Heather Vorster on South African Cinema Performance in 2021

Curious about theatrical performance in the recovering market that was 2021? We reached out to Heather Vorster, Senior Publicity Manager at Empire Entertainment, for a distributor’s insights. From the lockdown levels to big earners, out-of-favour genres to the impacts of streaming, we asked where things stand going into 2022.

What was the highest grossing film of 2021? Which film performed best in IMAX/Scene Xtreme (or any equivalent mega-sized screening space)?

Spider-Man: No Way Home in both cases (currently on R72m at the local Box Office).

Was there a genre or subset of film which performed especially well? Animated children’s films or superhero movies, for example?

This is exactly the trend. Family, animation and superhero films have both been most popular and have been pretty much the only films to draw out audiences in numbers.

Which demographic was most eager to return to theatres?

Younger audiences below 30. Films that target any Nouveau or adult (30+) audience have struggled to make a mark on the local box office.

Did the specialty box office (“arthouse” or “prestige” movies, usually in limited release, i.e., Parallel Mothers) see a similarly quelled attendance this year, or was it closer to or further from business as usual when compared to major releases?

Smaller films have not performed well at all. We seem to have almost lost the traditional “Nouveau” audience for the moment who mostly would fall in the older age category.

Generally-speaking, did grosses improve steadily as the year progressed, or balloon with particular releases? Did outsized attendance for specific films result in a boost in attendance for other films thereafter?

Box Office spiked for specific releases only. It’s hard to quantify whether the big films assisted any of the other films in release, but we suspect very little. Audiences were choosing to see the film in advance and were not swayed by what else was on offer. In the past, we have seen audiences go to cinemas and make their choice of what to see at the point of purchase, but it seems the decision is now made in advance (having to book online for Ster-Kinekor has also influenced this trend as booking in cinema was not encouraged or even an option).

What sort of performance does a film have to reach in order to warrant an extended stay in wide release, or conversely, to be scaled down? How are such decisions made, especially with the pandemic in mind?

This practice hasn’t been changed at all. Exhibition decides this on a film-by-film basis. Each cinema will remove the worst performing film each week and replace with the newest title to be released (so this also depends on how many films are being released in that week.) Films that have had long runs at cinema have either consistently performed or there wasn’t enough content coming into the market to replace the film.

Did changes in the country’s lockdown level, which don’t specifically affect cinemas nonetheless, result in higher or lower attendance?

Curfew definitely impacted cinema attendances especially when there was no 8pm show due to 10pm or 11pm curfew. Having the final show at 6pm or 6.30pm meant that audiences couldn’t make an evening out of it – i.e. go out for dinner before or after. Also, those that were at work would not be able to get to a cinema in time.

There has also been no morning shows in many cases and at times, consumers have assumed that cinemas weren’t open at all. For example, many people would go to Nu Metro during the week, see they weren’t open and assume cinemas were entirely closed, not realising they were only operating on weekends.

Was the release slate for 2021 significantly more populous than 2020, and can we expect another bump up in variety for 2022?

2021 had a greater variety of content vs. 2020 and we expect it to be even more so this year, with 5 DC films slated for release for example. Also, many of the productions that were put on hold due to the pandemic have now been finished and will be ready for release this year and next.

The theatrical business has been under massive pressure for the past two years. Cinemas have seen 30%/40% box office of previous years at times (climbing to 60%-70% at times depending on the film releases) whilst still having the same overheads. This led to less shows, later opening times, only being open for weekends etc. We continue to see that small and medium releases struggle to find an audience and underperform against expectations.

We believe that consumers are under financial pressure so when opting to go see a movie, they choose a “sure thing” – superhero, franchise, Disney or Pixar animation etc. We have also seen a massive increase in “in home” screening – Netflix and other streaming services have exploded into the market as well as illegal downloads and streaming options which consumers have become aware of. For example, with Warner Bros. releasing their films simultaneously on HBO Max in 2021, we saw that good quality copies were available online much sooner than previously. It will be interesting to see how this changes now that this window has changed to 45 days after theatrical release.

As distributors, we have had to make some tough decisions in terms of not releasing content theatrically and choosing to release on other platforms. It means that South African audiences haven’t always had the scope of films on offer in cinemas that they would have previously.

Consumers also seem to have concerns about their safety within the cinema environment. Perhaps this hasn’t been communicated enough or they have not been exposed to the information, but we have seen definite hesitation regarding ventilation and no knowledge of the thorough sanitation between shows.

In terms of performance of films, we have followed worldwide trends pretty closely. I’m only referring to what we distribute as I don’t have insight into what the other distributors have experienced. Films that have been expected to do well internationally and haven’t have followed the same pattern here. We have hoped for anomalies… King Richard for example was a quality film that we really believed could find its audience locally… but have seen little to no change from what the US or UK is experiencing.

The impact that Covid-19 has had on media locally has also meant that there are far fewer outlets who carry information on movies which also has contributed to a lack of information on safety protocols, films on offer etc.