How concert films became big business (again)

It’s a Wednesday night in October, and the mall belongs to Taylor Swift. The Grove, one of Los Angeles’ most popular high-end shopping centres, has been shut down all day in preparation for a very special film première. Or rather, premières. When Taylor Swift takes over a cinema, she doesn’t use one screen. She uses 13.

For some of those in attendance, tonight is their first chance to witness a multi-faceted stage spectacular they’ve previously been unable to see in person. For others, it’s an opportunity to relive what might just have been the best night of their lives. Together, they sing. They hoot and they holler. The aisles fill with dancers. “It was like being back at the tour!” says Chloe, a dedicated Swiftie who was invited to attend the screening. “I loved it so much! Taylor is always so dedicated to her fans and to her craft. All she wants to do is satisfy the fans, and she does it every single time!”

Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Credit: John Shearer/Getty Images for TAS

When Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour was officially released the following day, you could find perfectly satisfied Swift fans singing their hearts out at cinemas across the planet. In the US, The Eras Tour racked up $96 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend alone, smashing the previous concert film record of $73 million set by Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never back in 2010. The following weekend it held firm at top spot, beating Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and in the process becoming the first concert film in history to spend two consecutive weeks at the pinnacle of the cinematic box office.

That kind of success is hard to ignore, especially for Swift’s fellow pop stars. They’ve taken particular note of her canny business decision to steer clear of the major film studios and do a deal directly with US cinema chain AMC. “Honestly, I think that’s kind of a game changer,” says BoxOffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins, who notes that at the start of December Beyoncé will follow suit by releasing her hotly-anticipated Renaissance concert film straight to AMC theatres.

“This comes at a time when studios have had to shut down productions because of the strikes, and that’s impacted release schedules,” explains Robbins. “Theatres know very well from the pandemic that they have to think outside the box, and if that involves going outside of the studio system then clearly it can work.”

For cinemas stuck with a threadbare list of coming attractions, the idea of filling their seats (and emptying their concession stands) thanks to hordes of music fans has an obvious appeal. It’s not hard to see the attraction for major touring artists, either. If you’ve already sunk a huge amount of creative energy (and production costs) into putting together a memorable show, why not stick it on film, make your fans happy and get paid all over again?

As Swift has proved, the speed of modern technology means a gorgeous, slickly shot concert film can be on the screen even while the tour itself is still on the road – and it can compete with Hollywood’s finest when it gets there. “It’s been a blockbuster performance that was really created out of thin air,” Robbins points out. “This movie didn’t really exist a couple of months ago, or if it did nobody knew about it. That automatically makes it different from anything else that has come before it and gone on to make this kind of money.”

Credit: A24

Globe-straddling artists like Harry Styles and even Bruce Springsteen could well be tempted to take advantage with films of their most-recent mega tours, while earlier this year Coldplay’s Music of the Spheres tour was broadcast live from Argentina’s River Plate to cinemas in 81 countries (a live transmission record). As well as those usual suspects, don’t be surprised to see a glut of new films from veteran artists playing spectacular concerts in front of particularly scenic backdrops (perhaps to distract from the fact they’re no longer playing Swift-sized stadiums). This month Billy Idol: State Line will come to cinemas for one night only, featuring the bleach-haired rocker performing in front of (and on) the Hoover Dam; in December, Duran Duran will release concert doc A Hollywood High, which includes footage of them performing on an LA rooftop right in front of the city’s famed Capitol Records Building.

It’s not just current stars looking to take advantage of vacant cinema screens. Classic concert films are also finding their way back to theatres, most notably Talking Heads’ seminal 1984 film Stop Making Sense which celebrated its upcoming 40th anniversary with a landmark restoration by indie film titans A24. For hardcore fans like Chris Apthomas, known as the ‘Welsh David Byrne’ for his work fronting Talking Heads tribute band Speaking In Tongues, it’s a chance to be reminded of what attracted them to it in the first place. “The film was visually very striking, the music was cerebral and danceable, and it was clear the band were all enjoying themselves,” says Apthomas, whose band have announced a series of 2024 dates at which they will recreate parts of the film. “The development of the band was mirrored by the build up from solo to full band, and David Byrne is a very original front man who had a unique style of singing and dancing, which is fun to imitate.”

For younger fans, however, this re-release could well be their first introduction to the genius of Talking Heads live (not to mention David Byrne’s much-imitated, never-bettered big suit). According to The Hollywood Reporter, nearly 60 percent of the audience during Stop Making Sense’s opening weekend was under 35, with many not yet born when the group split in the early 1990s. It was those new fans who spurred the film’s impressive $4 million opening weekend take, and Robbins believes that success could drive a new trend.

“It’ll be interesting to see if we get more re-releases like that,” he says. “Certainly a lot of iconic bands and artists have filmed either concert films or more traditional documentaries over the last few decades. Some are probably going to have more potential than others, but at the end of the day every little bit helps. Theatrical exhibition is looking for anything to fill the gaps caused by the slowdown in big Hollywood releases, and there are a lot of artists like that who could really benefit.”

Next up for re-release is arguably the greatest concert film of them all. Martin Scorsese’s 1978 masterpiece The Last Waltz captures legendary Americana pioneers The Band’s staggering 1976 farewell concert, including guests like Bob Dylan, Dr John, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and, famously, a chemically invigorated Neil Young. The film will be back in cinemas this November to mark its 45th anniversary, which following the passing of The Band’s Robbie Robertson earlier this year could be almost as emotional as The Eras Tour (albeit with fewer friendship bracelets).

Which brings us back to Taylor Swift, who kickstarted this concert film box office trend and may not be finished with it yet. Robbins points out that the phenomenal success of The Eras Tour means the film could itself be due for a re-release a lot sooner than you might think. “It’s going to be in cinemas until the holiday season, when more films are coming out and it’ll be fighting for screen space,” he says. “But who’s to say that in six months or a year from now, after Taylor Swift completely finishes the tour itself, maybe there’ll be a revival of demand from her fans.”

It’s unlikely, then, that the Swifties enraptured by The Eras Tour in the empty mall will have to wait four decades to see it back on the big screen again. And why should they? Anybody who’s seen the film in a theatre full of hardened fans will know how joyous an experience it is, so let’s hope this is a trend that sticks around. If cinemas need an injection of communal energy while Hollywood remains ground to a halt, why not fill the screens with rock’n’roll?

‘Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour’ is out now. Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense’ is playing at the BFI IMAX. ‘Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé’ is released December 1

The post How concert films became big business (again) appeared first on NME.

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