Cineworld is saved – but can Hollywood deliver the stories it needs to thrive?

The world’s struggling cinemas may need something more than the current diet of franchises and sequels to keep ticket sales up

James Moore
Saturday 08 April 2023 13:39 BST

If only Hollywood could still tell stories like Mooky Greidinger, the boss of the beleaguered Cineworld chain.

The company has managed to stitch together a deal with its lenders in which they’ve agreed to refinance it and take stakes in return for reducing its multi-billion pound debt mountain. The existing shareholders – including Greidinger’s family – are being wiped out as a result.

That didn’t stop him trumpeting the agreement as “a vote of confidence in our business”. Which is one way of telling it. Another is that the group’s lenders were unable to find a buyer with anything like the same amount of confidence as regards the UK, Irish and US businesses (the latter was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy). So they didn’t have much choice.

Greidinger may soon be on his way if reports are to be believed. He, nonetheless, talked excitedly about the potential of “a summer of blockbusters”.

I’m not so sure I share his sunny optimism. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes’ list of most anticipated movies of 2023, I don’t see an Avatar: the Way of Water, or a Top Gun: Maverick among this year’s franchise heavy slate. You may recall that they were the films that “saved cinema” last year.

Worryingly, for cinema operators, Marvel also seems to have lost its magic touch. Phase Five of the previously all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was launched with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. It is the top-grossing film of the year so far, but its $473m global on a $200m budget still ranks as a disappointment. Its 2018 predecessor, opened to rather less fanfare, raked in $622m, having cost quite a bit less to make.

A friend of mine, similarly geeky, said: “You know, I’m getting tired of Marvel. I don’t think I’d care if they released another film.”

It’s just possible that the oft-predicted superhero fatigue is finally setting in. If Ant-Man stumbled, Shazam! Fury of the Gods fell flat on its face for DC (which has a much spottier record). It has so far limped in with $120m in ticket sales, barely covering its reported production costs. That’s a certified bust given the promotional outlay this sort of film typically incurs. Will the forthcoming The Flash similarly flop? Can Blue Beetle crawl up the box office charts later in the year? Get set for some uncomfortable conversations at Warner Bros if he can’t.

As for the MCU, maybe the third Guardians of the Galaxy film can put the train back on the tracks. But the hard fact is that these films no longer look like the sure things they once were.

So what else have Mookie and his team got to look forward to? The live action The Little Mermaid? Critics have (rightly) been sniffy about Disney’s remakes of its animated properties, but the movie-going public have paid up. Thing is, it’s probably going to be on Disney Plus, soon within a few weeks of its release. So it’s going to need to live up to the hype to get people to turn out. Then what? Greta Gerwig’s Barbie? Fast X? “Indiana Jones and the Zimmer Frame of Power”?

Can anyone see a billion-dollar gross?

I love cinema to the extent that I drove around London to find a showing of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery after finding the lift was bust where my wife and I had intended to see it (I use a wheelchair). Even though I subscribe to Netflix. It proved worth seeing on the large screen, too.

I’ll happily sit through a three-hour subtitled affair in a tiny arthouse joint one night and then a blockbuster at a multiplex the next if the latter is good enough. I’m even prepared to set aside my (grave) misgivings about spending part of the holiday weekend in front of an animated Super Mario outing, because my daughter’s keen and that’s good enough for me.

But here’s the thing, Hollywood has been putting franchises first for some time now, sacrificing storytelling in the process. Perhaps the punters have started to take note.

Cinema operators are already grappling with the vanishing middle, as I’ve written previously. The number of mid-sized films, which will gross maybe £2m–£20m in UK terms, has tumbled. They are increasingly fodder for the streamers. This has left cinemas bereft of inventory. You can just about live with that when the returns from the blockbusters are healthy, as they were last year, when Maverick and Avatar played to packed houses. But in their absence…

Hollywood’s best Chris (Pine) warmed a few cockles, and hearts, with the help of an Owlbear in the first watchable adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons. Radically, the makers of Honour Among Thieves said they weren’t thinking in terms of franchise when they started out on the project. They just tried to create a good movie, with a sense of fun. And it worked. Who knew?

The next cinema-saving franchise? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first Shazam was similarly fun, but its sequel showed that catching lightning in a bottle second time around is a tough ask. Blasé movie-goers are starting to get tired of sequels.

Greidinger reckons the deal he’s stitched together “significantly advances Cineworld towards achieving its long-term strategy in a changing entertainment environment”.

Mookie, as I’ve said, can spin a story. He tells us that Cineworld is “poised to continue offering moviegoers the most immersive cinema experiences and maintain its position as the ‘Best Place to Watch a Movie’”.

He or his successor could do with studio execs taking their heads out of their Owlbear-sized you-know-whats for that story to come true.

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