Intellectual films aiming to win the Oscars are losing audiences


The kind of critically acclaimed dramas that often dominate awards season fall flat at the box office, not justifying the money it takes to make them.

Cooper Hoffman in “Licorice Pizza”.

A year ago, Hollywood watched in desperation as Oscar-oriented movies like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley” languished 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 the studios remained hopeful, deciding that November 2022 would give a more accurate reading of the market. By then, the coronavirus would no longer be such a complicated factor. This fall would be a “last stand,” as some say, a chance to show that more than superheroes and sequels could pull off.

It was carnage.

One after another, adult films have failed to find a large enough audience to justify their cost. “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 total $5.3 million. Universal spent around $55 million to make and market “She Said”, which also earned $5.3 million. “Devotion” cost over $100 million and generated $14 million in ticket sales.

Even a charmer from box office king Steven Spielberg got off to a monotonous start. “The Fabelmans,” based on Spielberg’s teenage years, raked in $5.7 million in four weeks of limited play. Its budget was $40 million, not including marketing.

What’s going on?

The problem is not the quality; the reviews have been outstanding. On the contrary, “people have gotten used to watching these movies at home,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on box office numbers.

Ever since Oscar-oriented films began appearing on streaming services in the late 2010s, Hollywood has feared that these films will one day disappear from multiplexes. The waning importance of large screens was accentuated in March when, for the first time, a movie streaming, “CODA”, from Apple TV+, won the Oscar for best picture.

It’s more than money. Hollywood sees this change as an affront to its identity. Movie actors have long clung to the fantasy that the cultural world revolves around them, as if it were 1940. But that illusion is hard to sustain when their only measuring tool – seated bodies – reveals that masses can’t be bothered to come see the movies they enjoy the most. Hollywood equates this with cultural irrelevance.

Of course, a hard core of moviegoers always show up. “Till”, centered 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 no small thing for an emotionally difficult film. “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a dark comedy with heavily accented dialogue, also grossed $8 million, with overseas ticket buyers contributing another $20 million.

“While it’s clear the theatrical specialty market hasn’t fully rebounded, we’ve seen ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ continue to perform strongly and spark conversation among moviegoers,” Searchlight Pictures said in a statement. . “We strongly believe there is a place in theaters for films that can provide audiences with a wide range of cinematic experiences.”

Yet cross-attention is almost always the goal, as underscored by the amount film companies spend on some of these productions. “Till,” for example, cost at least $33 million to manufacture and market.

And remember: theaters keep about half of the ticket revenue.

The hope is to achieve 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” has 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. Even so, these films were doing quite well at the box office. The World War I film “1917” grossed $159 million in North America in 2019 and $385 million worldwide. In 2010, “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman as a demented ballerina, raised $107 million ($329 million worldwide).

Most studios either declined to comment on this article or provided innocuous statements about their pride in the prestige dramas they’ve recently released, regardless of ticket sales.

The reluctance to engage publicly on the issue may reflect the annual race for awards. Having a candidate labeled as a box office dud is not ideal for garnering votes. (The Oscar nominations will be announced on January 24.) Or maybe because, behind the scenes, the studios still seem to be searching for answers.

Ask 10 different specialty film directors to explain box office and you’ll get 10 different answers. There’s been too much drama in theaters lately, leading to cannibalization; there have been too few, leaving audiences to search for options on streaming services. Everyone has been busy watching the World Cup on TV. No, it was TV dramas like “The Crown” that undermined those films.

Some still blame the coronavirus. But that doesn’t hold up. Although initially reluctant to return to movie theaters, older audiences for the most part have come to view movie theaters as a virus-free activity, according to box office analysts, citing surveys. Nearly 60% of ‘Woman King’ ticket buyers were over the age of 35, according to Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Hollywood considers anyone over the age of 35 to be “old,” and they are the ones who usually come to see dramas.

Maybe it’s more nuanced? Older audiences are back, suggested a longtime studio executive, but sophisticated older audiences aren’t — in part because some of their favorite arthouse theaters have closed and they don’t want to mingle with the multiplex masses. (He was serious. “Too many people, too likely to encounter sticky ground.”)

Others see a problem with the content. Most films that struggle at the box office are pessimistic, arriving at a time when audiences want to get away from it all. Consider the success of the spring release of the exuberant “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once,” which grossed $70 million in North America. Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling “Elvis” generated $151 million in domestic ticket sales.

“People like to call it ‘breakout’, but that’s not really what it is,” said film pundit Jeanine Basinger. “It’s entertainment. This can be a serious topic, by the way. But when films are too introspective, as many of these Oscars are now, audiences are forgotten.

“Give us a laugh or two in this! When I think of going out to see the misery and degradation and racism and all the other things that are wrong with our lives, I’m too depressed to put my coat on,” a continued Basinger, whose latest book, “Hollywood: The Oral History,” co-authored with Sam Wasson, arrived last month.

Some studio executives insist that box office totals are an outdated way to gauge whether a film will generate a financial return. Focus Features, for example, has evolved its business model over the past two years. The company’s films, which include “Tár” and “Armageddon Time,” are now available for video-on-demand rental — for a hefty price — after as little as three weeks in theaters. (Previously, theaters had an exclusive window of around 90 days.) The money generated from high-end home rentals is substantial, Focus said, though it declined to provide financial information to back up that claim. .

The worry in Hollywood is that such efforts will still fail – that the conglomerates that own specialty movie studios will decide that there isn’t enough return on the prestige films in theaters to keep them coming out this 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 business that we can go ahead and redirect that content to those channels,” former Disney CEO Bob Chapek said at a public event on Tuesday. November 8, referring to prestige films. . (Bob Iger, who has since returned to lead Disney, may feel differently.)

Others continue to advocate patience. Gross pointed out that “The Fabelmans” will hit more theaters over the next month, hoping to capitalize on awards buzz — it’s a favorite for the 2023 Best Picture Oscar — and the holiday ending. of year. Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” a drug- and sex-induced fever dream about early Hollywood, is set for a wide release on December 23.

“I think the movies are going to come back,” Spielberg recently told The New York Times. “I really do.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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