that headline in Indiewire are the same tactics that may eventually kill the film’s chance for future financial success.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that if you spend, say, a million dollars on marketing a film that’s in one or two theaters, you’re likely to get a higher per screen average than if you spend that million dollars to market that same film in ten theaters. Today, we’re often “buying” our per screen average by limiting the number of screens we’re in on opening weekend to artificially jack up the per screen average. Now, this alone isn’t a huge problem. If you hit it out of the park on opening weekend, many distributors and P&A funders will free up more budget to help expand the film to more markets than they had at first anticipated. If you can get the screens there’s no downside to this.
But what happens when you’re NOT the highest per screen average that weekend, but you’ve still achieved a decent, but not spectacular, per screen average (as most films do).
Here’s what happens: In the pursuit of that high per screen average you’re most likely front loading the majority of your marketing and advertising spend leading into opening weekend when we’re in the smallest, not the largest, amount of theaters in your release. What this most often means is that there’s very little left to spend after the first ticket buyers enter the theater on opening night. When 80% of your marketing budget is spent leading up to opening weekend when you’re in only two or three theaters, there’s obviously not a lot to spread around afterwards when you’re set to expand and you need that money the most. But if you don’t hit it out of the park in your first weekend agency retainers are dropped, internal resources are re-assigned to other films, and the movie that you just worked tirelessly on for months to set up, is now set on auto-pilot with minimum spends and little or no support in it’s expansion.
Today, if you’re releasing a documentary, to get the national press and to qualify for an Oscar, you need to open in both New York and Los Angeles. And to be efficient, both cities usually happen on the first weekend. But everyone knows that Los Angeles is an absolutely horrible market for documentaries. So to hedge against the likely scenario that the opening weekend per screen average will be lowered by terrible grosses in LA, we’ll often open a doc in one or two theaters in New York, get that amazing per screen average, and then open it the next weekend in LA when everyone has moved on to the next wave opening weekend films. Again, this – in theory – shouldn’t be a big problem. It’s only a problem when you’ve spent most of your budget leading into your one or two theaters in New York.
And this happens far too often.
The reality is that even with the best films, some theaters and markets perform a lot better than others. When you look at a Rentrak report, your top grossing theaters are often many multiples of the gross of your lowest grossing theaters. On the same weekend, you can be turning away people in Washington D.C but playing to half empty theaters in Philadelphia and Miami. When you’re playing the per screen average game this could be a huge problem. But when you’re spending little to no money on your lower grossing theaters, this isn’t a problem at all if what you’re making from those theaters is more than what you’re spending on them.
But the real problem with playing Russian roulette and spending a ton of money to get a high per screen average is not only that you’ve spent most of your budget when you are in the smallest amount of theaters, it’s that it also completely decimates your social media strategy. And today, in an age where word-of-mouth on Twitter and Facebook has more impact on a specially film than any ad or commercial you can buy, flushing your social media strategy down the toilet can be the sole reason why your film underperforms.
More and more, we now access our social media channels from our mobile phones and tablets. The most effective period in your social media campaign is just after people see your film, not when they are being marketed to. When someone sees your movie and then tweets about how much they loved it, the impact that this has on getting others to see your film is more powerful than anything else you can do if your goal is “conversion”. But if you’re in only one or two theaters, its not that easy to scale positive word-of-mouth. We lack what’s called “social proof” in the marketing world. And because its harder to scale word of mouth, if you didn’t screen your film extensively before your opening weekend, your positive word-of-mouth and social proof will be extremely limited. That’s why, as a marketing strategist, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, the first rule I have when a film is good and we’re opening in just a few theaters is to “screen the hell out of it” beforehand in major markets like New York and LA.
One of the best decisions John Sloss, Richard Abramowitz, and myself made on the release strategies for films like "Exit Through The Gift Shop" and "SENNA" was that we were not worried at all about “over screening” these films in major markets. Rather our goal was to get as many people as possible to see them before they came out. I’m a firm believer of John Sloss’ motto – “It’s impossible to over screen a great film.”
So if we as an industry want to save independent cinema, especially as more films open day-and-date, we need to find and agree upon, a common metric other than our opening weekend per screen average.
And for me, and others, that metric is obvious:
Gross sales across all platforms.
But unfortunately that’s not likely to happen anytime soon unless we all fight to make data from online and cable platforms more transparent and accessible.
(But that I’ll leave that subject for another article)