This might sound silly after weeks of hype over the supposed game-changing nature of “Taylor Swift The Eras Tour” for theaters, but there is a case to be made that how Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Paramount) performs in theaters might actually prove to be more important when it comes to the future of the theatrical business.

That has to do with a range of reasons — the most important of which relates to Apple, the major streamer that produced the film, choosing to prioritize theatrical play, at least initially. Add to that a combination of top studio handling and a near-maximum release (over 3,600 theaters, including most IMAX and many other premium screens) and other key elements in the film and we have the making of a very interesting weekend ahead.

Starting with the theatrical push, here’s what industry observers will be watching for:

If this is perceived as a success, its theatrical/streaming model could be a template

“Flower Moon” is not the first streamer-based film with serious awards and similar ambitions to play theaters ahead of home play for subscribers. “Manchester by the Sea” predates this by seven years, but that was at a time when Amazon had little choice but to hold to a 75-day window after distribution overseen by Roadside Attractions.

Since then, Netflix has run this race with “Roma,” “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “Don’t Look Up,” and “The Power of the Dog,” all of which earned Oscar Best Picture nominations following a few weeks in theaters first. (Of note: Apple’s “CODA,” Netflix’s “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah” all had COVID-era releases, while last year’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” managed to get into contention with low-impact play.)

“Flower Moon” is different. It will have, by far, the widest (and most conventional) opening of any of those titles, in no small part because major chains now have agreed to play films produced or acquired by streamers under some conditions (the potential of the film, its window, the perception of normal marketing).

This is an expensive film, with a reported $200 million budget. There will be three ways for Apple to judge its success: earnings worldwide from theaters, how much this exposure aids interest on their site (and thus adds subscribers), and how Apple’s handling of the film (from creation to marketing to rollout) is perceived by potential creative partners.

THE IRISHMAN, from left: Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, Robert De Niro, 2019. © Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection
“The Irishman”©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Netflix has used theaters as little more than a launching pad and to satisfy the desire of some of its top directors. Its brief run of Rian Johnson’s sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” last year seemed more like an obligation to the filmmaker (the first film had been a massive hit in theaters) than a sign of the streamer’s interest in getting involved in the theatrical landscape.

Netflix’s previous similar theater launches, mostly with no top chain support, had two- to four-week play before they headed to streaming. Scorsese’s previous effort, Netflix’s “The Irishman,” played around 500 theaters ultimately, with our estimate that it grossed around $7 million in the U.S./Canada.

A key element here will be how long “Flower Moon” waits to stream on Apple. Sources suggest that date has not been determined pending release, but it likely will be delayed until December. That would be longer than earlier similar releases. Apple also has Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” with a November 22 opening in theaters via Sony and later streaming, on the way. But figure Netflix and Amazon will also look closely at results for future release strategies and studio/streamer partnership. Consider this a key test.

Initial prospects for the film

The near-time results themselves are a mystery. Could it be #1, versus the second “Eras Tour” weekend? But ranking is not critical here, as we are currently clueless about how steep the drop will be for the Swift concert documentary. It’s all a matter of perspective: If “Eras Tour” falls 66 percent, it will still gross $31 million, while a $25-30 million opening for “Flower Moon” would be decent.

Serious adult dramas, before even getting into its length (26 minutes longer than “Oppenheimer”) are tricky to project. Tracking suggests a gross for “Flower Moon” as much as $30 million, but pre-sales outside of big city locations don’t.

This is one film where the gross could be slower to build. Older viewers, and perhaps the need for audience reaction, might reduce first weekend interest. Long-term projections vary widely, with our sources ranging from $70 million to over $130 million.

Five Nights at Freddy's
“Five Nights at Freddy’s”Universal

The importance of the timing for theaters

It was great that “Eras Tour” filled a first-half October vacuum, but the next four weeks will see the release of three very different films whose success would be even more helpful.

Apart from “Flower Moon,” Universal’s horror entry “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (October 27) and Disney’s “The Marvels” (November 10) have decent potential. Good or better performances from all of these (obviously “The Marvels” is expected to be highest, but there is concern that the MCU lag might continue) would allay fears that studio titles need major supplementing for theaters to thrive.

“Flower Moon” will test the notion that adult-oriented, awards-contending dramas during the prime season can be hits. Obviously “Oppenheimer” has both shown that potential and set the bar high, but the elements here — director, cast, acclaim, festival attention, best-selling book — all position this as a good test of whether this sort of traditional seasonal film fare still works.

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