Local cinema attendance was down for the 1st quarter of this year. Here’s why. (And no, it’s not the fault of too many “sequels and franchises”.)

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) having a date at the movies in La La Land.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) having a date at the movies in La La Land.

I read an article in The Straits Times a few days ago, which talked about how local cinema attendance in the first three months of this year dropped 10.4 percent from the same period last year. A few reasons were attributed to it, including slowing economic growth affecting all industries, lack of good movies, and competing sources of entertainment such as Netflix.

My colleague was ranting over the implication of there being a lack of good movies in Singapore, because that is not true. We may not release as many smaller movies and indie titles as in the US, or bring in many non-Chinese, non-Indian foreign films, but most of the notable ones make their way to Singapore eventually. As long as there’s a chance for the movie to do well here, whether it’s through the film achieving critical acclaim, playing well in renowned film festival circuits, or having recognisable stars, someone will be bound to bring it in.

Let’s take a look at the first three months of this year, to analyse why cinema attendance has dropped, and see if declining quality of films screened is the reason. Besides the September to December period, January and February are when great films abound, because it is when most of the films in contention for awards will be released, so they can benefit from the boost that Golden Globes wins and Oscar nominations can give them.

From January to March, there was Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Patriots Day, Elle, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, The Founder and Jackie. Some awards contenders were panned by critics and fell by the wayside, like Live By Night, The Light Between Oceans, Allied and Collateral Beauty. Some were barely in the awards conversation but still very well-reviewed, like Una, Get Out, Split, Silence, Raw and American Honey. On top of that, there were the bigger and more typical Hollywood movies like Logan, Beauty and the Beast, John Wick: Chapter 2, The Lego Batman Movie and Kong: Skull Island — most of which were pretty well-reviewed too. That gives us plenty of good films to enjoy over that three-month period.

Let’s compare it to last year’s first quarter. Last year’s awards season had Joy, The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, The Big Short, Spotlight, Room, The Revenant, Anomalisa, Trumbo and Brooklyn. Films that tried to be but were not in the awards conversation included Our Brand is Crisis, Concussion, Hail, Caeser!, Jane Got a Gun, The Dressmaker and Truth. Blockbusters included Deadpool, Zootopia, Kung Fu Panda 3, Gods of Egypt, London Has Fallen and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

In fact, if you want to talk about big films that severely under-performed, I will argue that last year had more: The 5th Wave, The Finest Hours, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Zoolander 2. This year, it was the smaller films that flopped, like The Space Between Us, Live By Night, A Cure for Wellness and T2: Trainspotting, though bigger films like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, The Lego Batman Movie (a surprise, because it had so many great reviews) and Power Rangers could have done much better.

You also have to understand that just because a film is critically acclaimed, it does not mean that it will do well at the box office. Sometimes the film has too niche of an audience to make its mark, e.g. Una, Jackie, The Founder, Silence, Anomalisa, Brooklyn etc. etc.

Compared to last year, I feel that this year overall had better films, or at least more films that I wanted to watch. So why the downturn in cinema attendance? I would say the blame lies mostly in the crop of Chinese New Year movies this year.

Chinese New Year is a very important period in Singapore for cinema attendance, as that’s when people with absolutely nothing else to do after visiting their relatives — because everywhere is closed — will go to the movies. And the CNY films this year just weren’t up to par. There was Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga, which did great, though still less than last year’s top-grossing Chinese New Year films. There was even xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which came out the week before CNY, and would have benefited from the CNY boost because it’s a fun action film and had Chinese star Donnie Yen in it.

But local films Take 2 and The Fortune Handbook, and the Stephen Chow-produced Journey to the West: The Demon Strikes Back tanked, as did Ben Affleck’s 1920s mob crime drama Live by Night. Last year, CNY had Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, which due to it being the highest-grossing film ever in China with US$526m in China alone, helped propel the box office in other Chinese territories like Singapore, because people read news of its phenomenal success and want to see what the fuss is about. (Even though it looked like a stupid movie to me.) Long Long Time Ago, the first part of two Jack Neo-directed films about Singapore’s nascent days also did pretty well. From Vegas to Macau 3 and The Monkey King 2 had decent earnings too. Despite being depressing as shit and totally inappropriate for the festive season, The Revenant also benefited from opening during CNY, probably because of its critical acclaim, and the fact that everybody’s favourite ’90s heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio looked like he would get his first Oscar for it (things that Live by Night did not have).

In fact, if this year’s Chinese New Year films had performed like they had last year, cinema attendance would probably have been on par, if not better than last year’s. So lack of good movies isn’t the problem, because there were plenty. Unless you’re talking about lack of good Chinese New Year movies that people are keen to watch with their families.

Now, if you talk about *the next quarter* (April to June), I think that is where you can blame Hollywood sequels and franchises. Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, Baywatch, The Mummy and Transformers: The Last Knight have been really disappointing and dragged down the summer box office. The only bright spots have been Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman and Fast & Furious 8. (Despicable Me 3 will probably be added to that list too, because everybody loves the minions, even if I don’t.) Though last year’s April to June was barely better: the only movies that performed according or better than expectations were The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Me Before You, Central Intelligence, Finding Dory and The Conjuring 2.

But you’ll notice that most of these films are *also* sequels and franchises.

So the problem isn’t audiences “probably getting tired of numerous Hollywood sequels and franchises”, as one of the news article’s interviewees says. The problem is lack of GOOD Hollywood sequels and franchises. If this summer had a few more great sequels or franchises such as Star Wars or Jurassic World, it’ll be saved. (That’ll have to wait till next summer. Next summer will be a DOOZY.)

As it is, a lot of highly-anticipated movies with great or expected-to-be-great reviews are coming out in July (Spider-Man: Homecoming, War of the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk), so let’s see how they do. Last year’s July was awful, because Ghostbusters and Alice Through The Looking Glass flopped, while Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne severely underperformed.

Another thing in film industry economics that people have to understand: If you are looking for arthouse fare and indie films, or at the very least smaller, non-blockbuster films, plenty of them are brought into Singapore. But if 20 decently performing indie films earns only the total equivalent of, say, S$4 million (and that is being extremely optimistic), which if earned by Transformers: The Last Knight, would be considered a disappointment, exhibitors are naturally going to favour blockbusters more. They have to. It’s business.

Cinemas and film distributors have to obey the laws of supply and demand. No matter how much they want to support quality films, they’re not charities. Enough people must show up to watch them to make bringing them in a worthwhile venture. Exhibitors can programme films like local Sundance winner Pop Aye, Oscar winner Moonlight, critically acclaimed The Lost City of Z and Colossal during summer all they want (and they did), but if there is very little demand and they keep making losses, they can’t keep supplying them. Simple as that.