It’s another good day for Taylor Swift. Having turned live music on its head with her Eras concerts, the singer has now lobbed a bombshell into the American movie business. Out of the blue on Thursday, she announced via social media that a big screen presentation of the Eras tour would be coming to US cinemas beginning October 13.
It was a cruel late summer surprise for the big Hollywood studios. Cinema websites across the United States immediately crashed as Swifties booked $30 million in advance tickets (smashing the previous record of $16 million set by Marvel’s Avengers). Such is the continued strain on websites there are fears that it could impact the box office for Denzel Washington’s new Equalizer movie this weekend. The system can’t handle all these Swifties simultaneously.
But while the demand to see Eras on the big screen is no surprise, the real shock is how the deal was done. Swift has bypassed the traditional Hollywood studios and their distribution networks and allied with the embattled AMC cinema chain. The negotiations were super-hush-hush. The first the studios heard of it was when Swift announced the movie on social media on Thursday.
In the ensuing chaos, Universal Pictures shunted forward the release of its Exorcist reboot, Exorcist: Believer, by a week. “Look what you made me do,” tweeted producer Jason Blum. Not even the devil himself can stand between Swift and her fans.
Swift has a history of playing by her own rules. She famously boycotted Spotify for three years in protest at its freemium model (only to put her catalogue back up the day nemesis Katy Perry released a new album). And her “Taylor’s Version” project is an ongoing act to re-assert ownership over her early catalogue, which she claims was sold out from under her by her original record label. She’s also been at the forefront of extracting maximum value from the concert-going public via the eye-watering concert prices for the Eras tour, where VIP packages are going for upwards of £500.
Even by Swift’s standards, though, her latest move is unusually audacious. Over the summer, as the Eras tour was playing to tens of thousands of fans across America, Swift’s father, Scott Swift (a former Merrill Lynch vice-president), contacted the AMC cinema chain.
According to Puck’s Matt Belloni, the Swift Camp had a straightforward proposal for the struggling chain, which lost $235.5 million in the first quarter of 2023 alone. They wanted to team up with AMC boss Adam Aron to release the two-and-a-half-hour Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour in cinemas. AMC would screen the movies – and also act as distributor. It was the equivalent of Taylor Swift contacting record stores directly and asking them to stock her vinyl, without involving record labels. She wasn’t just bypassing the middle-man. She was blasting the middle-man into high orbit.
Plans were already in place to shoot the movie at Swift’s six nights at the Los Angeles 100,000 capacity So-Fi Stadium in August: the pop star would pay the estimated $10-$20 million cost out of her pocket and retain ownership of the film. All AMC had to do was help get it out into the world by booking it into their cinemas and distributing it to independent chains. In total, it is expected the film will launch on 4,000 screens in October. It may also screen in Imax – which could negatively impact Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (its producers likewise scrambling for those limited Imax slots).
Look what you made me do.
The Exorcist: Believer moves to 10/6/23#TaylorWins
— Jason Blum (@jason_blum) August 31, 2023
After unsatisfactory negotiations with the studios, the Swifts decided to turn to AMC. Swift wants the concert movie to be released as quickly as possible. Doing so would capitalise on the buzz around the tour. The screenings feel like an event. She is also said to be mindful that many of her young fans have missed out on tickets – and that a concert movie is a very decent (and cheaper) second best.
Hollywood didn’t see it that way. The European leg of the tour has yet to kick off, and Swift will be back for further North American dates later next year. They wanted to put the concert movie on the long finger – to release it after the Eras dates had run their course.
Swift wasn’t prepared to wait. Nor did she need any help with marketing – the traditional leverage the studios can apply when working with filmmakers and producers. All she had to do was go on Twitter, announce the films and send the Swift-verse into meltdown.
Swift will make millions from the film. But the feeling in the industry is that she could have made much more and is actually leaving cash on the table. Studios usually take 70 per cent of the box office, with the rest going to the cinemas. The Swift deal is structured differently: the cinemas will receive 43 per cent, with the rest going to AMC, as a distributor, and to Swift. The cinemas will also keep merchandise revenue sold at screenings – a figure potentially running into millions. Swift could have driven a harder bargain. However, she wanted the movie out as quickly as possible.
The arrival of a Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe is the last thing Hollywood needed. The Barbenheimer phenomenon had given the industry a rare moment of good news. But instead of capitalising on it, executives declared war on its creative community by allowing the actors and writers’ guilds to strike.
With film production halted studios are already pushing back releases when they should be making the most of the goodwill generated by Barbie and Oppenheimer. For instance, the second of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movies has been delayed until next year – a move that will cause huge damage to AMC and other chains desperate for cash flow.
The lesson is: nobody understands modern entertainment quite like Taylor Swift. Barbenheimer showed people will go to the cinema if they feel they are participating in a communal experience. Hollywood refused to take advantage of this. So Swift has instead. For Swift fans frustrated at the scarcity of tickets to her live shows, an Eras Tour movie will be a surprise autumn treat. But for Hollywood, it’s another reminder of the industry’s head-long rush into irrelevance. It’s hard to feel sorry for Hollywood moguls at the best times. Up against Swift, though, they truly are the anti-hero.