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Keeping Small Movies On The Big Screen

The fear of “franchise fatigue” has crept into film industry conversations for years, but with this past summer’s record-breaking blockbusters (including Marvel’s record-shattering Avengers: Endgame), those fears continue to appear misplaced.

As the parade of blockbusters shows no signs of slowing, small budget and indie films find themselves in a precarious position, with the industry asking: Will these sorts of movies still be released theatrically? Or, will they be relegated to streaming platforms?

Streaming platforms may seem like a less risky financial proposition, especially for independent filmmakers looking for a surer path to repaying investors. For a theatrical release, small budget and independently-financed films must offset their production budget by driving sufficient box office, and doing so may require a substantial (and oftentimes pricey) marketing push, which in itself creates an additional amount to be recovered in ticket sales. However, many filmmakers and audiences feel a theatrical release is worth the effort—that certain films are best enjoyed through that magical, big screen experience. 

So, how can smaller films find the right audience for a theatrical release while mitigating the risk of a theatrical marketing spend? To answer, let’s first examine the audiences for a few of 2019’s most notable lower budget releases.

The Lighthouse

A24 calls its mini-budget film a “hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s,” while GQ’s Rachel Tashjian artfully describesThe Lighthouse as “a film about men arguing in moldy, beautiful sweaters.”

Playing in only eight theaters, the film pulled in an astounding $419,764 in U.S. box office (averaging $52,471 per venue) during its October 18 opening weekend. For an Arthouse movie (with its psychologically bizarre plot shot on black and white film in a vintage 1.19:1 aspect ratio), one might assume it attracted a much older audience, the type of moviegoers who tend not to show up to blockbusters.

However, to date, the film has hugely over-indexed with moviegoers aged 18 to 39 while underperforming with all other age groups.

The Lighthouse vs. Average Audience

  • Age 18 - 21: 12.2% vs. 8.7%
  • Age 22 - 29: 30.6% vs. 15.8%
  • Age 20 - 39: 22.2% vs. 16.1%

Additionally, it seems the Twihards had no interest in seeing their beloved Edward Cullen play this sort of role, with female moviegoers making up only 25.1% of the audience (as of November 1) compared to populating 47.6% of an average theatrical audience.

Judy

Renée Zellweger took to the screen as Judy Garland in the biopic about the legendary singer and actress. While the film garnered mixed reviews, Zellweger’s performance has received strong praise.

Movio’s Similarity Algorithm (which gauges audience overlap) shows that Judy attracted many of the same moviegoers who attended other adult female-driven and/or historically-inspired titles such as Florence Foster Jenkins, Green Book, and Woman in Gold

As such, it’s no surprise that, since its September 27 release, the audience for Judy has been overwhelming female, White, and above age 50.

Judy vs. Average Audience

  • Female: 60.2% vs. 47.7%
  • White: 77.1% vs. 52.9%
  • Age 50 - 59: 19.3% vs. 15.2%
  • Age 60 - 65: 19.6% vs. 8.6%
  • Age 60+: 43.8% vs. 10.6%

Jojo Rabbit

After bringing his unique flavor of comedy to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, Kiwi director Taika Waititi takes his talents back to the big screen with Jojo Rabbit, a satirical comedy about a Hitler Youth befriending a Jewish girl during World War II.

Jojo relied on a very high frequency moviegoer to drive box office, attracting an above-average share of moviegoers who make 24 or more trips to the theater each year. It also drew an outsized audience share of male moviegoers.

Jojo Rabbit vs. Average Audience:

  • 24+ annual visits: 23.8% vs. 17.3%
  • Male: 67.5% vs. 52.3%

The attendance histories of the Jojo Rabbit audience show that these moviegoers appear to have an interest in films that more closely resemble Waititi’s pre-Thor works, with Movio’s Similarity Algorithm pinpointing highest audience overlap with quirky titles like Colossal, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, and Waititi’s 2017 vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows.

Takeaways

These insights show that there is no surefire “indie audience.” The audiences who attend these films are as varied as the stories they bring to life.

Marketers of lower budget and independent films have the tall task of breaking through the noise to connect with moviegoers who will most likely be interested in purchasing a ticket to their unique title.

Therefore, it’s important to understand that these audiences are not easily defined by their demographic profiles. They are more accurately defined by their moviegoing histories and attendance behaviors. 

For example, while both The Lighthouse and Jojo Rabbit over-indexed with moviegoers aged 22 to 39, it’s very likely they were attended by largely different groups of individual moviegoers within this age range. As such, campaign messaging will be more effective when targeted toward behavior than purely toward a demographic group.

Furthermore, indie film marketers must understand the varying attendance patterns of different moviegoers—particularly as we enter awards season. Movio’s previous research has shown that female audiences tend to show up later in a film’s release cycle, as well as how a film’s audience can drastically change after it’s been nominated for an award

Approaching audiences in terms of their film tastes and preferences (rather than their demographic profiles), as well as by how frequency, recency, and attendance delay can affect their behavior, will help marketers capture every bit of opportunity, from pre-release to opening weekend, from limited to wide release, and throughout a film’s entire theatrical run.

When filmmakers and marketers have an accurate understanding of their film’s potential audience and behavioral drivers, low budget and independent films can continue to find success on the big screen.

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