By Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Jason Stark’s two young sons talked excitedly for months about seeing the “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” When the film debuted this month, he decided to make the experience a special outing.
Stark took a day off from work and drove his boys, ages 9 and 6, about a half-hour from their Connecticut home to watch the movie at an AMC theater on a 50-foot-high IMAX screen.
“We got lunch, we went to the movies and had a fun day together,” said Stark. “They loved it. They were amazed by how big (the screen) was.”
About 35% of the movie’s $204.6 million domestic ticket sales in the first five days came from enhanced formats, including oversized screens and 3D projection, according to distributor Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp.
Film studio and theater executives say audiences returning to theaters after the COVID-19 pandemic are seeking experiences compelling enough to coax them off the couch. While overall U.S. and Canadian ticket sales this year are 16% below 2019, moviegoers have flocked to films that deliver visual spectacles, including “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
“Those that are the most enthusiastic about being in theaters want the biggest, best and most experiential time that they can possibly have,” said Jim Orr, president of domestic distribution for Universal Pictures.
The growing appeal of giant screens, room-pulsing audio, moving seats and simulated environmental effects, such as rain or the scent of pine forests, offer a glimpse of how theaters aim to thrive in the streaming era. Researcher Comscore predicts the formats will account for 16.7% of 2023 domestic ticket sales, up from 9.2% in 2019.
‘BUILD IT BIGGER AND BETTER’
That’s likely to be a hot topic at the annual CinemaCon convention that opens Monday in Las Vegas.
“The big conversation is going to be about, ‘If they build it, they will come,'” said Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “If you build it bigger and better, even more people will go to the theater.”
And exhibitors have, indeed, been building. The total number of these premium format screens in North America reached a new high of 1,940 in 2022, an increase of 4.4% over the prior year, according to researcher Omdia. Enhanced screenings typically cost $5 to $7 more than a standard ticket, lifting revenue for studios and theaters.
Giant screen options include pioneer IMAX and various premium large formats (PLF) created by theater chains.
For Missouri-based B&B Theatres, about half of a multiplex’s grosses now come from premium formats, compared with 30% before the pandemic, said Chief Content, Programming and Development Officer Brock Bagby.
B&B operates 531 screens in 14 states and offers large format screens with heated recliners, 270-degree Screen X screens, immersive audio and MX4D seats timed to rumble with the action.
“Post-COVID, our premium screens are selling better than ever,” Bagby said.
Interest in IMAX is growing around the world, for Hollywood films and local language movies such as China’s “The Wandering Earth 2,” IMAX Corp Chief Executive Richard Gelfond said.
IMAX has signed 62 agreements for new or upgraded screens so far in 2023, already more than all of 2022, the company told Reuters. It expects gross IMAX box office revenue to reach pre-pandemic levels this year.
Gelfond noted that Hollywood now sends more action-packed, effects-filled blockbusters to cinemas.
“For these kinds of cultural event films, people want to see them in IMAX,” Gelfond said. “These films have become more like global cultural experiences, and I think we’re benefiting from that.”
As a sign of its importance, Universal’s Orr and other studio distribution executives said they consult Gelfond about IMAX screen availability before setting movie release dates.
WATCH OUT FOR NAUSEA, WATER
This summer will test audience fervor for enhanced experiences, said Jeff Bock, analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. Large screens will be jammed starting in May with Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” through director Christopher Nolan’s biopic “Oppenheimer” in late July and shark movie “The Meg 2” in August.
After that, the schedule fills with adult dramas, which do not offer the same thrill on a big screen, Bock said.
Mateo Osorio chose to see “Super Mario Bros” in different formats, including Regal’s 4DX theater in Orlando, Florida, with its rolling seats and environmental effects, and later, in IMAX.
“The sound in IMAX was great. The theater was shaking,” said Osorio.
But sometimes the immersive experiences can be a bit much.
“With ‘Avatar,’ I got really nauseous,” said Osorio of watching the movie in 4DX. “It was non-stop flying in 3D. It was water. I was soaked the entire time.”
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)