And with no help from the major Hollywood studios
In the face of dual strikes over the summer from writers and actors unions, many Hollywood studios retreated rather than negotiating for a quick resolution, delaying some of their biggest fall blockbusters. Movies such as Kraven the Hunter, Dune: Part Two, a Ghostbusters sequel, and others were booted from 2023. That left gaping holes in the calendar, prompting serious fears of another setback for theaters after they’d just begun to bounce back from the pandemic. Then came Taylor Swift.
On August 31, the singer, who is in the midst of a global tour, announced that a concert film would be released in theaters October 13—a canny move that essentially saved exhibitors’ necks for the rest of the year. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is a 168-minute rendering of an experience that millions missed out on, filmed by Sam Wrench over the course of three performances at SoFi Stadium, in Los Angeles. Swift independently financed the movie (at a cost of about $10 million to $20 million) and is presenting it as a one-of-a-kind event: You can only see it Thursdays through Sundays, your ticket costs $19.89 (a reference to Swift’s birthday and the album named for it), and you can get a free poster.
Presales were immediate and enormous, with AMC Theaters’ ticket app crashing right as sales began and AMC’s stock briefly spiking after the announcement. The hype built to levels approaching that of Barbie’s release last summer, and some box-office tracking briefly predicted a record-smashing $145 million opening. Although lower, the final number was still remarkably robust. The Eras Tour grossed about $97 million last weekend, according to early estimates, which immediately makes it the most successful concert film of all time. The next highest, 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, made only $73 million total; The Eras Tour could end up tripling that figure.
The emphasis on presales is probably why it came in slightly below expectations. Much of Swift’s army of fans made sure to book well in advance, meaning there was less walk-up traffic than a typical release might get. But the film won an A+ CinemaScore, which indicates positive word of mouth, and its competition over the next few weeks will be relatively thin: mostly awards-focused films aimed at older audiences (including Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, and David Fincher’s The Killer). Every other blockbuster had been moved out of the way, either because of studio intransigence during the strikes or simply to dodge the Swift tidal wave (The Exorcist: Believer jumped up one week to avoid it).
For Swift, the release is a home run, partly because she negotiated a favorable split with AMC, getting 57 percent of ticket sales. By not working with a major studio, she doesn’t have to sacrifice any gross to them, and she doesn’t have to rely on their marketing arm (nor does she need to, given that she commands enough of a following herself). But the Eras film is an even bigger win for the theater chains, which keep 100 percent of concessions sales (which is where profit really lies for them) and, more important, can shore up their business in what was looking like a dire moment.
The releases of Barbie and Oppenheimer in the summer of 2023 were a moment of total joy for companies such as AMC and Regal, luring back droves of ticket-buyers and reminding them of the communal thrill of going to the movies rather than waiting to watch them at home. The Eras Tour is another fine example of that experience, with fans encouraged to sing, dance, and swap friendship bracelets during the showings—in fact, Swift guaranteed a 13-week exclusive theatrical window as part of negotiations.
For traditional studios, The Eras Tour might be the most profound example of the money that’s been left on the table because of dragged-out negotiations with the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. The WGA strike finally ended on September 27, on terms regarded as massively favorable for the union, but the long duration of that labor action was almost entirely due to studios refusing to even negotiate: Once honchos such as Bob Iger and David Zaslav got in a room with the union, talks wrapped in a manner of days. The same song and dance is now playing out with SAG, further holding up the release calendar and production on some of next year’s blockbusters. In the meantime, theaters and celebrities are finding ways to sell tickets and make money without the help of a Disney or a Warner Bros. The story of Hollywood ticket sales in 2023 has largely been one of a successful bounce-back, but that’s despite studio inaction, not because of it.