Box office economics, piracy, and Carol – an explainer and a plea

Why Carol isn’t in more cinemas, why you shouldn’t pirate it (please don’t) and more. This was originally written for my Tumblr, but I decided to post it here.

Hey everyone,
If you’re like me, the wait for Carol is agonising. I understand that completely. Every gif or video or photo or quote makes you feel jealous of those that have seen it, and intensifies your need to see it and experience its bliss even more. But you want to see this film succeed, to see it garner awards nominations, take home a good box office gross, for the general population to talk about it, and for more like it to be made, right? Well, there’s a couple of things we need to talk about then, because I’ve seen a lot around Tumblr that’s disheartening and inaccurate.

First of all, release strategies. Also known as, why you can, in the United States, currently only see the film in 16 theatres, and in Australia it’s not out until January 14 (BUT you can see it on New Year’s Eve in Australia!, Every day I come on Tumblr and see posts blasting why it’s only in such a small number of theatres. You cry that it’s Hollywood’s homophobia is why it’s in such a small amount of theatres, why you can’t go right now and see it. Which yes, in any other situation, fuck homophobia in Hollywood. It ruins careers and people. But in this situation, it’s so far small release is not because of homophobia.

You see, these days mid-budget dramas aimed at adults have a hard time making the cash they need to succeed. Just this October, a whole raft of them spectacularly failed, including Steve Jobs, another Oscar contender ( Audiences are more reluctant than ever to spend money on these films. They see no difference between what they can pay to see at the theatre and what they can get through the millions of TV shows that seem to be available these days. Cinema tickets are damn expensive, after all ( Or, alternatively, they decide they can just watch it on Netflix in a year or so, they won’t be missing much.

It’s this attitude that’s making studios and indie distributors like The Weinstein Company, the distributor behind Carol in the US, skittish. Carol is not the type of film that would be originally released across the country from the outset, even when films that don’t involve massive budgets and explosions were in a lot better shape, despite how amazing it would be if you could see it anywhere you wanted the weekend it opened. For a film like this, buzz needs to be built. This is purely how smaller films make money. Look at pretty much every Oscar contender (which Carol definitely is) for an example. Here, I’m using 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist, because it’s recent, from the same distributor, was in a similarly difficult marketing position (Carol has its languid pace and period setting and sensibilities, The Artist was silent and black and white and didn’t have any name stars).

Here’s its first 11 weeks of release. Notice that for its first seven, it was in under 200 theatres, could only be seen by a very small number of people. From there, once it got a whole lot of Oscar nominations, it expanded quickly, riding that success to an eventually fantastic gross of $44 mil and winning 5 Oscars. Remarkable for a film that had no mainstream selling point. For a fun fact, by the way, Carol is currently grossing better than The Artist was at the same point in its release.

This is how the selling of independent dramas like Carol, The Artist, Selma, even Birdman and Her (the list goes on and on) work. They don’t have a marketing hook for general audiences, at least not at the beginning. They’re challenging, different, people are more reluctant to spend their money on. Audiences want familiarity, a reliable return on investment. They don’t want to take a gamble. So distributors have to build buzz and give audiences a reason to see the film. They have to make them anticipate it, so when it does come to their theatre, the largest amount of people will turn up, and hopefully tell all of their friends to see it. And how do they do this? They release the film slowly. If a film like Carol opened in 2000 theatres instead of four, it would flop and be out of theatres in under a month. Distributors wouldn’t have had that time to build the buzz and draw audiences in. There’s no anticipation, no incentive to see it instead of just spending another Saturday night watching Netflix. It would gross only a little more than if it was in 4 theatres, leading to a terrible average. Its awards season buzz would then die out, as it would be written off as a failure, both in regards to audiences and financiers. It would be forgotten, and producers wouldn’t go near another film like it. Indie films are where all the good roles of women and people of colour are to be found. If they can’t find success, they simply won’t be made, as they won’t be seen as a worthwhile gamble. Like, come on, the last thing movies need is another reason to be less than completely equal in terms of gender and race. Yes, it’s an archaic system in the days of the Internet, but sadly this is still the only way films that aren’t full of spectacle make money.

So how can you help? Well, there’s a couple of ways, and that leads me to the second thing I’d like to talk about.

Ask for it it at your theatre. Go to or call your local and speak to the management. Even seek out your local independent of art house cinema and ask, go beyond the multiplex. Trust me, I deal with theatre owners regularly, and pretty much if they have someone give enough of a crap to come to their theatre or call them and say that hey, I really want to see this film, they will listen and try their best to make it happen. You’re the people who give them business, after all. They want to show what people will turn up to. Tell your friends to do the same, spread the word where you are so when it does come, people will turn up. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, people trust little more than someone they know and trust telling them that something is great and worth their time. I see a lot of films in my work, so every time I see someone they ask me what’s the best film I’ve seen lately (and I’ve been seeing a lot of people lately, it’s the holidays haha), and lately I’ve done nothing but sing the praises of Carol. Most of the people I’ve told to see it haven’t even heard of it before I told them, and now they’re going to see it when it’s released. It’s small, but it’s stuff like this that helps indie film in 2015. It’s all buzz, all momentum, all a reason to see it and support it and to support films about women. And that starts with getting people into a cinema, waiting past instant gratification.

Here’s now the second thing I want to talk about. Piracy. I hate to whine about it, but please, please, please, I beg of you
For every reason I have listed above. For the success of this film, for the future of this industry. Piracy doesn’t affect bigger films as much. The failure of a couple of tent poles like The Lone Ranger or John Carter (and believe me, there’s quite a few each year, doesn’t mean that less of them get made. That part of the industry keeps soldiering on. But for indies it does. Piracy means one less ticket sold, less box office dollars, less word of mouth and mainstream discussion, less notoriety come Oscar season. And that affects the future of the industry, as I previously said, overall. These films have smaller audiences than their big budget counterparts from the outset. It’s not the same struggle for the tent poles. They have an in built audience, people that will always turn up for the spectacle. Piracy counts for a small loss in gross (just look at The Expendables 3 scandal from a few years ago, But for indie films, there’s no in built audience. Anyone who pirates is someone who would have seen it in a cinema and contributed to the gross. Take a whole bunch of the potential audience out of the equation to piracy, and there’s nearly none left.

And furthermore, anything but a cinema is somewhat disingenuous to particularly what Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman envisioned. It’s not meant for a computer screen at first watch, that takes away from the immersive, overwhelming visual experience that it is. Like most films, they’re best experienced where they were intended to be seen: in a darkened cinema, with no distractions, none of the outside world creeping in. It’s nothing except you and this perfect, beautiful, moving film. It’s an experience that is well worth every minute of waiting to see it and the price of admission.


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