The promise of theatrical exhibition in Canada: New Telefilm report on Canadian Movie Consumption

The promise of theatrical exhibition in Canada: New Telefilm report on Canadian Movie Consumption

The Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE) is encouraged that Telefilm is discovering, quantifying and evaluating feature film consumption across the country with the newly-released study Canadian Movie Consumption Exploring the Health of Feature Film in Canada.

There are plenty of excellent learnings in this report which can be applied by independent exhibitors immediately, through better understanding audience types, thinking strategically about how audiences make a decision to see a film, the kinds of films that motivate people to leave the comfort of their home, and more.

The first step to any progress is finding the benchmark: We’re confident this temperature check will provide a great set of criteria against which to assess audience growth.

Key takeaways for NICE include:

  • The younger audience is out there and enthusiastic to see films.
  • There is significant room for theatrical exhibitors to support audience growth for Canadian film.
  • High quality  trailers and more strategic trailer deployment could do a significant amount to support Canadian film.
  • Canadians want to see films in cinemas almost twice as much as they actually went this past year. The barriers keeping them from being more engaged and discovering new films theatrically could be addressed through policy changes: Empowering Canadian cinemas to program their own screens freely, serving the audiences they know best. 
  • Concern regarding ‘experience cost’ is listed multiple times as a primary reason to watch films at home. We may soon see a change in calibration: Streaming is becoming more expensive and complicated for the consumer, and cinemas are historically recession-proof as a relatively low-cost recreational activity. Independent cinemas are sensitive to the financial realities of their communities, and set their prices accordingly.
  • The barriers keeping Canadian audiences from going to the cinema as much as they would like directly contribute to the barriers keeping Canadian audiences from watching Canadian films in cinema. We see great promise in addressing both at the same time. 

NICE is excited to work with Telefilm and partners across the industry to close the gaps that are keeping Canadian films from being seen by Canadian audiences.

Canadians are watching movies, but not in cinemas as often as they’d like

The top-line summary from the report is that “95% of Canadians are watching feature films in some form. Though there is plenty of appetite for theatrical attendance, myriad factors are keeping movie watchers from going to theatres more often, including cost, the type of content playing, and the vast library of content accessible at home.”

“Currently, 98% of feature film consumption is happening at home, with streaming services and broadcast TV satiating movie watchers’ entertainment needs.”

How to get Canadians back in cinemas—and watching Canadian films

It is a wonderful thing to know that there is an audience out there that is eager to watch more films in cinema.

“Ideally, moviegoers would attend twice as many movies theatrically as they did in the past year. Younger moviegoers are closer to reaching their ideal level of attendance” (p. 38).

In this study, NICE sees significant overlap between the listed reasons that Canadians are not watching more films in cinema (p. 38), and the reasons that Canadians are choosing to not watch English language Canadian films in cinema (p. 18). We see these two issues in cohort, and are eager to close the gap.

Addressing pinch points

Content Concerns (theatrical, p. 40) and Greater Content Availability (Canadian film, p. 21):

The US has Alamo Drafthouse, the UK has Curzon Cinemas—but Canada does not have a boutique, mid-size chain that offers an alternative to the traditional multiplex experience. The reason why is not that Canadians are any less business-savvy or cinephilic; the reason is that there are structural barriers keeping cinemas from showing the films that they know their audience will love, thereby limiting these cinemas’ growth by creating an unfair cap on box office potential. 

Independent cinemas are very keyed into the content concerns of their audience, and want to serve their interests. In turn, audiences trust their local cinemas. In order to create a fair marketplace and a national box office that represents the results of competition and flexible programming, we must:

  • Eliminate ‘zones’ and allow independent cinemas to book films at the same time as multiplexes.
  • Limit studio demands and empower cinemas to schedule their own screens in a way that maximizes box office for the entire film ecosystem and creates opportunity for Canadian film.

With greater flexibility and a more attractive business model in Canada, we would see more independent cinemas representing different communities. Today, we can see the promise of this in the enormous box office success of South Asian films, which could certainly by serviced by more screens. If Canadian audiences are reporting that the content they seek is not on big screens, then that could be addressed through a greater diversity of cinemas.

Rising Costs (theatrical, p. 40) and Cost Savings (Canadian film, p. 21):

Streaming is becoming more expensive and complicated for the consumer. Bundling, add-ons and various subscription models spell the end of streaming being the de facto cheaper alternative.

Cinemas are historically recession-proof as a relatively low-cost recreational activity.

Independent cinemas are sensitive to the financial realities of their communities, and set their prices accordingly.

Additionally, streamers are moving to theatrical as a way to better market their titles and see box office revenue. For example, “a big hit in theaters, like Top Gun: Maverick, makes more money for everyone involved than a movie released online. Tom Cruise will make more than $100 million from that movie, according to people familiar with his deal. That is more than any star has ever made for a streaming movie” (Lucas Shaw, Screentime, February 2023, Bloomberg).

Personal Comfort (theatrical, p. 40), Time Constraints (theatrical, p. 40) and Comfort and Convenience (Canadian film, p. 21): 

The non-competitive film booking practices which hold back Canadian cinemas from programming for their audience, also make it harder for cinemas to address barriers like personal comfort, time constraints and comfort and convenience. 

If cinemas were free to program films that make sense for them and their audience, the entire business proposition would change. Additional revenue would allow cinemas to increase their investment in adding screens, and improving amenities, making their theatrical experience more comfortable. Likewise, there would simply be more cinemas, making access to films and time constraints less of an obstacle.

The Calibre of Canadian Films (Canadian film, p. 21):

When it comes to supporting Canadian film, especially English language Canadian film, we find some great hints of a solution in the section on Sources of Information and Drivers of Attendance (p. 23). Canadian films need strong trailers and marketing materials to broaden their audiences and cross cultural divides.

Story and genre aside, the film’s cast is listed as the most persuasive factor when deciding to see a film theatrically. Assets like trailers are important to bolster the star system in English language Canadian film.

In many cases, marketing materials for Canadian films are quite limited. NICE suggests that trailers and marketing materials should be made available at least eight weeks in advance of the release date, building audience interest in seeing Canadian films theatrically. Canadian exhibitors would ideally be given incentive to allocate more screen time to Canadian trailers.

It’s also important to note that “Québécois are more likely to prefer seeing Canadian/Québécois films in theatres, regardless of what language they are shot in.” NICE sees an opportunity here to build audiences for French language Canadian films in English language Canadian markets.

Again, we run into the issues of zones and studio demands standing in the way of Canadian independent cinemas showing the kinds of Canadian films that their audience might be most interested to see. A simple policy proposal would be to privilege Canadian films: No rule, written or unwritten, could keep a cinema from showing a Canadian film in the showtime(s) of their choice.

Long live cinema!

Overall, NICE is delighted to see data tracking Canadian film-going audiences. We look forward to growing a thriving, exciting—and yes, affordable!—marketplace of independent exhibitors that can better serve our communities.

Photo credit: Hot Docs / photographer Gabriel Li