In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theater Distribution, Part 3

One of the questions I've been interested to answer this year is, How much variety in selection do we have at the box office?  I mentioned in my first article in this series that the number of films shown in the U.S. yearly has been on the rise over the past fifteen years, which would suggest an increase in variety.  But I want to place this number in the context of how accessible these films are.

Over the past twenty Fridays, roughly 113 Bay Area theaters have exhibited an average of sixty different films, for an average of 3,926 daily showings.  (These numbers fluctuate on a weekly basis for a number of reasons, not least of which is that theaters inconsistently report their showtimes to online sources.)

The chart below shows the percentage of those daily showings accounted for by the top 5, 10, 15, and 20 films ('top' meaning the film with the most daily showings in the Bay Area).  Think of this as a vertical slider between diversity (on the bottom) and homogeneity (on the top).

The topmost line indicates that of the sixty movies available on a given day, twenty of them consistently consume 95% of the daily showtimes.  It would be very uncommon for a movie not in wide release to be among these Top 20 movies.  Sixty movies is a lot to choose from when going out for an evening, but you're going to need to dig to find a theater showing anything out of the main stream.

We see the most fluctuation in the bottom line, and many of these peaks and dips have discernible causes.  Our low point in January corresponds to the Oscar season.  Many independent films from December had been held over and given wider distribution than would normally be awarded.  The Oscar nominees were announced in the first week of February, maintaining the low-homogeneity for an additional week, but the next week, that of 2/12, saw a return to what I now consider a more normal percentage.  Theaters gave the nominees one week to leverage their clout for additional ticket sales, then immediately scaled back those titles when interest failed to materialize.

The peaks each correspond to the release of a movie that captured an above-average number of screens in its debut weekend.  Alice in Wonderland (3/5), Clash of the Titans (4/9) and now Shrek Forever After (5/21), with a staggering 943 daily showings (25% of all daily showings).  You might also notice a pattern here with regard to format: these movies were each released in 3-D.  I attribute this partly to an atmosphere of Avatar-induced euphoria, and partly to a desire to screen these films in both 3-D and 2-D, catering equally to the innovative and to the skeptical.

The dip on 4/30 is the second week of the San Francisco International Film Festival.  Though few large theaters participated, many small theaters momentarily dropped their mainstream fare.

I'm also interested in the difference between the shape of the lines.  Looking at the dips in homogeneity in January and April, it's tempting to think that smaller films were prevailing.  In truth, the tug of war is always between the big dogs.  In January, for instance, homogeneity might have been at a low for the Top 5 movies, but the next fifteen films were more than happy to pick up the slack, resulting in the steady 95% line for the Top 20.  The two lessons here are that many Oscar nominees are still, relatively speaking, mainstream, and that when the major parties duke it out, that doesn't mean there is room for an independent to sneak in.

Of the 751 movies that have been shown in the Bay Area so far this year, the Top 50 were also in wide release nationwide (1000+ engagements).  The Bay Area has breadth, but as a metropolitan community we aren't championing any particular underdog title.  Notable exceptions?  The Runaways was only exhibited by 244 theaters nationwide (at any one time); 33 Bay Area theaters showed the film.  The Ghost Writer peaked at 224 theaters nationwide; 36 Bay Area theaters exhibited it.

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