Quentin Tarantino has been outspoken about the state of the movie business. In a recent episode of the director’s “Video Archives Podcast,” the man who helped usher in the golden age of independent film with “Pulp Fiction” declared that this was “the worst era in Hollywood history” matched only by other nadirs like the years 50 and 80.
“The good thing about being in a bad time for Hollywood cinema is (the movies) that they don’t conform [are] those who stand out from the rest,” he added.
And that may be the case. The problem is that this crop of mavericks may no longer have a commercial reason to exist, at least as theatrical propositions.
Drink “She said”, a look solidly made to the pair of cross-journalists from the New York Times who helped expose Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and assault. The film garnered strong reviews and awards buzz, but the Universal Pictures release flopped last weekend, opening to a dismal $2.2 million in 2,022 theaters. That ranks as one of the worst results for a major studio launch in history.
Part of the problem, observers say, is that the film’s scathing look at an abuse of power may not have been what audiences expected to see at a time when the headlines are, let’s be honest, pretty grim. From Ukraine to the economy, there is a lot to be upset about.
“It’s a tough sell,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “People are looking for escapism right now. Even the adult audience is looking for something that takes them away from reality.
“She Said” has plenty of company when it comes to well-reviewed movies that have crumbled on the shoals of audience indifference. One by one, this year’s crop of Oscar contenders have flopped or, at best, underperformed. There’s “Tár,” a drama about sexual harassment in the world of classical music that has grossed $4.9 million in the seven weeks since its release; “Armageddon Time,” a coming-of-age movie that only managed to bring in $1.8 million after a month in theaters; and “Triangle of Sadness,” a satirical look at the one percent that has pulled in a $3.8 million gross since opening in mid-October. “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Till” have done a little better, earning $7.1 million and $8.5 million, respectively, but their results aren’t exactly igniting the box office; both are likely to struggle to turn a profit on their theatrical runs.
“Overall, it’s a scary time for prestige movies,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “We may be witnessing a radical change in cinema. Ultimately, audiences decide what gets made, and right now, audiences don’t choose to see these movies in theaters.”
In private, studio executives point to various culprits. They say this year’s award movies are too arty, too depressing, too lacking in A-list talent to convince crowds to show up. And they point out that there have been success stories earlier in the year, notably “Elvis,” which was aimed at adults and earned a staggering $286 million globally, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a mind-trip multiverse that amassed $103 million worldwide while being perceived as artistically bold. But those movies didn’t have to compete with a glut of other big-name films, which could be further fracturing an already shrinking audience base, one that may be wary of hitting theaters during COVID.
“There are a lot of movies that haunt an audience that may be a little reluctant to return to theaters,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “It can be too much of a good thing.”
Not everything is gloom and doom. “, a horror comedy set in the world of fine dining, debuted this weekend with a solid $9 million in box office. But it did benefit from being associated with a genre that is doing well at the box office (just look at recent horror hits like “Smile” and “Barbarian”), and had a younger audience. The bulk of ticket buyers for “El Menú” were under 35 years old, while the majority of “Ella Dijo” viewers were over 45 years old.
There are several more movies that are about to challenge this hostile environment for a prestigious fee. Among those hoping to defy the odds are “Bones and All,” a cannibalistic romance with Timothée Chalamet that was released in limited release; “The Fabelmans”, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical exploration of his childhood; and “Babylon,” a lengthy survey of Hollywood’s silent era featuring performances by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. “The Fabelmans”, for example, can be comforting enough set 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 considerable headwinds. As for “Bones and All,” it may be too idiosyncratic to draw crowds, while “Babylon” could suffer from the divisive reaction received in the first screenings.
Movie studios have always been risk averse, but their appetite for big change has only waned in recent years. First, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon got into the game, providing homes for passion projects from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón and conditioning consumers to watch these movies in their homes. Then a wave of corporate consolidation, triggered in part by the urgent need for traditional media players to ramp up their capacity for the streaming wars, has resulted in fewer independent studios to produce theatrical releases. He has also left his corporate parents with a lot of debt, making them more reluctant to greenlight the next historical drama or esoteric Bildungsroman at a time when they need to clean up their balance sheets. All this coincided with a pandemic that cinemas closed for almost a year and still refuses to die, as well as record inflation and a looming recession that have left people making difficult decisions about what to do with their dwindling discretionary resources.
So unless movies like “She Said” start to do better at the box office, an entire sector of the motion picture business may be in jeopardy. Something has to change fast.