A year ago, Hollywood looked in despair at Oscar-oriented films like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley” at the box office. The day finally seemed to have arrived when prestige films were no longer viable in theaters and streaming had changed cinema forever.
But studios held out hope and decided that November 2022 would give a more accurate picture of the market. By then, the coronavirus would not be such a complicating factor. This fall would be a “last stand,” as some have put it, a chance to show that more than just superheroes and sequels can succeed.
It’s been a bloodbath.
One after the other, adult films have failed to find a large enough audience to justify their costs. “Armageddon Time” cost approximately $30 million to make and market and collected $1.9 million at the North American box office. “Tár” cost at least $35 million, including marketing; ticket sales totaled $5.3 million. Universal spent about $55 million to make and market “She Said”, which also brought in $5.3 million. “Devotion” grossed over $100 million and generated $14 million in ticket sales.
Even a box office king charmer, Steven Spielberg, got off to a monotonous start. Based on Mr. Spielberg’s adolescence, “The Fabelmans” has raised $5.7 million in four weeks of limited play. The budget was $40 million, not including marketing.
What is going on?
The problem is not the quality: reviews are exceptional. Rather, “people have gotten used to watching these movies at home,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a box office newsletter.
Ever since Oscar-oriented films appeared on streaming services in late 2010, Hollywood has been concerned that such films will one day disappear from theaters. The declining importance of large screens was further emphasized in March when a streaming movie, Apple TV+’s “CODA,” won the Academy Award for Best Picture for the first time.
This is about more than money: Hollywood sees the shift as an affront to its identity. Movie power players have long held on to the fantasy that the cultural world revolves around them, as if it were 1940. come and see the movies they like the most. Hollywood equates this with cultural irrelevance.
Of course, there is still a large group of cinephiles coming out. “Till,” which focuses on Mamie Till-Mobley, whose son, Emmett Till, was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, has raised $8.9 million in the United States and Canada. That’s not bad for an emotionally challenging film. “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a dark comedy with heavily accented dialogue, also grossed $8 million, with foreign ticket buyers contributing an additional $20 million.
“While it is clear that the specialty theater market has not yet fully recovered, we have seen ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ continue to perform strongly and drive conversation among moviegoers,” Searchlight Pictures said in a statement. “We are convinced that there is a place in theaters for films that can offer audiences a wide range of cinematic experiences.”
Still, crossover attention is almost always the goal, as underlined by how much movie companies spend on some of these productions. For example, ‘Till’ cost at least $33 million to make and market.
And remember: theaters keep about half of all ticket revenue.
The hope is for results more in line with ‘The Woman King’. Starring Viola Davis as the leader of an all-female band of African warriors, “The Woman King” collected nearly $70 million in domestic theaters ($92 million worldwide). It cost $50 million to produce and tens of millions more to market.
Oscar-oriented dramas rarely become blockbusters. Still, these movies used to do pretty well at the box office. The World War I movie “1917” grossed $159 million in North America in 2019 and $385 million worldwide. In 2010, “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman as the demented ballerina, grossed $107 million ($329 million worldwide).
Most studios declined to comment on this article or made anonymous statements about being proud of the prestigious dramas they released recently, regardless of ticket sales.
The reluctance to publicly address the issue may be a reflection of the annual prize race. Having a contender labeled a box office misfire isn’t great for garnering votes. (Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 24.) Or it could be because behind the scenes, studios still seem to be grasping for answers.
Ask 10 different specialist movie managers to explain box office and you’ll get 10 different answers. There have been too many dramas in theaters lately, resulting in cannibalization; there were too few of them, forcing audiences to look for options on streaming services. Everyone has been busy watching the World Cup on television. No, it’s television dramas like “The Crown” that have undermined these movies.
Some still blame the coronavirus. But that doesn’t make sense. While initially reluctant to return to theaters, older viewers have come to see theaters for the most part as a virus-safe activity, according to box office analysts, citing surveys. According to Sony Pictures Entertainment, nearly 60 percent of “Woman King” ticket buyers were over the age of 35.
Hollywood considers anyone over 35 to be “old,” and this is the one who usually comes to see dramas.
Perhaps it is more nuanced? The older crowd is back, a long-time studio manager suggested, but Advanced the older crowd isn’t – partly because some of their favorite art house theaters have closed and they don’t want to mingle with the multiplex masses. (He meant it. “Too many people, too likely to run into a sticky floor.”)
Others see a problem with the content. Most movies that struggle at the box office are bleak and come at a time when audiences want to escape. Think of the successful spring release of the daring ‘Everything, Everywhere All at Once’, which raised $70 million in North America. Baz Luhrmann’s enchanted “Elvis” generated $151 million in domestic ticket sales.
“People like to call it ‘escape,’ but it really isn’t,” said film scholar Jeanine Basinger. “It’s entertainment. By the way, it can be a serious topic. But when movies are too introspective, as many of these Oscar ones are now, the audience is forgotten.
‘Give us a laugh or two in there! When I think about going out and seeing misery and degradation and racism and all the other things wrong with our lives, I’m too depressed to put my coat on,” continued Ms. Basinger, whose latest book, “Hollywood : The Oral History’, co-written with Sam Wasson, was published last month.
Some studio executives insist that box office totals are an outdated way of judging whether a movie will generate financial returns. For example, Focus Features has further developed its business model over the past two years. The company’s films, including “Tár” and “Armageddon Time,” are now available for video-on-demand rentals — at a premium price — after just three weeks in theaters. (Previously, theaters were given an exclusive period of about 90 days.) The money generated by premium in-home rentals is significant, Focus said, though it has declined to provide financial information to support that claim.
The concern in Hollywood is that such efforts are still falling short – that the conglomerates that own specialty movie studios will decide that there isn’t enough return on prestige movies in theaters to keep them out that way. Disney owns Searchlight. Comcast owns Focus. Amazon owns United Artists. The CEOs of these companies like to be invited to the Oscars. But they love profit even more.
“The good news is that we now have a very large streaming company that we can go ahead and push that content to those channels,” Bob Chapek, Disney’s former CEO, said at a public event on Nov. 8, referring to prestige movies. (Robert A. Iger, who has since returned to run Disney, may think otherwise.)
Others continue to plead for patience. Mr Gross pointed out that “The Fabelmans” will roll into more cinemas in the coming month, hoping to take advantage of the award rush – it’s a front-runner for the Best Picture of 2023 Oscar – and the year-end holiday season. Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” a drug-and-sex-induced fever dream about early Hollywood, is set for wide release on Dec. 23.
“I think movies will come back,” said Mr. Spielberg recently told The New York Times. “Really.”