Sick of the football? There’s always ‘counterprogramming’ at the cinema

Where will you spend this World Cup? Primarily down the pub, surrounded by pals and beers? Or in the cinema, lapping up chick flicks and chardonnay? If the movie industry is to be believed, it’s a simple choice between the two – hence the phenomenon of counterprogramming.

Every so often, canny cinema managers flood the schedules with titles designed to attract anyone desperate to escape summer football tournaments, or whatever apparently alienatingly macho sporting event (see also the Super Bowl) is keeping traditional action fans from the cinema doors.

Counterprogramming choices have included glossy comedies such as Sex and the City, which scored enormously during Euro 2008, teen-skewed weepies including The Fault in Our Stars, and the family-friendly fodder of How to Train Your Dragon 2. The latter two were box–office winners during the 2014 World Cup, when the period drama Belle (mixed-race daughter of an admiral helps abolish slavery) also highlighted the opportunities for arthouse crowd-pleasers.

Sex And The City, 2008.

Sex And The City, 2008. Photograph: Allstar/New Line Cinema/Sportsphoto

Yet the formula isn’t foolproof. That was also the year distributors dangled Grace of Monaco (glamour! tragedy! Nicole Kidman!) in the direction of anyone unexcited by sport. But appalling reviews and word of mouth proved too formidable a defensive backline. Simply chucking A-list ladies and nice jewellery at the screen doesn’t necessarily woo women.

Such assumptions are on the way out, hopes Claire Binns, director of programming at cinema chain Picturehouse. “I’m slightly tired of the idea of putting a ‘women’s film’ as counterprogramming,” she says. “Women do watch football.” For Binns, it’s now more about a certain type of quality title. “I’m happy to have Ocean’s 8 and Mamma Mia! 2, but I hope it’s not a case of a bunch of men in the studio offices thinking: ‘Let’s give the girls something to watch.’”

Yet Tom Grater, a reporter for the trade magazine Screen, thinks gender-based assumptions persist. “Exhibitors typically brace for a drop-off during an international football tournament. Clearly this year they are making a huge effort to plug any potential gaps with counterprogramming.”

The female-fronted heist spin-off Ocean’s 8 is this year’s most obvious attempt to woo supposed World Cup widows. The signs are good: despite moderate reviews, it topped the US box office last weekend. It ticks every box and more: big names, racially diverse, with a Bechdel Test-passing plot – and top frocks, too. Trooping off to Ocean’s 8 doesn’t even seem an aggressively anti-sport move.

Hereditary: ‘It could do very well with a younger female audience.’

Hereditary: ‘It could do very well with a younger female audience.’ Photograph: PR

Other forthcoming releases look particularly machine-tooled. Adrift, which helpfully stars the lead actor from The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley, is a true-story drama co-starring Sam Claflin, who had hearts aflutter as a dapper quadriplegic in Me Before You. For the more mature woman, The Book Shop pairs Emily Mortimer with Bill Nighy for a story involving the establishment of a Suffolk arts centre in 1959. And for those in the market for a Bridget Jones/Marley & Me cross-breed, here comes Patrick, a romcom featuring a puppy cupid.

Meanwhile, fashion documentary McQueen is mining an assumption that interest in couture precludes ownership of a Panini sticker book. While Studio 54, revisiting the history of the hedonistic Manhattan club, suggests someone has a hunch that people only really like one sort of gathering of hot sweaty bodies.

Yet two significant titles this year are, encouragingly, a little less on-the-button. First out is Hereditary, released tomorrow, a family-themed movie with Toni Collette in the lead, yes, but also one guaranteed to scare you senseless. Grater suspects changing audience habits mean the gamble will pay off: “Hereditary has had a pretty significant marketing campaign behind it and launching on the second day of the World Cup will serve as a good bit of counterprogramming. It could do very well with a younger female audience – recent statistics say they are biggest audience for horror movies.”

Sicario 2: ‘You’d expect a male-heavy crowd.’

Sicario 2: ‘You’d expect a male-heavy crowd.’ Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

The other is Sicario 2, a sequel to the gritty Mexican drug-trade drama, which this time round, while starring Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, doesn’t also feature Emily Blunt. Stuart Crane, head of programming at Cineworld, puts it front and centre of his counterprogramming hopes, alongside Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Ocean’s 8.

“This is an interesting one,” says Grater, “as you’d expect a male-heavy crowd. Clearly, the distributor, Lionsgate, thinks there’s opportunity here.” In fact, they may be erring on the side of pessimism. Sicario 2 is scheduled for release on 29 June – the day before the knockout stage of the World Cup gets under way. “They might be banking on England being out of the tournament by then,” says Grater.


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