Three films among last year’s top 15 highest grossing films were nominated while three others combined for less than $30 million domestic
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“The Way of Water” and “Maverick,” of course, are the highest grossing films of the year, combining for over $1.3 billion domestic and nearly $3.5 billion worldwide. “Elvis” is farther down the list with $151 million domestic and $287 million global, but it was able to reignite interest in its legendary subject and drive consistent turnout from moviegoers over the age of 50.
But on the other end of the spectrum are Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” and Todd Field’s “Tár” — three films that were critically acclaimed festival darlings and have, combined, grossed less than $30 million in North America. Joining them from the arthouse scene are Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” which is currently in theaters in limited release with $1.1 million grossed; Ruben Ostlund’s Palme D’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness,” which grossed $4.2 million domestic last fall, and Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which is a Netflix streaming exclusive.
“Fabelmans” and “Inisherin,” in particular, show how much prestige films have fallen off in terms of theatrical performance when compared to past Spielberg and McDonagh films that got Oscar recognition.
In 2018, Spielberg’s historical thriller “The Post” grossed $81 million domestic and $193 million worldwide, starting with a limited release during the holiday season before expanding to 2,850 theaters in mid-January.
“The Fabelmans,” by contrast, has grossed just $14.9 million in North America and needs a strong overseas run in the coming weeks to even make back its $40 million production budget.
Spielberg’s autobiographical drama is the sort of reliable, accessible adult fare that could make a decent amount of money even in the late 2010s, but its screen count never exceeded 1,200 theaters. Its five-day Thanksgiving weekend total of $3.1 million from 638 theaters was beaten by the $4.2 million earned by the Tom Hanks dramedy “A Man Called Otto” when it had almost the same screen count in early January.
Boxoffice editor Daniel Loria believes the slower release rollout that Universal attempted didn’t help “The Fabelmans,” but also believes that the film’s premise didn’t align with what audiences want even in an accessible adult drama.
“Even before the pandemic, I think Spielberg making a movie about his childhood would have been a harder sell than ‘The Post’ or ‘Bridge of Spies,'” he said. “Those films had a thriller element that make them more appealing to audiences than a quiet film about Spielberg’s family and how he got into filmmaking.”
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In November 2017, McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” had a $5.8 million Thanksgiving weekend total and legged out to $54.5 million in North America. The film never cracked the top 5 on the box office charts or had a screen count of more than 1,620 theaters, but it didn’t need to. It was able to maintain low but steady turnout all the way through Oscar Sunday, the sort that awards contenders aim to have when they hit theaters in early November.
But in a post-COVID world the shortening of the theatrical window, the declining interest in seeing prestige films in theaters, and the plummeting cultural relevance of awards shows have quickly sapped away all the factors that allowed a film like “Three Billboards” to find box office success. “The Banshees of Inisherin” has shown that, with a maximum screen count of just under 900 theaters and a peak weekend total of just $2 million.
Released in late October, “Inisherin” was essentially finished in U.S. theaters by Thanksgiving, grossing $9.3 million domestic. Like “The Fabelmans,” Searchlight will try to find some extra theatrical revenue from overseas moviegoers with a post-Oscar nomination international rollout in markets like Italy, Spain, Brazil and Scandinavia. But even in the U.K. and Ireland, where the film had its best performance, its $11.3 million total failed to reach the $20.9 million of “Three Billboards.”
The market for the sort of critically acclaimed dramas that regularly make the Best Picture list has continued to get squeezed from all sides, with studios struggling to figure out how to market such high-brow affair — or even middlebrow in the case of “Fabelmans” — to an audience that’s more comfortable with seeing such films on streaming or digital on-demand. And with the Oscars losing their cultural clout, even that audience may be shrinking as well.
“Once you cut off that theatrical window, you take away the time that films like ‘Inisherin’ need to build the word-of-mouth to make them theatrically successful. That’s how someone who saw a film in platform release in L.A. tells their Middle America relatives over the holidays that they should see when it comes to theaters where they live,” Loria said.
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Ironically, the one Best Picture contender that defies categorization between major studio, wide release hit, and struggling prestige title is the one that got the most nominations: Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which this past spring became the first A24 release to gross over $100 million worldwide.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s genre-bending film didn’t top the end-of-year charts but punched well above its indie weight class thanks purely to organic word-of-mouth. Released wide in April 2022, well outside the usual awards season release period, it didn’t need Oscar buzz to draw interest. Rather, like “Top Gun: Maverick,” it got Oscar buzz because of its widespread popularity, something that regularly happened before mainstream and Academy voter tastes dramatically diverged.
While there was already some mass appeal, wide release offerings on the 2023 slate that might find their way onto next year’s nominee list — Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” come to mind — there’s no guarantee that a film like “Top Gun: Maverick” or “Everything Everywhere” will prove to be both a box office success and a major awards player.
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What’s more certain, given recent history and the tastes of the Academy, is that a film from Toronto or Venice will get that nomination. Maybe it will be Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” or Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro.” Maybe it will be another buzzy festival title that isn’t currently on anyone’s radar.
But when it comes time for that type of film to hit theaters, all signs point to it yielding the box office scraps that “The Fabelmans” earned rather than the modestly successful Best Picture winners of recent pre-pandemic memory.
“The new formula that studios and distributors have put together coming out of the pandemic isn’t working for these kinds of festival movies,” Loria said. “It’s the system that has come together in response to streaming demand and to getting audiences in theaters for more populist films, but the more artistic and thought-provoking stuff is getting left behind.”
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