Highbrow films aiming to win Oscars are losing audiences

A year ago, Hollywood despaired of Oscar-oriented films like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley” the flatline at the ticket office. The day finally seemed to have come when prestige films were no longer viable in theaters and streaming had changed cinema forever.

But the studios held out hope, deciding that November 2022 would provide a more accurate reading of the marketplace. At that time, the coronavirus would not be such a complicating factor. This fall would be a “last stand,” as some put it, a chance to show that more than superheroes and sequels could succeed.

It has been a bloodbath.

One after the other has movies for adults it failed to find an audience large enough to justify their costs. “Armageddon time” cost about $30 million to make and market and grossed $1.9 million at the North American box office. “Warehouse” cost at least $35 million, including marketing; Ticket sales totaled $5.3 million. Universal spent about $55 million to produce and market “She said“, which also took in $5.3 million. “Devotion” cost well over $100 million and has generated $14 million in ticket sales.

Even a charmer from the king of the box office, Steven Spielberg, has had a rocky start. “The Fabelman family,” based on Mr. Spielberg’s Youth, has grossed $5.7 million in four weeks of limited play. Its budget was $40 million, excluding marketing.

What happens?

The problem is not quality: reviews have been exceptional. Rather, “people have become comfortable watching these movies at home,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on ticket numbers.

Ever since Oscar-oriented films began appearing on streaming services in the late 2010s, Hollywood has worried that such films would one day disappear from multiplexes. The waning importance of big screens was highlighted in March when a streaming film, “CODA” from Apple TV+, won for the first time Oscar for Best Picture.

This is about more than money: Hollywood sees the shift as a violation of its identity. Movie power players have long held on to the fantasy that the cultural world revolves around them, as it were 1940. But that delusion is hard to sustain when their sole yardstick – bodies in seats – reveals that the masses can’t do it. come and see the films they award the most. Hollywood equates this with cultural irrelevance.

Sure, a core crowd of motion pictures still emerges. “Add,” focusing on Mamie Till-Mobley, whose son, Emmett Till, was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, has grossed $8.9 million in the U.S. and Canada. It’s not an emotionally challenging film. “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a dark comedy with heavily accented dialogue, has also brought in $8 million, with overseas ticket buyers contributing another $20 million.

“While it’s clear that the theatrical specialty market hasn’t fully bounced back, we’ve 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 room in theaters for films that can offer the audience a wide range of cinematic experiences.”

Still, crossover attention is almost always the goal, which is underscored by how much movie companies spend on some of these productions. “Till,” for example, cost at least $33 million to make and market.

And remember: The theaters keep about half of any ticket revenue.

The hope is results more in line with “The female king.” Starring Viola Davis as the leader of an all-female group of African warriors, “The Woman King” grossed nearly $70 million domestically ($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. World War I film “1917” generated $159 million in North America in 2019 and $385 million worldwide. In 2010, “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman as a demented ballerina, grossed $107 million ($329 million worldwide).

Most studios either declined to comment for this article or provided unsolicited statements about being proud of the prestige dramas they’ve recently released, regardless of ticket sales.

The reluctance to engage publicly in the matter may reflect the annual price run. Having a challenger labeled a failure at the box office isn’t great for polling. (The Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 24.) Or it could be because the studios behind the scenes still seem to be grasping for answers.

Ask 10 different movie executives to explain the box office and you’ll get 10 different answers. There have been too many dramas in theaters lately, resulting in cannibalization; there have been too few, leaving audiences to look for options on streaming services. Everyone has been busy watching the World Cup on television. No, it’s TV dramas like “The Crown” that have undermined these movies.

Some still blame the coronavirus. But it doesn’t hold water. Although initially reluctant to return to theaters, older audiences have mostly come to view theaters as a virus-proof activity, according to box office analysts who cite surveys. Nearly 60 percent of “Woman King” ticket buyers were over 35, according to Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Hollywood considers anyone over 35 to be “old” and that’s who typically comes to watch dramas.

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

Others see a problem with the content. Most of the films that struggle at the box office are downbeat and come at a time when audiences want to escape. Consider the successful spring release of the rollicking “Everything, Everywhere All at Once,” which grossed $70 million in North America. Baz Luhrmann’s mind-boggling “Elvis” delivered $151 million in domestic box office sales.

“People like to call it ‘escape,’ but that’s actually not what it is,” said Jeanine Basinger, the film scholar. “It’s entertainment. It can be a serious subject, by the way. But when movies are too introspective, as many of these Oscar movies are now, the audience is forgotten.

“Give us a laugh or two in there! When I think about going out to see 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,” he continued Ms. 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 of judging whether a film will generate a financial return. Focus Features, for example, has been evolving its business model for the past two years. The company’s films, which include “Tár” and “Armageddon Time,” are now made available for video-on-demand rental — at a premium price — after as little as three weeks in theaters. (In the past, theaters were given an exclusivity window of about 90 days.) The money generated by premium home rentals is significant, Focus has said, though it has declined to provide financial information to support that claim.

The worry in Hollywood is that such efforts will still fall short — that the conglomerates that own specialty studios will decide that there isn’t enough of a return on prestige films in theaters to continue releasing them that way. Disney owns Searchlight. Comcast owns Focus. Amazon owns United Artists. The CEOs of these companies like to be invited to the Academy Awards. But they like profit even more.

“The good news is that we now have a very large streaming company that we can go ahead and redirect the content towards those channels,” said Bob Chapek, Disney’s former CEO, at a public event on November 8, referring to the prestige film . (Robert A. Iger, who has since returned to run Disneymay feel different.)

Others continue to advocate patience. Mr. Gross pointed out that “The Fabelmans” will roll into more theaters over the next month, hoping to take advantage of the awards show — it’s a front-runner for the 2023 Oscar for best picture — and the end of the year. Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” a drug- and sex-induced fever dream of early Hollywood, is slated for wide release on Dec. 23.

“I think movies are coming back,” Mr. Spielberg recently told The New York Times. “I really do.”

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