Why Film Distributors Aren’t Worried About Taylor Swift Cutting Out the Middle Man

“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” is a tour de force. The concert film, produced by Tay’s own team, bypassed major distributors in favor of AMC, (legally) charged whatever Swift wanted for tickets ($19.89), and put a ton of money in the singer’s pocket: Swift negotiated a 57 percent cut of the revenue that would normally go to a distributor.

With roughly $125 million in worldwide box office after opening weekend, should traditional film distributors be worried about going the way of Scooter Braun? Chill; there are not many who “have the appeal that [Swift] has,” Richard Abramowitz, a veteran of the event-cinema space with his indie distributor Abramorama, told IndieWire.

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As unique as Swift’s example may seem, it’s happened before and it’s likely to happen again. Abramowitz pointed to a release he did for the 2011 documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty.” Abramorama “did not spend a penny” in advertising, he said, and still sold out 50 theaters for a single showtime. That was all Pearl Jam’s built-in fanbase, and available showtimes on the band’s website sold out within an hour. However, when “Pearl Jam Twenty” expanded to a traditional run it made $471,000. Not exactly Swift’s scale.

Swift’s movie has been far more disruptive. The announcement blindsided studios, stole screens and release dates, and generally irked industry executives — and all of that was before preview showings were added at the 11th hour. Studio distribution executives we spoke with say they are taking note of how AMC is bowing to Swift. They won’t soon forget it.

But really, what can they do? Swift is a one-of-one one-off. (A “unicorn” was the word of choice in our conversations with multiple distribution executives.) What “The Eras Tour” is doing — without a full-on P&A campaign — is beyond even Beyoncé’s reach.

Distributors almost got a piece of Swift.

Two separate studio distribution executives IndieWire spoke to confirmed that Swift explored the more traditional distribution route before going with AMC. The specifics of her deal haven’t been made public (AMC did not respond for a request for comment), but distribution sources said AMC agreed to a fairly standard box-office revenue share between exhibitor and distributor. In this case, Swift is getting nearly the full cut that would normally go to multiple third parties; it’s math that just couldn’t work with a major distributor.

Swift’s payday is likely to be highly front-loaded. Distributors we spoke with expect to see a fairly steep drop-off in ticket sales for “The Eras Tour.” While the pre-sale numbers are extremely desirable, there is a question of staying power. The Swifties’ revenue was pretty much accounted for weeks ago, which may explain the relatively weak returns from the Thursday previews.

You know, assuming the math checks out. One distributor we spoke with was anticipating a few hiccups from AMC’s box-office reporting. Variance Films, the distributor handling logistics for AMC (its website touts helping stars “remove the middleman”), has never before released a movie as widely as “Eras Tour.” Part of the reason to rely on a major distributor is because they have the infrastructure to ensure smoothness, this source said, adding that this could be an accounting nightmare based on scale alone. (Variance declined to comment on this story.)

Still, distributors, studios, and exhibitors are wise to take the bad in exchange for some good. If teens and older crowds that don’t normally go to the theater show up for “Eras,” buy concessions, and have a good time, the AMCs and Cinemarks of the world may soon see them again.

And dancing in the aisles alongside those theater owners are event-cinema executives.

“Our phone’s been ringing off the hook from content providers, because, ‘Oh! We can do something besides just a traditional film in movie theaters?’ Ray Nutt, CEO of Fathom Events told IndieWire. “Honest to God, after being in the industry this long, when you have something this big, it’s gonna translate to good things.”

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