Ben Affleck’s Air Won’t Profit At The Box Office, But Here’s Why That’s Not A Problem

For years now, largely thanks to the Netflix model, major studios have been producing big movies that debut exclusively on their respective streaming service. That, however, has started to change in 2023, with Amazon making a big play for theatrical by giving movies that will ultimately end up on Prime Video exclusive runs in theaters first. The big case study is Ben Affleck's "Air," which is set to debut on Prime Video on May 12. With the streaming release fast approaching, it's about time we look at how the movie did in theaters, to what degree it was a success, and what that likely means for the future not just for Amazon, but the industry at large.

As of this writing, "Air" has earned $85 million worldwide, including just over $50 million from domestic ticket sales. Considering how brutal the post-pandemic marketplace has been for adult-focused, R-rated, original movies, that is a pretty solid result in terms of pure "this many people bought tickets to see this in theaters" metrics. Yes, it's based on a true story and is connected to Michael Jordan, but it's not based on any pre-existing IP. It certainly didn't hurt that critics roundly praised Affleck's return to the director's chair (read /Film's review here).

Now, let's talk about the elephant in the room: the movie carries a $90 million budget. That doesn't account for the amount that Amazon had to pay to acquire the project, nor does it account for the marketing spend. Taking those factors into account, this movie cost well over $100 million and, based on those ticket sales alone, the film won't turn a profit from its theatrical run. The good news is, Amazon almost certainly never expected it to.

Theatrical Movies Perform Better On Streaming

All Amazon really needs is for "Air" to recoup the money that they spent on marketing the film. While no specific figure has been cited, it seems likely that a finish close to $90 million worldwide would return that marketing money to Amazon Studios. At that point, the theatrical release just becomes a big awareness campaign for the Prime Video release. That's the point, and that's why Amazon is planning to invest $1 billion annually for theatrical releases beginning this year.

Traditional Hollywood studio math that determines whether or not a movie is a hit or a bomb doesn't quite apply here. If you're Sony Pictures, let's say, and you release a $90 million movie, you need it to make a lot more money to turn a profit. Typically, theaters keep around half of the profits, meaning that $90 million at the box office would only return about $45 million to the studio. Unfavorable math, to be certain. Yet, Amazon is all about Prime Video and gaining subscribers so that viewers will spend money on Amazon using their Prime membership. The same math doesn't apply.

What we've seen in recent years is that theatrically released movies -- even if they don't turn a profit -- lead to great demand once they arrive on streaming. That's why Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has all but abandoned streaming movies. Speaking at CinemaCon this year, the executive said the following:

"We do not believe in streaming movies. Movies [in theaters] perform substantially better when we bring them to HBO Max than any of the direct-to-streaming movies. We said it nine months ago, and we said it six moths ago. We have never felt stronger about it."

A Drastic Shift In The Industry's Approach To Streaming

Just about every studio making movies right now that also has a streaming service is embracing this way of thinking on some level: use a theatrical release to boost a movie's profile, and consequently make it a bigger success once it arrives on the company's streaming service. It's too easy for a feature to get buried in a streaming algorithm, but a theatrical release makes that film part of the larger cultural conversation. The two "Knives Out" sequels were worth nearly $500 million to Netflix because the first movie was a big theatrical hit, for example.

All of this to say, Amazon isn't going to judge this experiment using traditional movie math. If "Air" is a big success on Prime Video, they'll almost certainly view this as a win, particularly since "Creed III" also did gangbusters business for them earlier this year, though that was already a proven franchise. The added benefit here is that Prime Video releases can first help theaters, offering more types of movies to audiences and exhibitors before they become another streaming tile for viewers to skim in the endless sea of home-viewing options. It's good for theaters and good for people who want to see more original, non-franchise movies on the big screen.

"Air" premieres on Prime Video on May 12, 2023. Here is the movie's synopsis:

'Air' reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then rookie Michael Jordan and Nike's fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This moving story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son's immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.

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