This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
By the laws of geekdom, this weekend’s showdown at the UK box office between Sing Street and X-Men: Apocalypse should have us firmly in the trenches with the latter. Heck, we’ve enjoyed the vast bulk of X-Men films to differing degrees, and there are things worth looking out for in the new one. And yet the nerdiest, funniest and most joyful treat opening in British cinemas is Sing Street. The one we’d wager half of you haven’t heard of.
It’s the new film from writer and director John Carney, best known to date for Once, but also with the likes of On The Edge and Begin Again behind it. Brief description: it involves ’80s music, the best nod to Back To The Future we’ve seen on the big screen in ages, and a coming of age story that you can’t help but root for.
Yet you don’t need us to tell you that it doesn’t stand a chance at the box office. There’s no UK box office report that’s going to put Sing Street in first place come early next week, and in fact, at this end of the spectrum, just getting anyone to notice the film, and build some awareness of it, is tricky enough. With movie poster sites dominated by Bryan Singer’s mutants, what chance does a smaller film have?
This is not a new challenge that Sing Street faces, of course. And this is where counter programming comes in.
David Vs Goliath
When you have a smaller film release, counter-programming has long been a useful tactic for film studios. It’s a simple idea at heart. That if a big, massive blockbuster is coming out, it’s useful and often very productive to have something a bit different playing elsewhere in the multiplex.
After all, the big film is generally making a noise that’s getting people interested in checking the cinema listings out at least. And maybe while they’re there, they may want to try something different instead. Furthermore, alternative choice is increasingly restricted due to sheer screen limits, and so if you’re the movie playing that’s not the massive $250m blockbuster then that, to a degree, works in your favor.
What’s more, not everyone wants a blockbuster meal when they go to the movies. Putting your film, therefore, in the glare of a juggernaut, with an alternative feel to it, has often paid dividends.
But it is a game of proverbial roulette. The usually ultra-savvy The Weinstein Company, for instance, put Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight up against Star Wars: The Force Awakens last Christmas, convinced that it’d still find a big audience. It was a decision that the Weinsteins have admitted they regret, as Star Wars swept all before it. Even the force of a Tarantino movie couldn’t dislodge it (although the comedy Daddy’s Home secured more luck, quietly taking well over $100m at the US box office, in part by just not being Star Wars).
After all, the game continues to change. As blockbusters get bigger, counter-programming is getting harder. My local cinema, which has 12 screens, was playing just six different films on the day that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice opened, so keen was it to maximise opening day business. It was worse come the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where my 13-screen alternative was down to four movies.
The changing face of the blockbuster landscape is at the heart of this, and the dominating importance of massive tentpole movies to film studios. When Tim Burton’s Batman hit in 1989, it arguably set into motion an opening weekend arms race, courtesy of taking just shy of $50 million in its first few days. Throughout the ’90s, the emphasis on the opening weekend grew, and in the 2000s, it got to the stage where so much money was being spent on a blockbuster film, that it needed a huge opening three days to all but justify its existence. And that was when films were costing $100 million or so.
Fast forward to now, and the opening weekend has got to the point where it sometimes feels like everything. It’s certainly important, too: if you want to retain screens for a second weekend in exhibition, your film needs to be quick off the mark. More and more, we read of movies that took half of their entire theatrical run in their first three days of business.
It’s why studios pay so much to market and promote a film, often as much as it cost to make the thing in the first place. To ensure that weekend one is a raging success, that they can send out the ‘box office records’ press release, and that they put the DVD up for pre-order as quickly as websites such as these churn out think pieces.
The Space Problem
Counter-programming always traditionally relied on some screen space being available, though. But you don’t need us to tell you that it’s more and more at a premium. We talk often on this site about the fact that some Fridays in the UK, there are as many as 20 releases jostling for attention. So just how can you get noticed if you’re not a dinosaur, a spaceship, or wearing a superhero costume?
That’s the battle this Friday at least. And as the director of Sing Street, John Carney, already acknowledges, it’s a fight his film can’t really win. “It’s sort of like a featherweight getting into the ring with a heavyweight. Both are tough, both have worked their arses off, but one’s going to beat the other. It’s just a fact.” His point was that both films took lots of people to make, both movies were as tricky in their own ways, but only one is going to cross $300m at the box office and – barring Sing Street doing a Leicester City – the conversation is already on the level of success that X-Men will enjoy.
The whole ecosystem of film seems to be supporting this inbalance now. Look around magazines, websites and newspapers, and see which film is getting the attention. Even this article: if it didn’t have X-Men in the title, would it be so prominent on a website like this (probably, in truth, but even then, there’s no guarantee people will want to read it)?
The only way the tide will ever turn is if moviegoers vote with their proverbial and literal feet. We’ve talked on this site before about the work of film journalist Matthew Turner, who has penned piece after piece urging people to see smaller films first. That if there’s a blockbuster and an indie film you fancy seeing, it makes a far bigger difference than it should if you get to the indie movie first. The blockbuster is likely to be still in cinemas next week. If an indie doesn’t get enough support in its first few days, it absolutely won’t be. Another movie will swiftly be booked in its place.
As it stands, both Sing Street and X-Men: Apocalypse interest me, and I’m without doubt watching both. But might I suggest that if you’re in the same boat as me, you take a little gamble on the smaller movie? I really don’t think you’ll regret it…