As the UK film industry gathered in December for the usual marathon of festive celebrations, one recurring topic, naturally, was this year’s awards season. But distributors and especially exhibitors were focused not so much on which contenders will win the coveted prizes, and more on which films will win big at the box office.
Anxiety is nothing new for this particular cohort. In 2018, as cinema bookers surveyed the field of contenders landing in January and February, the big concern was that the titles would fall short of the year before. After all, 2017 was blessed with La La Land, which grossed a triumphant $38m (£30m) at UK cinemas for Lionsgate. So there was massive relief all round when, despite the lack of an equivalent monster hit, the likes of Darkest Hour, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Post, The Shape Of Water, Lady Bird and I, Tonya all performed well at the box office.
January 2018 surprised everyone by delivering UK box office that was 1% up on 2017, and February was 2% up. These results set the territory on a solid footing for the year, which sustained in the ensuing months. While equivalent mature markets in Europe have seen box-office drops in 2018, the UK has bucked the trend.
Now comes 2019, and concerns from the sector are multiplied. Not only is there no La La Land, exhibitors agreed, is there even a Darkest Hour ($30.3m) or Three Billboards ($19m)? The film with the strongest credentials, many suggest, is Working Title’s Mary Queen Of Scots — a royal period drama from the UK’s most consistently successful production powerhouse, and with a clear target audience and relevant talent elements in the shape of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. The fact that nominations for the film by mid-December had been limited to acting and craft categories is the only fly in the ointment.
Then there is The Favourite, which is shaping up to be an awards powerhouse, especially in its home country the UK, where it netted a record 10 wins at the British Independent Film Awards. Expect a big swathe of categories when the Bafta Film Awards nominations announce on January 9. One thing is certain: The Favourite will be far and away the biggest hit for director Yorgos Lanthimos. But that honour is currently held by The Lobster, with just $1.9m (£1.5m) at UK cinemas. Distributor 20th Century Fox is swinging for the fences, pushing The Favourite into 500-plus cinemas on January 1. It will be fascinating to see how this one plays out.
Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, has breakout crowdpleaser written all over it, but the film’s relatively modest $25m North American gross to December 17 is a mild concern. Christian Bale is wowing as former vice president Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s Vice, but films about US politicians are not usually the easiest sell in foreign markets. Conversely, both Stan & Ollie and Colette could prove strong locally, boosted by British casts and filmmakers. Also in the mix for January and February are The Front Runner, Beautiful Boy, Destroyer, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, All Is True, Boy Erased, On The Basis Of Sex, If Beale Street Could Talk and much more besides.
The takeaway from the exhibition community? Even if none of these titles emerges as a hit equivalent to the top performers of recent years, the most crowded awards season in recent memory could deliver enough mid-level performers to make up the difference — assuming that all these films can be adequately accommodated in UK cinemas.
Meanwhile, spare a thought for the cinema bookers whose lives are set to get even more complicated from 2020. With the Bafta Film Awards ceremony moving forward by a week to the first Sunday in February — and this of course being the date by which eligible contenders must be released in UK cinemas — the programming challenge won’t be getting any easier.