Quentin Tarantino has been blunt about the state of the movie business. On a recent episode of the director’s “Video Archives Podcast,” the man who helped usher in the golden age of indie film with “Pulp Fiction” declared this to be “the worst era in Hollywood history” matched only by other such nadirs as the 1950s and ’80s.
“The good thing about being in a bad era of Hollywood cinema is (the films) that don’t conform [are] the ones that stand out from the pack,” he added.
And that may be the case. The problem is that this crop of non-conformists may no longer have a commercial reason for existing, at least as theatrical propositions.
Take “She Said,” a sturdily made look at the pair of crusading New York Times journalists who helped expose Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and assault. The film earned strong reviews and awards buzz, but the Universal Pictures release bombed last weekend, opening to a dismal $2.2 million from 2,022 theaters. That ranks as one of the worst results for a major studio release in history.
Part of the problem, observers say, is that the movie’s searing look at an abuse of power may not have been what audiences were hoping to see at a time when the headlines are — let’s be honest — pretty bleak. From Ukraine to the economy, there’s a lot to be upset about.
“It’s a tough sell,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst with Boxoffice Pro. “People are looking for escapism right now. Even adult audiences are looking for something that takes them away from reality.”
“She Said” has a lot of company when it comes to well-reviewed movies that have collapsed on the shoals of audience indifference. One by one, this year’s crop of Oscar contenders have flopped or, at best, under-performed. There’s “Tár,” a drama about sexual harassment in the world of classical music that has grossed $4.9 million in seven weeks of release; “Armageddon Time,” a coming-of-age film that has only managed to generate $1.8 million after a month in theaters; and “Triangle of Sadness,” a satirical look at the one-percent that has crawled to a $3.8 million gross since opening in mid-October. “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Till” have done slightly better, earning $7.1 million and $8.5 million, respectively, but their results aren’t exactly igniting the box office; they both will likely struggle to turn a profit in their theatrical runs.
“Across the board, it’s a scary time for prestige films,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “We may be witnessing a sea change in cinema. Ultimately, audiences decide what gets made and right now audiences aren’t choosing to watch these films in theaters.”
Privately, studio executives point to a number of culprits. They say this year’s awards films are too arty, too depressing, too lacking in A-list talent to convince crowds to show up. And they note that there have been success stories earlier in the year — notably “Elvis,” which was aimed at adults and earned an impressive $286 million globally, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a multiverse head trip that has racked up $103 million worldwide while being perceived as artistically bold. But those films didn’t have to compete with a glut of other prestige fare, which could be further fracturing an already shrinking audience base, one that may be wary of hitting up cinemas during COVID.
“There’s a lot of films chasing an audience that may be a little reticent about returning to theaters,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “It may be a little too much of a good thing.”
It’s not all gloom and doom. “,” a horror comedy set in the world of haute cuisine, debuted this weekend to a solid $9 million. But it benefited from being associated with a genre that is doing well at the box office (just look at recent horror hits such as “Smile” and “Barbarian”), and had an audience that skewed younger. The bulk of ticket buyers to “The Menu” were under 35 years old, while the majority of audience members for “She Said” were over 45 years old.
There are several more films that are about to brave this harsh environment for prestige fare. Among those hoping to defy the odds are “Bones and All,” a cannibal romance with Timothée Chalamet that opened in limited release; “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical exploration of his childhood; and “Babylon,” a sprawling examination of the silent era of Hollywood that boasts turns by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. “The Fabelmans,” for instance, may prove to be just heart-warming enough to become a must-see for families over the holiday season, but even that movie, from one of the entertainment industry’s most successful filmmakers, faces substantial headwinds. As for “Bones and All,” it may be too idiosyncratic to draw crowds, while “Babylon” could suffer from the divisive reaction it received in early screenings.
Movie studios have always been risk averse, but their appetite for taking big swings has only diminished in recent years. First, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon got into the game, providing homes for passion projects by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón and conditioning consumers to watch these movies in their homes. Then, a wave of corporate consolidation, some of it triggered by traditional media players’ urgent need to bulk up for the streaming wars, has resulted in fewer independent studios to produce theatrical releases. It’s also left their corporate parents with a lot of debt, making them more hesitant to greenlight the next historical drama or esoteric Bildungsroman at a time when they need to clean up their balance sheets. All of this coincided with a pandemic that shuttered cinemas for nearly a year and still refuses to die off, as well as record inflation and a looming recession that have left people making tough choices about what to do with their dwindling discretionary resources.
So unless movies like “She Said” start performing better at the box office, a whole sector of the theatrical movie business may be imperiled. Something needs to change fast.