Can Art-House Cinemas Bring Back COVID-Wary Audiences This Oscar Season?

While blockbusters have helped major chains recover, specialty theaters are only now starting to see their indie-loving clientele trickle back

After a strong October, major theater chains like AMC Theatres and Regal are expressing optimism that blockbuster-loving audiences will continue to come back to theaters. But for specialty cinemas, a far more uncertain pandemic recovery process is only now getting started.

“Simply, we’re still not close to where we were before COVID. I’d estimate that we haven’t reached 50% of our pre-pandemic turnout at some of our venues,” Greg Laemmle, president of the Los Angeles indie chain Laemmle Theatres, told TheWrap. “It’s only just now that we are starting to get films that are really priming the pump.”

With a few exceptions, like the Anthony Bourdain documentary “Roadrunner” that grossed $5.2 million after a July opening, the major indie films that art-houses rely on to lure ticket buyers have been scarce this year. This left specialty chains like Laemmle and Landmark relying on the same blockbusters that the big chains were using to draw audiences still worried about COVID-19.

So while major chains have been able to use the summer months to put themselves in a position where Q4 2021 could bring their first burst of profit since the pandemic began, art-houses have been in a holding pattern waiting for the arrival of Oscar contenders that could entice older audiences that have long been their core clientele — and also far more COVID-wary.

“Blockbusters helped us get our ticket sales back up to a certain level, but they don’t have the same value to us or any art-house operator that they do to mainstream operators,” Paul Serwitz, president/COO of Landmark Theaters, told TheWrap. “There were plenty of indie titles in the summer, of course, but many of the top shelf titles are always reserved for the fall.”

In other words, indie cinemas are beginning a relaunch process that mainstream theaters began back in May, when Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II” kicked off the summer blockbuster season.

Two movies that were the equivalent of “Quiet Place II” for his art-house chain, Serwitz said. The first was actually a blockbuster: MGM’s “No Time to Die,” the latest installment of the James Bond series that historically has driven a larger share of older moviegoers to specialty theaters than superhero or “Fast & Furious” movies.

The other was a limited release from one of indie film’s greatest champions: Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” The Searchlight film opened in October to $1.3 million from 52 theaters — the highest average ($25,938 per theater) of any film until last weekend, when A24’s “C’mon C’mon” averaged $26,889 from six screens.

“We were very grateful to Searchlight for not only releasing it when they did, but did so with a platform release that favored us,” Serwitz said. “We had an excellent showing both on that initial 52-screen weekend and with the expansion on the following weekend. Landmark received a significant boost from that film and I believe it will help build a lot of momentum going forward.”

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster