For decades, Steven Spielberg has been synonymous with the movie business. The filmmaker has created some of the most enduring moments on the silver screen, delighting audiences with fantasies involving adorable aliens, menacing dinosaurs, and a very hungry shark. And even he has done the unimaginable and made movies about brutal themes like the Holocaust and the D-Day landings that find commercial success as well as critical acclaim.
But with “The FabelmansIn his semi-autobiographical look at growing up as a movie-obsessed teenager in Arizona and Northern California, Spielberg grapples with a movie business that’s unrecognizable from the one in which he came of age as a director. It’s an industry that simultaneously offers more platforms for “content” than ever before, as well as an art form that, at least in terms of its big-screen incarnation, is rapidly losing cultural significance. Streaming services, not theaters, are the dominant force these days. So where does that leave “The Fabelmans”?
The $40 million-budget period piece opened in limited release last weekend, where it earned a solid $160,000 in just four theaters. Audiences loved it and gave it an “A” CinemaScore, which Universal, the studio behind the film, believes will help boost word of mouth. And the warm reception isn’t a big surprise. “The Fabelmans” debuted to a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival in September, where it captured the Audience Award, which is often seen as a harbinger of future awards season success. It has previously been won by artists such as “Green Book” and “La La Land.” “The Fabelmans” also garnered glowing reviews, some of the best of Spielberg’s career, and is speculated to win him his third directing Oscar (he’s already won for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”).
But the truth is, even Spielberg isn’t immune to the relentless gravitational pull of a diminished theatrical landscape. His latest film, “West Side Story” from 2021. Hits Theaters During a COVID Surge, consigning the budgeted production of $100 million to a dismal global gross of $76 million. If omicron hadn’t been on the scene, it’s unlikely “West Side Story,” which was aimed at adults, would have done much more in the way of business. Other pandemic-era movies designed to appeal to that kind of moviegoer, from “Belfast” to “Licorice Pizza” and more recent entries like “Till” and “Armageddon Time,” have also failed to generate huge ticket sales over the years. despite favorable reviews.
“’The Fabelmans’ is a Hollywood movie about movies, and we know how that usually ends up at the box office,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Not great.”
But Bock thinks there’s reason to believe the film can defy the odds: “If anyone can pull it off, it’s probably Spielberg.”
“The Fabelmans” was screened as “Tár” ($40,000 theatre average) and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” ($50,000 theatre average). But great per-screen results don’t always predict box office wealth. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” for example, holds the record for a per-screen performance with $147,000 per theater and only grossed $16.4 million domestically.
“’The Fabelmans’ performed like many other prestigious titles,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice Pro. “But those kinds of movies are still coming back. The jury is still out on whether larger crowds will show up or if they are still worried about crowds and are used to seeing these kinds of movies streamed.”
Universal is taking a more deliberative approach with “The Fabelmans” than Disney did with “West Side Story,” which opened wide and face planted. “The Fabelmans” will expand to just a few additional theaters next weekend, and then it will be on approximately 600 screens and in most major markets by November 23, just in time for Thanksgiving.
In mid-December, the studio will release the film on PVOD, which should mitigate risk and provide another source of revenue. They also find “The Fabelmans,” with its tender examination of Spielberg’s troubled relationship with his parents, more appealing overall than other awards, such as “Tár,” with its relentless look at sexual harassment, or “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a dark comedy with Irish accents so thick it might need subtitles. The comparison Universal thinks may be more apt is “Ticket to Paradise,” a romantic comedy starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts that was marketed to buyers of major tickets and that, slowly but surely, looks to end its domestic run with $75 million in gross receipts.
Even Spielberg seems to acknowledge, however, that the kind of original movies he made so popular—stories that don’t necessarily originate in comic books or graphic novels—are under threat. But ever the optimist, he sees reason to be hopeful, pointing to the success of “Elvis” last summer. The film about the life and times of the King of Rock and Roll became an unexpected blow with $151 million in the United States and $286 million globally.
“A lot of older people went to see that movie, and that gave me hope that people were starting to go back to the movies as the pandemic becomes endemic,” Spielberg. recently told the New York Times. “I think the movies are going to come back. I really do.
Perhaps “The Fabelmans” can be part of that renaissance.