Judging by the $14 million box office tally for The Croods: A New Age over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend span, the theatrical movie business will rebound, in the view of National CineMedia CEO Tom Lesinski.
Speaking Tuesday at the Bank of America Securities Leveraged Finance Virtual Conference, the exec took note of the sequel’s ability to outdo Warner Bros’ Tenet despite having only 45% of U.S. theaters available. “It’s a good indication of not if this industry’s going to recover but when,” he said. “Consumers are going to come back.”
He didn’t make predictions about exact gross numbers or the length of the recovery. Casting a glance in the rear-view mirror, he said the steady attendance level between 2009 and 2019 is “remarkable” given the welter of competition faced by the theatrical movie business. Like many industry partisans, he expects significant “pent-up demand” to be expressed in the months and years to come.
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National CineMedia controls about 70% of the in-theater advertising business, working with a range of top exhibitors as well as media buyers and brands.
Lesinski, a former executive at Paramount and Warner Bros who took the helm at NCM last year, said he expects a “gradual” return of moviegoers in the first quarter of 2021. The planned release of James Bond film No Time to Die in April will be a key benchmark leading to a “solid” summer slate. “I don’t believe that the pandemic is going to have a significant effect on people’s behavior,” he said, in terms of people staying away in the months to come or even permanently, as some analysts and industry observers predict. He issued the caveat that many variables exist in terms of the Covid-19 environment and the decisions of safety officials and authorities as to where movie theaters reopen, plus the rollout of vaccines.
“Different studios will be testing different windows and different availability,” he said. But he remains “confident that consumers will come back to the theaters as soon as there’s a real release schedule,” beginning with Bond.
Speaking of windows, Lesinski said recent deals between Universal and Cinemark and AMC. “This is all very, very new and there’s nothing in the market to suggest that anyone can forecast the impact,” he said. Cinemark’s deal, which allows five weekends of box office, is a particularly “great thing” for exhibition, Lesinski said. “It will ensure that the biggest movies stay in theaters for a long time.”
The other benefit for theaters, he argued, is that they could prompt subscription streaming players like Netflix, Amazon and Apple to “look at a theatrical window that they might not have looked at before.”
It will be a while before any consistent patterns can be expected as consumers and distributors and exhibitors all confront a new landscape even once the pandemic subsides, Lesinski predicted. For the studios, the financial model of the movie business cannot support high-end movies costing $300 million, he noted. High-end titles will need three to five weeks of exclusive theatrical play, “and then we’ll just have to see on the SVOD side.”
In terms of the advertising upfront, NCM is currently negotiating about $145 million in deals with returning advertisers in the upfront, Lesinski said. Typically, about 60% of ads are bought in the upfront, which runs from the fourth quarter through to the next year’s third quarter in September. In 2019, the company ended the upfront cycle with about $200 million in revenue. The 2020-21 tally may fall a bit short of that, but “advertisers are supporting our platform.”
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