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How Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ Makes the Case for Movie Theaters to Build Buzz

This week, director Ben Affleck reunites with longtime collaborator and pal Matt Damon for “Air,” which recounts the history of Nike’s lucrative deal with Michael Jordan that led to the birth of Air Jordans. It’s the kind of commercial behind-the-scenes sports drama that used to ignite the box office years ago — and it’s getting the chance to do that now.

Amazon Studios releases “Air” widely this week, a decision that stands in sharp contrast to another modern period piece that opened last week, the Taron Edgerton-starring “Air,” which AppleTV+ dropped on its service. What’s with the discrepancy? And what value does theatrical still bring to studio-produced dramas?

In this week’s episode of Screen Talk, Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson discuss these different strategies. They also touch on a recent report from Puck about the Academy possibly changing its theatrical requirements for Oscar contenders that could have a negative impact on smaller movies. On the subject of indies, they address some big staff changes in the indie scene, and look ahead to the Cannes lineup.

Listen to the full episode below or watch it above. Check out some of edited highlights from the conversation here.

On the report that the Academy might revise its theatrical qualifications for Oscar contenders (1:30)

Eric Kohn: Anne, let’s break this down. What do we know about the Academy’s plan?

Anne Thompson: It’s under discussion. Bill Kramer, the CEO of the Academy is trying to find ways to bolster theatrical attendance and how to get distributors to do more in the theatrical universe. There are discussions around the idea of increasing the requirement from six cities to more like 15 cities. That’s a big difference. At the moment, you could go day-and-date, you could go for a week and then stop, and you could still qualify.

The issue for this wider release plan is that it’s not a problem for the studios. It’s a problem for independents to come up with the money for that. These arguments are going to be raised and they are going to recognize what the optics are. They don’t want to look like they’re discriminating against the independents, but this is a serious question marks. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” opened in 10 markets.

Kohn: But if A24 had to open in 15 markets, they would.

Thompson: So this is more about what happens to “Drive My Car” or even “Parasite,” which got to a lot of markets — eventually.

Kohn: These were platform releases. A company like Sideshow that released “Drive My Car” is very committed to a theatrical rollout. They understand it can be more valuable for a movie to open in fewer markets, drive word of mouth, then slowly expand. So maybe you should be able to show that you will hit 15 markets in X amount of time — say, within the first three months of the release.

“Drive My Car”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Thompson: I suspect that will be fine. But a lot of theaters right now are not being very forgiving about movies that don’t perform in the first week of release. And they remove them from release. The old-school Sony Pictures Classics release leaves the movie in the theaters for months, but that’s much more difficult to do now. It’s going to be very challenging for the IFCs of the world to pass this test.

But the salvo here is really against Netflix. “Air” is a wide release from Amazon and Apple has indicated that they’re going to take a theatrical route. So the company that this is squarely aimed at is Netflix. I object to the idea. Netflix has its own model. Let Netflix have its own model.

Kohn: Netflix will probably play ball, even if they don’t do it in a really aggressive way. They don’t have to spend a lot of money to hit those markets.

Thompson: I think the real risk would be [if] Netflix would withdraw from the awards.

Kohn: I don’t see that happening, after all these years and investment.

Thompson: I don’t know. The idea that they spent reportedly $100 million on the campaign for “All Quiet on the Western Front” to get as far as they did — four Oscars, mostly crafts: Was that worth $100 million?

Kohn: We don’t see real numbers. What are the subscriber acquisition costs baked into this? They can mention these wins on their earnings call. Their market penetration is impacted by the fact that they can essentially have any kind of movies. They have Oscar-friendly movies coming up this year like Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro.” You think “Maestro” won’t open in 15 markets if it has to do that to qualify for the Oscars?

Cannes announces Johnny Depp movie “Jeanne du Barry” as its opening night film (18:50):

Kohn: We’re about a week out from the Cannes lineup dropping. We obviously know a lot of what we think will be there.

Thompson: “Indiana Jones,” “Asteroid City.”

Kohn: And now we know what the opening night film will be. It’s not the short from Pedro Almodovar paired with the posthumous Jean-Luc Godard short film as some people speculated. Unsurprisingly, it is a French film, because Cannes like to support a film opening in French theaters shortly after it plays at Cannes. The film is “Jeanne du Barry,” from Maiwenn,” who has been in competition in the festival with “Polisse” and also served on the jury.

Thompson: She’s an auteur.

Kohn: She also stars — opposite Johnny Depp.

Jeanne du Barry

“Jeanne du Barry”

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

Thompson: That will be a red carpet moment!

Kohn: Imagine if Sundance opened with a Johnny Depp movie. Our culture is so different from France’s. Last year, we heard about him going into production of this movie right after his trial with Amber Heard, which he won but his image was very much tarnished.

Thompson: He came out ahead of her in that trial.

Kohn: But I wonder if he will do the press conference. The stage management of all this will be interesting to see. As for the film, it’s hard to say if it’s any good.

Thompson: Hope springs eternal.

Kohn: I’m more curious about Woody Allen, because we keep hearing these rogue reports of people who have seen his film “Coup de Chance.” It’s entirely in French. It has French distribution. There are reports that it’s good. But he’s in his late 80s and it’s been a while since he made a great movie.

Thompson: For those who think it could be a foreign Oscar submission: there’s no way France puts in a Woody Allen movie.

Kohn: No, because they want to get nominated. France hasn’t been winning Oscars.

Thompson: Why set yourself up with a hostile Academy votership?

On “Air” getting a theatrical release while “Tetris” did not (24:10):

Thompson: “Air” is the Nike story that Ben Affleck picked up to direct and stars his best friend Matt Damon. It’s a delightful, spirited, ‘80s sports movie.

Kohn: It’s very old-school.

Thompson: It’s all about the Damon character fighting for his belief that Michael Jordan is the guy that they should back. Phil Knight has to come up with the money. Everybody’s good in it: Chris Messina, Chris Tucker. It’s very entertaining. It’s going to do like $16 million for five days. It’s going to build word of mouth. It will have the benefit of building box office credibility.



Apple TV+

Whereas “Tetris” is not a flashy or as fabulous but really good doesn’t get the benefit of theatrical. It’s on AppleTV+. Taron Edgerton doesn’t get the benefit of the box office. I think he carries this movie amazingly well. He should’ve gotten the credit.

Kohn: But is he a box office draw? Do people know him?

Thompson: He has done well in all those “Kingsman” movies. He didn’t get nominated for the Elton John movie. That was a loss.

Kohn: In any case, it’s a better video game movie than “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”

Thompson: Don’t you think “Tetris” would have done well in theaters? They’re very similar movies about guys trying to get a deal.

Kohn: I thought they were both a bit silly, but fun. “Air” winks and nods a lot. You never see Michael Jordan’s face. “Tetris” is a cheesy Cold War thriller about the game. It’s better than you might think. They’re both period pieces playing off audiences’ collective memory of specific things. Did you play “Tetris,” Anne?

Thompson: I played “Pong.”

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