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At Long Last, Specialized Cinema Is Poised for Its Comeback. Right?

From "TÁR” and "The Banshees of Inisherin" to "Aftersun" and "Triangle of Sadness," it's a specialized replay of the studios' make-or-break summer movie season.

Cate Blanchett in Tár


Courtesy of Focus Features

If the specialized theatrical market is to make a comeback, it will never get a better opportunity than right now.

This month will see a glut of critically embraced theatrical debuts — more than we’ve seen in three years. These include “TÁR” (Focus), “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight), “Aftersun” (A24), “Triangle of Sadness” (Neon), “Till” (United Artists), “Decision to Leave” (MUBI), and “Armageddon Time” (Focus).

All will open in limited play, some will go wider, but whatever the release patterns they represent a crucial period for the specialized industry — distributors and exhibitors alike. For this sector of the business, it’s a replay of the studios’ make-or-break summer movie season.

The massive year-end influx of awards-season titles is an annual tradition, but the current market doesn’t act like the old ones. Distributors have become much more tolerant about creative schedulingbut this year saw a big drop in the once-reliable documentary genre. Only Neon’s “Moonage Daydream” and “Fire of Love” and SPC’s “Hallelujah” grossed more than $1 million. In 2019, eight documentaries grossed over $3 million by this point; Neon’s “Apollo 11” grossed $9 million. Among this year’s openers, “Worst Person in the World” was the only subtitled film to gross over $1 million. (Pedro Almodovar’s “Parallel Mothers” did most of its $2.3 million in 2022). Today, we see multiple subtitled films gross much more — but they’re comprised of films like “RRR” and other national cinema populist releases.

This year, films from top specialized companies have grossed around $350 million. That’s similar to the same period in 2019, which means that the specialized share of total gross year to date actually increased. For independent exhibitors, it’s been a mixed blessing.

A24 and Focus took in two-thirds of this revenue, with Sony-owned Crunchyroll coming in third some distance behind. All are set up to play wide and the biggest specialized films of 2022, led by A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” found much of their success in wide release with access to top chain theaters.

The next few months should be different as players like Neon, Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, and others return to form, but A24 and Focus will still be at or near the top.

Per exhibition sources, “TÁR” will move to PVOD three weeks after it moves to wide release October 28. A24 and Sony Pictures Classics usually have much longer windows, usually 45-90 days.

Here’s hoping that these year-end releases break 2022 records, especially since it’s not a high bar. Only four films with limited openings — “Everything,” “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” all from A24, and Neon’s 2021 debut “The Worst Person in the World” — grossed over $3 million. Upcoming titles need to improve on that.

For many independent theaters, this could be make-or-break. Most survived; many renegotiated leases; some created membership programs or reduced expenses (and showtimes). They took advantage of “Top Gun: Maverick” and other studio films that drew older audiences. They sometimes share in VOD income.

But to thrive, they need to see results more in line with 2019 and “Parasite,” which grossed $55 million domestic and won the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture. This weekend, we’ll start to learn if that’s possible.

With “TÁR” and “Triangle of Sadness” leading the way, we will begin publishing a comprehensive Sunday analysis of specialized grosses, in addition to covering the top 10 releases. We’ll examine release strategies, including whether films platform (open initially in New York and Los Angeles, like “TÁR”) or open in limited release (fewer than 10 cities, which is Neon’s plan for “Triangle of Sadness”) and how quickly they expand. Will the multi-hundred or multi-thousand theater releases continue (often with poor under $1,ooo per-theater averages)? We’ll compare grosses to recent and historical numbers, and how quickly films transition to home availability.

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