Quentin Tarantino was blunt about the state of the film industry. On a recent episode of the director’s “Video Archives Podcast,” the man who helped usher in the golden age of indie cinema with “Pulp Fiction” declared it “the worst era in Hollywood history.” is what only through other such lows as the 1950s and ’80s.
“The good thing about being in a bad era of Hollywood films is (the films) don’t match up [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 to exist, at least as theatrical propositions.
Take “She Said,” a hard-hitting look at the pair of crusading New York Times journalists who helped expose Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and assault. The film received strong reviews and awards, but the Universal Pictures release bombed last weekend, opening to a dismal $2.2 million from 2,022 theaters. This is one of the worst results for a major studio release in history.
Part of the problem, observers say, is that the movie’s stark 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 is a lot to be upset about.
“It’s a tough sell,” said Shawn Robbins, principal analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “People are now looking for escape. Even mature audiences are looking for something that takes them away from reality.”
“She Said” has a lot of company when it comes to well-regarded movies that have collapsed on the schools of audience indifference. One by one, this year’s crop of Oscar contenders flopped or, at best, underperformed. There’s “Tár,” a drama about sexual harassment in the world of classical music that earned $4.9 million in seven weeks of release; “Armageddon Time,” a coming-of-age movie that 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 crept to a $3.8 million gross since opening in mid-October. “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Till” fared slightly better, earning $7.1 million and $8.5 million, respectively, but their results didn’t exactly set the box office on fire; they both will likely struggle to turn a profit in their theatrical runs.
“In general, it’s a scary time for prestige films,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “We may be seeing 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 artsy, too depressing, too lacking in A-list talent to convince crowds to turn up. And they note that there were success stories earlier in the year — notably “Elvis,” which was aimed at adults and earned an impressive $286 million worldwide, and “Everything Everywhere at Once,” a versatile headliner that brought in $103. million worldwide while being considered artistically brave. But those films don’t have to compete with a host of other prestige fare, which could further weaken an already shrinking audience base, one that may be wary of hitting movie theaters during COVID.
“There are a lot of films that are chasing an audience that might be a little reluctant to return to theaters,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “It might 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 last weekend with a solid $9 million. But it benefited from being associated with a genre that does well at the box office (just look at recent horror hits like “Smile” and “Barbarian”), and had an audience that skewed younger. Most ticket buyers for “The Menu” were under 35, while the majority of audience members for “She Said” were over 45.
There are several more films that are about to brave this harsh environment for prestige costs. Among those hoping to defy the odds are “Bones and All,” a cannibal romance starring Timothée Chalamet that opened in limited release; “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical exploration of his childhood; and “Babylon,” an expansive examination of Hollywood’s silent era that boasts turns by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. “The Fabelmans,” for example, might just be heartwarming 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 significant headwinds. As for “Bones and All,” it may be too opinionated to draw crowds, while “Babylon” may suffer from the divisive response 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 came streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, 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 driven by traditional media players’ urgent need to gear up for the streaming wars, led to fewer independent studios producing theatrical releases. It has also left their corporate parents heavily indebted, 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 of this coincided with a pandemic that shut down movie theaters for nearly a year and still refuses to die down, as well as record inflation and a looming recession that has 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, an entire sector of the theatrical film industry could be at risk. Something has to change fast.