There probably isn’t a top director or star who doesn’t envy Taylor Swift for doing an end-run around the Hollywood studio system and teaming directly with AMC Theatres to bring her new concert movie to the big screen. That way, she could be in the driver’s seat, versus having a studio or indie distributor tell her how to market and distribute her concert film.
Taylor Swift: Eras Tour is certainly an unqualified win after opening to a record $92.8 million domestically and $123.5 million globally over the Oct. 13-15 weekend. It is already the top-grossing concert film of all time in North America, as well as ranking as the second-biggest October domestic debut, not adjusted for inflation.
But questions linger as to why Eras Tour came in behind an expected $100 million opening in North America and $150 million globally, and whether it left millions on the table as a result of its unorthodox release rollout. Some point to the unusual messaging around the movie (such as Swift and AMC encouraging fans to dance and sing while they watch the two-hour and 48-minute movie). There are also concerns that independent theater circuits were kept in the dark regarding key decisions because of AMC’s unique role as both distributor and exhibitor. One thing is fairly certain — Swift and her team were the masterminds behind every move. Another given — there’s bound to be sour grapes on the part of studios, who could have commanded a distribution fee of anywhere from 8 percent to 15 percent.
“It’s hard to balk at a $90 million opening. I think it’s great for the industry, and it’s great for AMC, but there was money left on the table by not having professionals handle it,” says one studio executive.
David Herrin, founder of movie research firm The Quorum, disagrees and says Eras Tour is an unqualified success. “Even if the film had the full marketing resources of a studio, I’m not sure the audience would have grown. It’s a finite audience, and I feel like she got them all.”
The Music news spoke to theater and distribution insiders to dissect some of the lessons learned from Eras Tour.
When Swift and AMC Theatres announced the concert movie on Aug. 31, some consumers may have assumed AMC was carrying Eras Tour exclusively. In her original Instagram post revealing the news about the Eras Tour movie, Swift tagged AMC (the post has since been edited and no longer has the AMC hashtag).
This theory was borne out immediately when advance ticket sales in the U.S. crossed $37 million in the first 24 hours for AMC and fellow mega-chains Regal and Cinemark. AMC’s share was $26 million, a record.
“It was pretty clear that only the top three circuits had full knowledge and were able to have their tickets on sale from the get-go,” says a source at a top independent circuit. “And that left basically every other circuit in America having to scramble and rewrite their schedules, reset their planning for the coming months and then also have the stress of what if we put tickets on sale and the website melts down. So, it was a gift from AMC, but it was also a complicated one and one that was certainly advantageous to them.”
AMC was happy to boast that its U.S. locations commanded an unprecedented 41.5 percent of market share on opening weekend, compared to the usual 22 to 25 percent.
“They [AMC] positioned this movie as an exclusive, which is something you never want to do. As a distributor, they cost themselves sales overall. A studio is agnostic as to who is selling the tickets,” says one Hollywood distribution veteran.
Sold Out! (But Not Really)
A week before Eras opened, AMC issued a press release announcing that worldwide advance presales climbed past $100 million across all circuits. This may have created the misconception that a consumer wouldn’t be able to obtain a ticket for opening weekend. (Disney’s marketing machine faced a similar issue with Star Wars: The Force Awakens and went out of its way to get the message out that there were still plenty of seats.)
The exhibition source says ticket sales for Eras Tour began plateauing noticeably around the same time. “You’d expect a movie that sold that many tickets to angle upwards, but it was so front-loaded. So, with concert films, the demand is structured like a concert where so much happens [when tickets first go on sale] that it’s top-heavy in a way. We’ve certainly got plenty of tickets sold for the next few weeks. But since it’s not behaving like a normal movie, it’s tough to know how it will do.”
Nonrefundable Tickets Irk Swifties
Eras Tour was originally set to premiere at 6 p.m. local time on Oct. 13 (Swift’s lucky number is 13). Late in the day on Oct. 11, just before heading to the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles, Swift revealed that the movie would instead begin playing at 6 p.m. on Oct. 12 thanks to sky-high demand. Some Swifties quickly took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to complain that they couldn’t switch their tickets from Friday night to Thursday without paying twice. (No one can remember another case where a movie ticket was nonrefundable.)
“Some of those [Thursday] shows did OK, and some were a ghost town. You’ve got all these fans who bought tickets to what they thought was the first show [and] a lot of them were going to wind up in a pretty quiet theater. It was framed as if [Taylor Swift] just decided that day, but I’d be shocked if that was the case,” says the exhibition source.
The Thursday shows generated $2.8 million in grosses, compared to $22 million in previews for Barbie. The traditional play pattern for a studio event pic like Barbie goes like this: host Thursday evening previews before expanding everywhere on Friday morning. If a studio was distributing Eras, it’s unlikely they would agree to a Friday start time of 6 p.m.
“I know the early shows didn’t hurt the ultimate gross, but it didn’t bring goodwill for the theaters. They were caught off guard,” says the studio distributor, noting that cinemas had to ramp up Thursday staffing at the last minute.
Leave the Dancing to Us
Swift’s fan base includes plenty of adults, yet only 18 percent of those turning out to see Eras Tour over opening weekend were 35 and older, including 9 percent 45 and older. According to a Morning Concert poll conducted in March, Gen Xers (ages 43-58) accounted for 21 percent of those identifying themselves as Swift fans, and Baby Boomers (ages 59-68) 23 percent.
Also, the audience was 79 percent female and 70 percent white, according to PostTrak, causing some to wonder if a broader audience might have been reached if a studio had conducted a traditional marketing campaign. This particularly applies to the gender breakdown, since 48 percent of Swift’s fans are males, according to Morning Consult (74 percent of her fan base is white, per the pollster). “It basically played to younger white females,” says another studio distribution source. “We could have done things marketing-wise to get more people.”
The singer, as well as AMC, encouraged fans to dance and sing as much as they wanted. Pictures of such activity over opening weekend quickly spread on social media. But some moviegoers weren’t so happy with the rowdy environs and took to social media to express their displeasure. “Older adults in particular may have been put off by this and decided to skip seeing it,” says the studio executive.
Playing the Parlor Game (or Managing Expectations)
Several weeks before a movie is released, various tracking services put out their projections for opening weekend. Hollywood studios are notorious for low-balling a film’s projected opening in case it doesn’t match tracking. In the case of Eras Tour, it was the opposite situation. AMC went out with a domestic estimate of $100 million, while at least one major tracking service was far more conservative in suggesting $75 million. (To be fair to AMC, most thought it would do $110 million to $125 million domestically based on advance ticket sales.)
Distribution executives understand the discrepancy now: There was virtually no walk-up business throughout the weekend. “In the case of Barbie, I went to see it even though I didn’t play with it as a kid nor was she in my orbit. But I wanted to see what Great Gerwig did with the property. That sense of discovery is missing in a concert film,” says Herrin.
All eyes are now on how Eras Tour performs in its second weekend. Most expect it to triumph over Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which opens Friday. If it falls off precipitously, it will prove another lesson for the industry and for AMC’s foray into distribution, which includes releasing Beyoncé’s upcoming concert film, Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, on Dec. 1.
“There will be more of these within the next year as everyone tries to get the same sort of money. In the grand scheme of things, I’m certainly glad it happened because it was a gift of a big first-run number that gets people in the theater. But I think there’s a lot to be learned and to consider in the weeks and months to come,” says the exhibition source.
Adds Comscore’s chief box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, “The extra near-$100 million domestic box office added to the bottom line by the Swift concert film will ultimately be viewed as worth the stress caused by this weekend’s unprecedented and unique release.”